The Face of the Virgin and the Angelic ...
The Face of the Virgin and the Angelic Self-Portrait
Florence’s Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation was founded in 1250 by the original seven members of the Servite Order. It was long a well-frequented center of pilgrimage, thanks to a fresco “painted by an angel” that adorned its walls. To this day, newlyweds from all over Tuscany come to lay their bridal bouquets before it. Legend has it that in 1252 one of the Servites undertook to decorate the basilica with an Annunciation. Yet his completed work failed to convey the beauty of the Virgin’s face. The pious artist was in despair. But one day, having fallen asleep over his work, he awoke to discover that the face of Mary had been wonderfully depicted while he slept. The good people of Florence immediately attributed it to the hand of an angel. And indeed, the exquisite quality of the faces in this work far surpasses the workaday technique of the rest of the painting—though the apparition of this lovely visage was perhaps not quite so miraculous. For other sources recount it was actually around 1430 that a monk by the name of Bartolomeo was unable to achieve a portrait sufficiently worthy of the Virgin in his Annunciation. While he slept, his friends went to the nearby Convent of San Marco in search of a young painter-monk nicknamed Fra Angelico, who came during the night to paint the face of Mary and, as a personal hallmark, lent his own traits to the face of the angel Gabriel. When Bartolomeo awoke to find his completed fresco and asked who had wrought such a miracle, his friends quite truthfully replied: “É un intervento miracoloso del Angelico!” With that, good Bartolomeo spread the news throughout the city that an angel had come to paint the face of Mary. This portrait became the object of universal veneration and thousands of copies were made. All the great and the good, including the pope himself, wished to own one as an aid to their private devotions. This month, Magnificat’s front cover shows one of these copies, perhaps by Luca Signorelli, probably the most beautiful one.
Virgin of the Annunciation, anonymous, Church Saint-Louis-en-L’Île, Chapel of the Sacred Heart, Paris, France. © COARC/ Roger-Viollet.