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Hidden Symbolism in The Lamentation of Christ by Mary in Paintings by Fra Angelico

Updated on December 23, 2013

Angelico was reported to say "He who does Christ's work must stay with Christ always". This motto earned him the epithet "Blessed Angelico", because of the perfect integrity of his life and the almost divine beauty of the images he painted, to a superlative extent those of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Pope John Paul II

Angelico, Fra (Guido di Pietro) (c. 1400-55)
Angelico, Fra (Guido di Pietro) (c. 1400-55)

Magic Religious Realism

The paintings of Fra Angelico fall into what I like to call what I like to call magic religious realism .

I have invented this term to refer to a large group of Italian artists whose works fall into neither the category of realistic art nor into the totally fantastical, owing to their subject matter, but somewhere in between the straightforward reporting of reality as they see it and enhancements of reality according to spiritual insights and inspirations. Hence the term magical religious realism -- -- which I hope encompasses the general tenor of all of these artists, one of whom is Fra Angelico .

How I See the Lamentation

In his great portrayal of the moment after Christ has been taken down from the cross we see a scene that has a blending of elements both realistic and imaginative brought together into one pleasing whole.

The figures in the painting are illuminated as is the city wall of Jerusalem behind them, with a luminescence that can only be called heavenly light. The light seems to come from nowhere and yet be everywhere.

When I look at this painting my eye is drawn to the center first of all, where the cross marks the middle of the picture dividing the groups of figures who are huddled around the prone body of Christ.

From the cross the eye travels down and over to the far left where stands a Franciscan or Dominican Friar with hands folded. This figure naturally is historically incorrect as such a person could not have been at the scene of course, and I think may perhaps be the artist Fra Angelico himself . Most of the other figures have be costumed in robes that might have been worn by those witnessing the crucifixion at the time, however there is certainly an enhancement of color and style that echoes the Italian Renaissance.

Both the city walls of Jerusalem and the trees are highly stylized. The trees are lovely and delicate ornaments to the background.

My eye travels from the praying Friar across to the figure of St.Peter(?) holding the arm of Christ and then I travel down to the Virgin Mary who is cradling the head of her son. From there my eye moves laterally along the body of Christ to the right where at his feet Mary Magdalene (?) supports them. From there my eye roves momentarily to the Jerusalem Gate and then back to the cross completing a full circle.

Overall the figures do not show overt emotion, aside perhaps from the woman holding her hand to her cheek and a robe in her other hand standing behind the Virgin Mary -- -- (the robe she clasps is no doubt the one Christ had stripped from him by the Roman soldiers to use as a gambling-prize. The two heavenly figures in the back with spiked halos I take to be angels because of the unique halos and because they are of a whiter pallor then the other figures.

Emotional Subtlety

even though I said above that this painting does not reveal great emotional display, they do not 'emote' on the scale of persons in the paintings of say, it nevertheless portrays a full palette of subtler emotions.

For example:

  • the two men, no doubt apostles, are engaged in what looks like a heated discussion of some kind, possibly over where to lay the body of their master,the location of which has not been decided?
  • the tender sorrow revealed in the face of the Virgin Mary
  • the cool but respectful sanctity on the faces of the two 'angels'
  • the devoted empathy of Mary Magdalene as she gently cradles his feet and recalls possibly the time she washed his feet with oil -- -- whereas now she is washing them with her tears
  • then the group of other women standing on the right showing solemn yet sincere sadness, astonishment, compassion, and unswerving devotion to their fallen savior.

finally, when I look at this sceneI noticed that there are exactly twice as many women as there are men. If we can't Jesus himself there are five men and 10 women.

On the whole the women are the most engaged emotionally in the scene whereas the men are somewhat detached distracted or as in the case of Peter, simply performing a necessary practical task. Even the Dominican on the far left looks to be in an attitude of prayer but without the 'adoring' attitude is best understood by simply looking at their hands.

Each woman uses her hands in different ways to express subtly different emotional expression of grief, astonishment and lamentation.

Brother Angel

The name we know him by "Fra Angelico" (Brother Angel) was given him by contemporaries, who preferred it over his real name Giovanni da Fiesole.

"He was convinced that to picture Christ perfectly one must need be Christlike, and Vasari says that he prefaced his paintings by prayer."

Angelico was, to me, a painter who's saintliness permeates every brush stroke he made and who's faith found itself best expressed through his art--an intelligent art of intimate,quiet piety.


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