Fra Angelico: the Armadio degli Argenti

   A look at some individual panels in detail, and a consideration of the work as a whole, before we look at images of all the panels.     


The first panel in the series shows the vision of Ezekiel, known as the Mystical wheel. As with the other panels, this can be seen as a New Testament take on an Old Testament text. The outside ring shows the twelve O.T. prophets and patriarchs: the inner ring shows the four evangelists and saints Paul, James, Jude and Peter. The text on the outer ring describes the creation of the world from Genesis: the words on the inner ring come from John’s gospel, the incarnation of the Word of God – the world recreated.
  At the bottom are two figures. On the left, Ezekiel gazes in amazement at the vision. At the top left is an extract from, the first Book of Ezekiel describing the vision. On the right is Saint Augustine: above him is his commentary on the vision, stressing the links between Old and New Testaments.
 


The final panel is by far the theologically most complex. We see an image of a Jewish Menorah, with a Christian cross at the top. On the right are twelve Hebrew prophets: or the right the twelve apostles.
 On the side a female figure holds a shield with the words ‘Lex Amoris’ (the Law of Love.)
   This refers to a doctrine of St Thomas Aquinas.The coming of Christ did not replace what had gone before, the ‘Old Law’ or Law of Fear (Lex Timoris), but built upon it, by fulfilling the prophecies show in the previous panels. The scrolls mention the sacraments and doctrines of the church.

   

 
It is interesting to compare the Annunciation panel from the Armadio degli Argenti (above left) with a panel attributed to Fra Angelico in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. (above right.)  There are many similarities, particularly in the background, but one important difference: the stage the narrative has reached. The Ashmolean image shows the final stage, known as Humiliato: Mary has heard what the angel has told her and accepts it.  The Armadio scene shows the first stage: Gabriel is giving Mary his message, and she is looking surprised.
   Part of Gabriel's message from the Latin Vulgate version of Luke's gospel is quoted at the foot of the image.
Ecce concipies in utero et paries filium et vocabis nomen eius Iesum  And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. At the top of the image, there is another biblical quotation, from Isaiah: ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitis nomen eius Emmanuhel. Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
  This pattern is repeated in all of the images. At the bottom is a quote from the New Testament, either Luke or Matthew, describing the scene. At the top is what is claimed to be an Old Testament precursor of the event. The Isaiah parallel with the Annunciation is a familiar one, but exploring all of the others is extremely challenging, and I cannot find any evidence on line that this has been done. I have included a few thoughts, but, clearly there is much more to be done! Let's now move on to looking at all of the panels in order.

 

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