LIPPI, Fra Filippo
(b. 1406, Firenze, d. 1469, Spoleto)


Egg tempera on wood, 68 x 152 cm
National Gallery, London

An orphan placed in the friary as a child, Fra Filippo took his vows at Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence in 1421, in time to observe Masaccio and Masolino at work on the famous frescoes there. He was more suited to the life of a painter than to that of a Carmelite, for in 1456, while chaplain to a convent in Prato, he induced a nun to elope with him. She was to bear him a child, Filippino, who grew up to be an excellent painter of outstandingly chaste morals. Filippo was employed as an artist by the Medici, and through their intercession obtained a special dispensation to marry Filippino's mother.

The Annunciation is one of a pair of panels originally from a Medici palace in Florence; the other, hanging also in the National Gallery, depicts seven saints of special significance to the family. The shape and subject matter of both panels suggest that they were part of the furnishings of two separate but related rooms, either as bed-heads or as panels situated above a bed or door. While the Seven Saints illustrates a dynastic theme through the male members of the family, the Annunciation would have been more suitable for a woman's room.

The Medici device of three feathers within a diamond ring is `sculpted' in relief on the edge of the parapet which separates the Virgin's `garden enclosed' from her bedchamber. Mary's purity is further alluded to in the lilies held by the Archangel Gabriel and those growing in the urn between them. From the centre of the arched top of the panel the hand of God the Father has launched the dove of the Holy Spirit. Its spiraling flight path, outlined in glittering gold, is about to end in the Virgin's womb from which emanates a small scattering of gold rays. In Mary's submissive pose Lippi illustrates the moment in the Gospel of Saint Luke (l: 38) when she says: `Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.'

All the qualities for which the Medici prized Fra Filippo's art are demonstrated in this image. The austerity of the centralised perspective (the slope of the floor is exaggerated to account for the angle at which the panel was originally to be viewed) and of the strict geometry inherited from Masaccio is tempered by the artist's sublimely delicate use of line, colour and ornament. The Virgin's transparent veil gently softens the curve of her neck and shoulders, Gabriel's peacock wings echo the curve of the arch. But the greatest beauty of the painting resides in the meeting of angel and Virgin, virtual mirror images of each other. The one inclines his profiled head and bends his arm in gentle deference, the other responds with grave humility.