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The Early Renaissance in Florence

A woman holding a nude baby boy sits on a blue patterned pillow on the floor in front of a brick-red curtain held up by two angels in this vertical painting. The people all have pale, almost gold-colored skin with a green cast, though their cheeks are flushed with pale pink. The woman sits facing us and looks slightly off to our right. She has almond-shaped eyes, a straight nose, and her lips are closed. She wears a blue cloak with a white hood over a shell-pink dress. Her right arm, on our left, rests in her lap and she supports the baby with her other arm. The baby’s nude body is pudgy like a baby but his face and head are proportioned more like an adult. His body turns toward the woman and he reaches up to her neck, and he looks into the distance to our left. Both have flat, plate-like gold halos. The winged angels holding up the red curtain also have halos and they wear blue robes. The curtain falls in gentle folds behind the mother and child, and fabric of the same color underneath the blue pillow on which they sit suggests that the curtain extends onto the floor. A dove, also haloed, floats at the top center of the painting. The gold background around the curtain and behind the angels and dove is painted into an arch over the people, and the upper corners of the panel are dark. A Latin inscription is painted with capital gray letters against a white band along the bottom edge of the panel: “AVE: MARIA: GRATIA: PLENA: DO.”


In fifteenth-century Florence, many people believed themselves to be living in a new age. The term "Renaissance," already coined by the sixteenth century, describes the "rebirth" from the dark ages of intellectual decline that followed the brilliance of ancient civilization. In Italy, especially, the Renaissance was spurred by a revival of Greek and Roman learning. Works by classical authors, lost to the West for centuries, were rediscovered, and with them a new, humanistic outlook that placed man and human achievement at the center of all things.

Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masaccio

Humanists in Florence styled their city a "new Athens." It was a fiercely mercantile state, struggling to remain independent and committed to republican virtues though controlled in practice by the powerful Medici family. No single factor can explain the unrivaled artistic flowering it experienced in the early 1400s, but the contributions of Brunelleschi in architecture, Donatello in sculpture, and Masaccio in painting changed Western art forever. Brunelleschi measured ancient buildings in Rome to understand the harmony of classical proportions and reintroduced such elements of classical architecture as the columned arcade. He applied engineering genius to design the huge dome for the cathedral of Florence and invented the system of one-point perspective (see below). Donatello, who accompanied Brunelleschi to Rome, carved some of the first large-scale, freestanding statues since antiquity. Like those ancient figures, his were sometimes nude. In Florence's Brancacci chapel, Masaccio painted a series of innovative frescoes that used light, coming strongly and consistently from a single direction, to model figures with shadow and give them robust three-dimensionality. He put into practice Brunelleschi's theories about how to project depth beyond a flat painted surface, employing the lines of painted architecture to create a convincing illusion of space.

Masaccio, Italian, 1401 - 1428, The Madonna of Humility, c. 1423/1424, tempera (?) on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.7

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Two men are situated inside a coral-red building that fills the left two-thirds of this composition, and two men are shown in a body of water in a landscape to our right in this horizontal painting. The building recedes sharply into the space of the landscape without seeming to be part of it, and the men in the water seem a little too large in relation to the pool, trees, and the building to our left. The men all have pale skin and wear ivory-white robes. The red, arched building spans the entire height of the painting. Inside, a bearded man with a halo sits on a bench facing our right in profile as he holds up his right hand toward the cleanshaven man kneeling in front of him. Short, gold rays emanate from the younger man’s shoulders as he looks up at the older man with his hands tucked into his voluminous sleeves. In the landscape to our right, the two people both have blond hair and halos. One, either a man or a younger boy, seems to kneel in the pool, filling a pitcher with water. He turns to look toward the man standing behind him, who leans over and touches his shoulders. Trees with triangular canopies of dark green leaves have thin, spindly trunks placed regularly across the background with a few on the grassy ground closer to us.


Artists and audiences have always perceived pictorial space in ways that suit their worldview -- their way, literally, of "looking at the world." In religious painting of the late Middle Ages, for example, space seems to open out from the picture plane. It encompasses the viewer to make him part of the sacred events depicted, bringing him into the same sphere with the holy figures of Jesus, Mary, and the saints.

During the early Renaissance, however, as humanism focused attention on man and human perception, the viewer assumes the active role. Now, instead of projecting outward, space recedes -- with measured regularity -- from the viewer's eye into the picture plane. Because the viewer himself is the point of reference, the illusion of space is more realistic than was ever before achieved. Brunelleschi is credited with the "invention" of one-point perspective, but it was given systematic form a generation later in Leon Battista Alberti's treatise on painting, De pictura, published in 1435. In one-point, also called linear, perspective, all lines converge to a single point in the distance -- the vanishing point. Often it is possible to see where the artist has scored these perspective lines into the surface of the painting to serve as guides.

Fra Filippo Lippi, Italian, c. 1406 - 1469, Saint Benedict Orders Saint Maurus to the Rescue of Saint Placidus, c. 1445/1450, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.10

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A winged angel with arms crossed kneels across from a young woman sitting and holding a book, both under an archway in a paneled room in this vertical painting. They both have pale, yellow-toned skin, blond hair, and flat, gold halos. They also have golden brown eyes, long, straight noses, smooth cheeks, and their pale, pink lips are closed. To our right, the woman sits in a throne-like chair with her body facing our left. Her head tilts down, and she looks toward the angel under lowered lids. Her hair is pulled back under the neck of the lapis-blue cloak she wears over a crimson-red dress. The dress and cloak are trimmed with gold, and a there is a gold starburst on the cloak over her left shoulder, closer to us. She holds her other hand up near that shoulder with her fingertips brushing her chest. With her other hand, she holds open the pages of a small book in her lap, so her fingers overlap some of the words. The entire Latin inscription would read, “virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitur nomen eius emmanuel butirum et mel come dit ut fiat reprobare.” A slender, bone-white column separates her from the angel across from her, along the left edge of the painting. The angel has curly, shoulder-length hair and wears a robe with a gold, floral pattern against a burgundy-red background. Long, golden wings emerge from the shoulder blades and extend off the side of the composition. An open archway just beyond the angel is filled with streaks of flax yellow and burnt orange, possibly representing flames. Some of the walls in the room around the pair are pale olive green and other areas are darker spruce green. There are bands of coral-pink molding and inset panels of patterned mosaics. The flat ceiling of the space immediately over the pair is decorated with checkerboard panels in navy blue, hunter green, brown, and brick red. Gold lines create a ray coming from the ceiling toward the woman. At the back of the space, beyond the column separating the woman and angel, the room extends into an alcove with an arched hallway painted with gold stars against a midnight-blue background. Double doors open at the back of the alcove onto a room with a pale-yellow curtain with a mesh-like trim. We see the pair as if through a stone archway that lines the top and sides of the composition. The upper corners are filled with leafy decorations, as if carved into the stone.

Fifteenth-century viewers of this Annunciation would have recognized not only its general subject, but also the particular moment Masolino chose to paint. Street preachers gave vivid accounts of Gabriel's message to Mary about Christ's birth, and audiences would also have seen the Annunciation reenacted on its feast day. In Florence, Brunelleschi designed an apparatus to lower an actor portraying Gabriel from the cathedral dome, as young children dressed as angels hung suspended in rigging. Events in the drama took place in sequence. Mary was first startled at the angel's sudden appearance; she reflected on his message and queried Gabriel about her fitness; finally, kneeling, she submitted to God's will. Here Mary's downcast eyes and musing gesture—hand resting tentatively on her breast—suggest the second, and most often depicted, of these stages: reflection. As did actors in the religious plays, artists used gesture and posture to communicate states of mind.

Masolino is best known for his collaboration with Masaccio on the frescoes of the Brancacci chapel in Florence—and for his failure to pursue Masaccio's innovations. Masolino continued to paint in a style that was delicate and ornamental. His colors are flowerlike, his figures elegant but unreal. They do not seem so much to exist within the painted space as to be placed before it. In the ceiling, colorful tiles, a device used by Masaccio to create perspective lines, are merely decorative and leave space ambiguous.

Masolino da Panicale, Italian, c. 1383 - 1435 or after, The Annunciation, c. 1423/1424, tempera (and possibly oil glazes) on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.16

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Shown from the chest up on the far side of a ledge, a pale-skinned, clean-shaven young man faces our right in profile in this vertical portrait painting. He looks steadily forward. The eye we can see is brown under a thin, curving brow. His nose is bumped near the bridge, and he has a slight underbite. His pale pink lips are closed, and he has a delicate jawline. Short brown hair brushes the side of his face under a coral-red turban, the ends of which fall down his back. A high-collared dark brown garment is edged with white around the neck, and a cranberry-red robe or jacket falls open over his chest. He is shown against a dark, teal-blue background. The ledge along the bottom of the painting is black with edged with gold. Gold lettering reads, “MATHEVS OLIVIERI D NI IOANNI FILI.”

This portrait is among the first from the Renaissance. During the late Middle Ages, depictions of individual donors had often been included in religious paintings, but it was not until the early fifteenth century that independent portraits were commissioned. The earliest ones are, like these, simple—even austere—profile views. Very likely, they were influenced by portrait busts and the profile heads on ancient gems and coins, which were avidly collected by Renaissance humanists. The popularity of the independent portrait was spurred by a new focus on the individual and an appreciation of individual accomplishments—a new conception of fame.

Probably, the portrait is of Matteo Olivieri—his name appears on the ledge—and was originally paired with one of his son Michele, who may have commissioned both works. Though painted long after Matteo had died (he left a will in 1365), the portrait depicts a young man, as did the portrait of his son, who must have been at least sixty-five when the works were painted. Most portraits were probably commissioned as commemorations of the deceased by families who wished to remember them in the prime of life. As Renaissance art theorist Alberti noted, a portrait "like friendship can make an absent man seem present and a dead one seem alive."

Florentine 15th Century, Matteo Olivieri (?), 1430s, tempera (and oil?) on panel transferred to canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.15

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A young, nude, light-skinned man stands in the center of a rocky, mountainous landscape in this square painting. The man’s muscular body faces us but he turns his head in profile to our right as he looks down at the coral-red cloth he drops onto the ground. He is cleanshaven with prominent eyebrows, a straight nose, and his lips are slightly parted. He has thick, reddish-brown hair with bangs across his forehead, and there is a red-edged, glimmering, gold, plate-like halo across the crown of his head. He leans slightly to the side as he drops the red cloth onto a white one, already on the ground. With his other hand, he holds a fawn-brown animal skin or cloth over that shoulder. The man is surrounded by tan and parchment-brown, deeply ridged, mostly barren mountains. The pointed peaks nearly reach the top of the painting. The rocky mountains are interspersed with a few dark green bushes. A light blue stream curves in a shallow S shape along the right side of the painting. Peaks in the far distance are icy blue against a sky that deepens from topaz blue along the horizon to navy blue at the top edge. Some puffy and some thin white clouds float across the sky.

This panel and Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata are from one of Domenico's major works, a large altarpiece in the church of Santa Lucia de' Magnoli in Florence. They formed part of its predella, the lower tier of small scenes that typically illustrated events in the lives of the saints who appeared in the larger central altar panel above.

Domenico's John the Baptist is unusual. Earlier artists had shown him as an older, bearded man with matted hair and clad in animal skins. Here, though, we see a youthful John at the very moment he is casting off the fine clothes of worldly life for a spiritual existence. His graceful figure, nude and modeled like an ancient statue, is one of the first embodiments of the Renaissance preoccupation with the art of ancient Greece and Rome. The figure is convincingly three-dimensional because the tones Domenico used for his flesh are graduated, one color blending continuously into the next. The landscape around the saint, however, belongs to an earlier tradition. Its sharp, stylized forms increase our appreciation for the desolation John is about to embrace in the stony wilderness; they dramatize his decision and give his action greater significance.

Domenico Veneziano, Italian, c. 1410 - 1461, Saint John in the Desert, c. 1445/1450, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1943.4.48

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Dozens of people line up around a shed-like structure and around stone ruins to kneel before a woman and baby at the lower center of this circular painting. All the people have pale skin. The crowd gathers along a pathway that winds around a rocky mountain at the top middle of the composition. Most of the people are on foot but a few ride horses or camels. The line of people curves around and through an arched opening in a stone ruin to our left. Sitting at the center of the painting, behind the woman and baby, Mary and Jesus, the structure is open at the front and has a triangular pitched roof. Some of the people, including the three closest to Mary and Jesus, wear elegant, gold-trimmed clothing. Others wear simple tunics, and several people standing along the ruins in the middle distance wear only white loincloths. Ages of the people range from young and cleanshaven to older and bearded. Their costumes are mostly pale yellow, coral orange, crimson red, shell pink, or sky blue. Some people raise their heads and hands while others hold hands to their chests and close their eyes. Mary wears a pale blue robe over a blush-pink dress. Jesus is nude and an older man standing nearby wears an apricot-colored robe over a blue tunic. The older man, Mary, and Jesus have gold halos. A peacock and two other birds stand on the roof of the manger, which shelters an ox, ass, and horses.

An inventory of Lorenzo de' Medici's private chambers included a round Adoration—perhaps this one. It was the most valuable painting listed, although ancient cameos and natural wonders such as "unicorn horns" were worth several times more.

The artist named in the inventory was Fra Angelico, but this work is usually thought to be a collaboration between him and a fellow Florentine, Fra Filippo Lippi. Very likely the painting remained in one of their studios (whose is still debated) for a number of years, receiving sporadic attention from several workshop painters. The sweetly angelic Virgin and Child, the throng of worshipers in the upper right, and the rich carpet of plants in the foreground were probably painted by Fra Angelico. Most of the work, however, bears the stamp of Filippo. His figures are more robust and sharply defined. Compare, for example, the broad face of Joseph at the right to the Virgin's more delicate features.

All elements of the composition—figures, cityscape, landscape—spiral in response to the panel's round shape. This is one of the first examples of a tondo, or circular painting, which in the 1400s became popular for domestic religious paintings. In the case of the Adoration, the shape may have been suggested by deschi da parto, painted platters used to bring fruit, sweets, and gifts to refresh new mothers after giving birth.

Fra Angelico, Italian, c. 1395 - 1455, Fra Filippo Lippi, Italian, c. 1406 - 1469, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.2

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A woman supports a pudgy baby who sits on a stone ledge in this vertical painting. They both have pale skin, rosy cheeks, blond hair, and subtle halos made of gold dots. The woman’s body faces us, and her head tips to our left. She looks at us with brown eyes under delicate brows, and she has a straight nose, full cheeks, and her small, bow-shaped lips are slightly parted. A translucent white veil wraps around her hair and falls to her shoulders. Her rose-pink dress is pleated vertically down the front, and her lapis-blue cloak falls from her shoulders. Gold lettering lines the neckline of the dress and the full sleeves of the cloak. A gold star is painted on her right shoulder, to our left, and gold dots create shimmering highlights on her clothing. She braces the baby’s chest with one hand, and the other rests behind the forest-green pillow on which he sits. The child has small, light brown eyes, a delicate nose, and round cheeks. A white cloth wraps around his chest and falls across his lap. He holds onto the woman’s hand with one of his own, and his other hand grips the woman’s ring finger. The woman stands behind the ledge in front of a carved, round-topped niche. The niche is inset with laurel-green stone around a half shell that curves over her head. The upper corners and back of the niche below the shell are set with pink stone against the white molding.

Orphaned at a young age, Filippo Lippi was raised in the Carmelite convent of Santa Maria in Florence, where he would undoubtedly have seen Masaccio and Masolino at work on the frescoes in the Brancacci chapel. He took vows himself, but proved to be wholly unsuited to religious life. His name surfaces often in court documents. Tried for embezzlement (even tortured on the rack), he lived openly with a Carmelite nun, Lucretia Buti, who was his model and with whom he had a son—painter Filippino Lippi. His patron Cosimo de' Medici sheltered Filippo in "protective custody" at the Medici palace, hoping to prod him into finishing tardy commissions, but the artist escaped. He was eventually allowed to leave his order and marry Lucretia, but continued to wear a monk's habit and sign his works Fra ("brother") Filippo.

Filippo's Virgin is wistful and slightly melancholy, while the infant's heavy, almost muscular form recalls Masaccio's emphatically three-dimensional figures. Masaccio had used strongly directional light to reveal the form of his figures. Filippo's Virgin and child, on the other hand, are bathed in an overall glow that prevents the modeling of the figures from overpowering the graceful and well-defined line of his composition. As Filippo grew older his reliance on line increased and Masaccio's influence lessened.

Fra Filippo Lippi, Italian, c. 1406 - 1469, Madonna and Child, c. 1440, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.290

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This shield-shaped painting shows a young man with pale, peachy skin and curling brown hair standing astride the severed head of a man with dark hair and tanned skin. The painting is wider at the top and tapers like a pint glass to a narrower base. The young man, David, holds the end of long red slingshot with his right hand. The slingshot is weighted by a rock and swings behind his body. His sleeveless rust-red garment is cinched at his waist over a long white shirt. Both garments skim David’s thighs and his legs and feet are bare. Long, curling brown hair frames the ashen and bloodied upturned face of the head at David’s feet. A palm-sized stone is embedded in that forehead. The landscape background is made up of gray boulders, a meandering river, and low palm-like trees. Frothy white clouds sweep across an azure-blue sky.

The unusual shape of this work is explained by its original use as a parade shield. Its painted scene is exceedingly rare—most parade shields were decorated with simple coats of arms. It may have been carried in civic or religious processions or have been made as a sign of authority for a citizen-governor.

Images of young David, who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to kill the giant, were popular in fifteenth-century Florence, the smallest major power in Italy. The city saw itself threatened by such Goliaths as the pope, the duke of Milan, the king of Naples, and the doge of Venice. David's image is especially appropriate decoration for a shield since, throughout the Psalms, David's poetry echoes the notion of God as his shield: "His truth shall be thy shield and buckler" (Ps. 91.4).

Like many early Renaissance artists, Castagno has presented the action and its outcome simultaneously: David holds the loaded sling, but already the head of the slain Goliath lies at his feet. David's energetic pose, based perhaps on an ancient statue, creates a strong contour that would have been clear and "legible" as the shield was carried. Nevertheless, the youth's body is well modeled, rounded with light and shadow to give a convincing likeness of a body in action.

Andrea del Castagno, Italian, before 1419 - 1457, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1450/1455, tempera on leather on wood, Widener Collection, 1942.9.8

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A woman with blond hair dances in the center of a room with a group of people clustered around a banqueting table to our right with a small, enclosed space occupied by a kneeling man and executioner to our left in this horizontal painting. All the people have pale skin. The ceiling is made up of blue squares encased in a gold grid that recedes to the back, stone wall of the room. The woman’s dress is made of fabric that looks vivid royal blue or butter yellow, depending on how the light hits it. Facing our right in profile as she dances, she steps forward onto her left foot, raises her right foot behind her, and holds her right arm aloft. Four men wearing crimson-red, pine-green, yellow, or bright blue robes or tunics and stockings stand behind the long table set along the wall to our right. A bearded man at the center of the table wears a red hat and fur-lined red robe. He touches his right hand to his chest and holds a knife on the table in his other hand as he looks at the dancing woman. Glasses, dishes, and bowls are arrayed along the table, which is draped with a white tablecloth. A trio of blond, curly-haired, cleanshaven men and a woman with her arms crossed across her chest stand at the far, narrow end of the table, on the other side of the room. Within an alcove at the back of the room, the dancer appears again, kneeling before a seated woman wearing a ruby-red dress. The dancer holds or gestures toward a silver plate holding the severed head of a bearded man with brown hair that rests in the seated woman’s lap. The left third of the painting is taken up with an enclosure, a tiny room set like a tall, stone box within the larger room. Through an arched opening, a haloed man wearing an ivory-white, fur garment kneels facing us, his head bowed over his hands in prayer. He is the same man as the one beheaded and presented on the plate in the background. A man wearing yellow and blue armor raises a sword over his head, preparing to behead the kneeling man.

A contract for an altarpiece, executed between the artist and the Confraternity of the Purification of the Virgin, gives explicit instructions. The artist "is obligated to apply himself to this painting so that the said picture will excel, or at least favorably compare with, every good picture made thus far by [him]." The appearance of the central section is carefully prescribed: the Virgin is to be flanked by John the Baptist and five other named saints "with all the usual attributes." Gozzoli must also "with his own hand...paint at the bottom, that is in the predella...the stories of said saints."

This is one of those predella panels. And here Gozzoli had the freedom to exercise his particular skill as a storyteller. In this one small painting he has packed three episodes related in Matthew 14:6–8. At the center of the painting, we see the twirling figure of Salome, dancing to entertain Herod and his guests, all of whom wear fifteenth-century finery. Herod was so enchanted that he promised Salome whatever she might ask, and prompted by her mother, who sought revenge against John, Salome's request was bloody: "Give me the head of John the Baptist." There inside an archway at left, the saint kneels to be beheaded. And at the rear Salome presents the severed head to her mother.

Benozzo Gozzoli, Italian, c. 1421 - 1497, The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1461-1462, tempera (?) on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.3

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On a tiled courtyard between buildings with arches and columns, a winged angel kneels and looks up at a woman standing to our right in this vertical painting. Both people have pale skin, blond hair, and plate-like gold halos at the back of their heads. To our left, the angel wears a silvery-white tunic under a scarlet-red cloak lined with cobalt blue. The wings are fawn brown on the underside, closer to the body, and aquamarine blue on the outside. Gold lines delineate feathers. The angel holds a white lily with two blooms and four buds on a long stem in the hand farther from us, which rests on a bent knee. The other hand is raised in front of the chest. The woman, Mary, stands along the right edge of the painting, her body angled toward the angel. Mary’s long, wavy hair falls to her shoulders, and she wears a lapis-blue robe with a pine-green lining over a red dress. She holds her right hand, farther from us, to her chest and touches the fabric of her cloak with the other, by her hip. The tip of one red shoe peeks out under her voluminous robe. Between the angel and Mary is a stone-white urn with scrolled handles, holding a bouquet of pink and white roses with dark green foliage. The ground is tiled with squares marbled in pale pink, sky blue, rust red, charcoal gray, and brown. Narrow, white panels between the tiles create a grid. The buildings around the pair are fog gray, parchment white, shell pink, or coral red, and are trimmed in black, red, or pink. Rows of arches recede into the square behind the angel and woman, ending at a coral-red wall that encloses the courtyard. An arched doorway in that wall opens onto a pathway leading over a small brook and into a hilly forest. A narrow, conical tree outside the courtyard reaches over the wall, into the vibrant blue sky above. A white dove descends from among the few scattered clouds with golden beams projecting toward the woman to our right.

The style of Fra Carnevale, which draws on older artists like Fra Filippo Lippi, also shows evidence of newer trends, especially in his treatment of distant space. Follow the lines of the architecture: the regular rhythm of arcades and arches recedes into the background. The grid formed by the courtyard measures the distance for our eye.

These converging perspective lines lead to a door beyond which we glimpse a lush garden. This is not a random choice of landscape. The artist has used perspective not simply to create a convincing depiction of space, but to lead us to see the theological implications of his scene. In reference to her virginity, Mary was often called the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) and the porta clausa (closed door). Many Annunciations translate these themes with visual images of locked doors and walled gardens. Here instead, the perspective takes us through an open door into the heavenly garden of Paradise. The Annunciation, because it is the beginning of Christ's human existence, also heralds the redemption of humankind. The open door underscores the promise of salvation as well as Mary's role in the Incarnation and as intercessor forthe prayers of men and women.

Fra Carnevale, Italian, active c. 1445 - 1484, The Annunciation, c. 1445/1450, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.218

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