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Pesellino: The Annunciation Diptych

Details: the Angels and the dove

Are Angels male or female?

The angel is portrayed young and sexless, but is that right? Courbet, the great Realist painter of the 19th century, once said, "show me an angel and I will paint you one!", meaning he never would. Neither Pesellino nor our Florentine would have paid any attention to a remark like Courbet's. Their priority was Faith, not Realism. Through their faith they knew that angels were always young and neither specifically male nor female. They also knew that they were highly organised with a fixed hierarchy, and divided into different companies and ranks like an army. The archangel Gabriel was God's chief messenger, a sort of Field Marshall.

Why the dove?

Above the angel a dove with a gold halo slides down a shaft of golden light, and golden rays comes out of its beak. The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit and its inclusion, with the rays, indicates that we are contemplating the precise moment of Mary's conception.

Other details

I think too that our Florentine, who would have looked at this painting more often than we ever will, would have been constantly delighted by its freshness, its evident sincerity, its attention to detail, and for its day its amazing reality, as if drawn from life by someone who had witnessed the scene itself. The setting is 15th century Italian. Mary's long nose is Italian rather than the Middle Eastern. Details which delight the eye include the shadow of the bookstand on the wall; Mary's long slender fingers and manicured nails, the angel Gabriel's extraordinary ringlets which must have taken literally hours to form and arrange; the strong powerful angel wings that really do look as though they would lift him/her into the air, and the careful observation of the lily flower, so precise and accurate that it must have been done from life.

Conclusion

What a banquet of visual pleasure, spiritual faith, thrilling observation, total sincerity, and outstanding technical skill! And all within a space of less than 600sq cm. (100 sq inches).

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