These two innovations, private cells for the monks and a public library of devotional tomes are by no means insignificant details in the overall organization of this convent, but point to important developments in the concept of the Christian spiritual vocation, which has always sought a balance between the meditative life and active service within the community of Christ. They clearly suggest that the balance was tipping back towards the former, a tendency also corroborated by Cosimo’s wish to have each cell decorated with a fresco illustrating a major episode from the life of Christ.
With the exception of two double cells, one of which was set aside for Cosimo’s own personal use while on spiritual retreat at the convent, the monks’ cells are tiny, hardly big enough for a cot, writing table, and window. Yet on their bare white walls, each one contains a large, ethereal fresco in magical colors, painted between 1440 and 1445 by Fra Angelico, resident friar and acclaimed painter of the era. Although it was customary for monks to have sacred images, usually small icons, among their very few possessions, which might also have included a rosary, hair shirt or other articles of clothing, one or two books, and maybe a skull for the purposes of contemplation, the decorating of each cell with such a splendid fresco was yet another innovation. The frescoes were intended not only as a visual means of religious instruction and spiritual enhancement for the community at large, such as the scenes of the crucifixion or annunciation, placed in areas where the monks convened as a community, in the chapel, cloisters and refectories, but also as a guide to individual prayer and inner life. The prior of the convent had indeed instructed his monks to kneel before these pictures and contemplate them in the privacy of their cells. Perhaps they were also used as a memory aid to imaginative prayer, a practice of meditative visualization which would later be described in great detail in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola .
This same period in the mid fifteenth century witnessed throughout Christendom a return to stricter observance of monastic rule, which in some convents had gone a bit lax, with too many papal dispensations which may have allowed some monks to be distracted by worldly affairs. The new rigor brought a reaffirmation of the value of contemplative life and withdrawal from the world, as outlined in Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. This devotional work, published between 1418 and 1427, second only to the Bible in Christian readership, emphasized that the spiritual life was to be sought in solitude, study, and prayer. "I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not save in a little nook and in a little book,” Thomas a Kempis writes, emphasizing prayer and meditation over good works in the world.
One of the most famous frescoes by Fra Angelico in the convent of San Marco is the large Annunciation along the corridor, just at the top of the stairway, which greeted the monks, day in and day out, as they ascended from the ground floor to their cells and to the library. The fresco shows the Virgin seated on a humble wooden stool, resembling a milking stool, under a lovely loggia whose airy vaulting and handsome columns resemble those of the convent’s own library. The Virgin is listening to an angel who has alighted on her porch, the edge of which borders a garden full of leafy, low-growing plants, very much like the salad greens and medicinal herbs which might have been cultivated in the cloister for the convent’s use. The garden is enclosed by a wooden stake fence separating it from a wood with tall, lush trees and stark, spindly cypresses so common in the Tuscan countryside. The scene resonates with quiet joy.
Before painting this fresco, Fra Angelico had painted other Annunciation scenes, such as the one now in the Diocesan Museum of Cortona, which are quite different from this one in mood and spirit. In the Cortona Annunciation, painted a decade earlier and intended as an altarpiece, the Virgin, dressed in unadorned garments of sumptuous red and blue, sits on a chair upholstered in gold brocade. A golden dove floats above her head, symbolizing the divine energies about to enter her body to work the miracle of the immaculate conception. Behind her, a red curtain has been pulled across a doorway, limiting our view of the interior of her home. The angel, clad in a pink gown with ornate, gold embroidery, presses towards her in a dynamic, even perhaps aggressive pose, as if about to spring towards her, pointing at her with his right index finger, while his left hand gestures upwards towards heaven. His message appears in little gold words tumbling from his mouth through the air. Mary, with a book in her lap, seems quite taken aback, even terrified by the unexpected visitor. Although there is no fanfare of trumpets or cherubs, as we sometimes find in gothic representations of the Annunciation, the angel’s stance and gestures, the gold trimming and opulent colors, all hold a strong emphasis marking this extraordinary moment when the divine and human merged. The use of gold and rich fabrics denotes the spiritual elevation of the figures. As future queen of heaven, it is quite appropriate that Mary should be seated upon a brocade cushions, as emissary of God, it is equally appropriate that the angel should be garbed in luxury.
Nothing could be further from the austere beauty of the San Marco Annunciation, although the settings of the loggias, arches, trees and garden with salad greens are almost identical in the two paintings. In the San Marco Annunciation, the colors are more subdued, Mary’s drab, black and white garment is much plainer than the dress she wears in the Cortona scene, recalling the sackcloth robes worn by the Dominican friars of San Marco. Gold has been sparingly employed only for the halos of the two figures, the modest trimming on the angel’s gown, and in a few bits of glitter sprinkled throughout his rainbow wings which twinkle randomly, depending on the light in the corridor. The wings seem to be inspired by those of a butterfly or bird and are the most colorful detail in the painting. The use of perspective invites the eye to follow the vanishing point through a door in the background and to a window beyond that, which, very similar in shape to the windows in the convent cells, must face out over the trees. But what is most extraordinary is the attitude of the two figures, bowing towards each other gently, in mutual recognition, in a moment of deeply intimate exchange. The angel seems to be confiding something to the Virgin, a secret perhaps. There are no outward displays of glory, no outer emphasis, only the record of an intensely personal experience. It is all interior.
The prominent positioning of this fresco at the top of the stairs, where it would be seen every day by all was chosen to capture the attention of the monks and strike home to their hearts, reminding them that they too had received the good news of the annunciation which had led them to choose a spiritual vocation. They were not only climbing a staircase made of marble, but also one of the spirit, which required them to make ceaseless efforts in order to progress. “There is no harder fight than the struggle to overcome oneself,” wrote Thomas a Kempis.