Francesco Bianchi Ferrari's Annunciation: a theological compendium in a single scene

The Annunciation by Francesco Bianchi Ferrari (Ferrara?, 1447 - Modena, 1510), housed in the Galleria Estense in Modena, is a seemingly simple painting: in fact, behind this scene that seems so familiar lies a true theological compendium.

To paint one of the most widely represented Gospel episodes in the history of art, the Annunciation, while transforming the scene, so familiar and so traditional, into a narrative capable of also showing the faithful the entire history of salvation. This must have been the need of the Confraternity of the Santissima Annunciata of Modena, which in 1506 decided to adorn the altar of its oratory with a large altarpiece, and established to entrust the task to Francesco Bianchi Ferrari, the most active, prolific and exuberant painter that could be found in the city, with a long history of painting altarpieces for churches in Modena. We do not know who drew up the complex iconographic program, but he certainly must have been intelligent enough to understand that to achieve the goal it was necessary to present in simple forms, of immediate comprehension, a kind of theological treatise. To prepare an image that would be like an open book, that would lend itself to multiple levels of reading, that would condense pages and pages of biblical wisdom into a single moment, and that would be able to convey it to an audience that was not necessarily educated, but that could well understand the meanings of each and every detail. Francesco Bianchi Ferrari was the right painter to achieve this goal.

He was a versatile, up-to-date artist, endowed with boundless imagination: everything the Brotherhood needed to see its requests fulfilled. Bianchi Ferrari began work immediately on his Annunciation, now on display in a small room in the Galleria Estense in Modena, but he was unable to complete it: he died before finishing the work, which by now, however, must have been well on its way to completion. He was succeeded by a colleague, Giovanni Antonio Scacceri, who, according to what we read in the documents, undertook to work on it “da homo da bene secundo era stato promesso per Maestro Francesco.” It is difficult to say where, exactly, Scacceri intervened, first of all because the work reveals a very unified conduction, a sign that the young painter, who perhaps at the time’was at the time a workshop associate of Bianchi Ferrari, had to adhere slavishly to the master’s stipulations, and then because our knowledge of Scacceri’s activity is so scanty as to invalidate any consideration that might go beyond the level of conjecture. In any case, by 1512 the work was finished, ready to be placed on the altar of the confraternity’s oratory.

Francesco Bianchi Ferrari, Annunciation (1506-1512; oil on panel, 291 x 176.5 cm; Modena, Galleria Estense)
Francesco Bianchi Ferrari, Annunciation (1506-1512; oil on panel, 291 x 176.5 cm; Modena, Galleria Estense)

Bianchi Ferrari, as a painter attentive to what was going on around him and a former pupil of Cosmè Tura, had turned his gaze toward Bologna, where another great Ferrarese, Francesco del Cossa, had been working a few years earlier: it is difficult not to notice how the layout of Bianchi Ferrari’sAnnunciation recalls that of the counterpart altarpiece that Cossa painted for the church of the Osservanza in Bologna, now preserved in Dresden. Bianchi Ferrari took up the idea of setting the scene under a large classical loggia, with the two figures on either side of the altarpiece, and with the Madonna in a higher position than the angel (Francesco del Cossa had achieved this effect by working on perspective, while Bianchi Ferrari preferred to place the Virgin above a high podium), and substantially revisited some of the basic elements, eliminating some of Cossa’s extravagances, but without avoiding inventing others.

Bianchi Ferrari’s scene appears to us to be more relaxed, more serene, quieter, and less charged than that of Francesco del Cossa, and devoid of some bizarre elements, such as the angel’s peacock wings, his very strange wooden halo arranged on his head with leather laces, and the snail crawling on the lower edge. However, Bianchi Ferrari decides to reduce the domestic interior to a kind of lectern with an open chest of drawers, where he piles up boxes, books, baskets: objects functional to make the figure of the Virgin more human, to bring her closer to the faithful. The loggia is topped by a wooden balustrade open to the sky, while the central arch gives us a glimpse of a mountain village. Also singular are the candlesticks behind the Virgin, with expressive human faces, both turned toward the elegant and aristocratic figure of the mother of Christ, whose beauty reminds us of the Madonnas of Francesco Francia, another reference point of Francesco Bianchi Ferrari. And there are also elements that come from the pagan repertoire, such as the tritons and Nereids on the frieze of the loggia, or like the harpies and sphinxes that decorate the base of the podium on which the Madonna, hands clasped on her chest, receives the annunciation from the archangel Gabriel, who as per typical iconography is bringing her a lily, symbol of purity.

It is from the top that the reading of the work begins, and specifically from the three persons of the Trinity whom we see depicted diagonally: the blessing Father, who appears in a fiery mandorla, surrounded by cherubim, the Son represented as the Child, who holds the cross and who will become man in Mary’s womb by the action of the Holy Spirit, whom we see depicted instead in the usual form of the dove. The divine light descends directly on Mary, by now already pregnant with Jesus: here the archangel then comes to tell her the good news, to tell her that from her womb the Son of God will be born, the savior who will sacrifice himself to atone for the sins of all humanity. The narrative of the episode is completed, in the background, by the scene of the visitation: in Luke’s Gospel, Mary incredulously asks Gabriel how she will be able to give birth to a son, having never known a man, and the angel will answer her by saying that nothing is impossible for God, reminding her of the example of her cousin Elizabeth who had conceived a son late in life. And whom we therefore see punctually depicted in the village in the distance.

Instead, the story of humanity to be redeemed is all told on the loggia, and it begins with the frieze with the marine thiasos : in the Renaissance, the ancient relationship between marine genii, often depicted on Roman sarcophagi, and funerary contexts was well known, and consequently the presence of the frieze could allude to the theme of the immortality of the soul, central to the theological concept of redemption. We read in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that “as all die in Adam, so all will receive life in Christ.” Original sin with its consequences (the fall of humanity, death, and estrangement from God) is narrated in the four medallions in which Bianchi Ferrari has placed the episodes of the creation of Adam and Eve, the temptation, the expulsion from the Earthly Paradise, and the killing of Abel. In the two large marble lunettes, the scenes of the universal flood and the crossing of the Red Sea, not infrequently combined within figurative contexts, are linked by water as both subject and symbolic element: on the one hand, water that washes away sins, on the other, water as a sign of rebirth. It will be the coming of Christ, alluded to in the annunciation scene, that will redeem humanity and enable it to overcome the ancient age, represented by the sphinxes and harpies on the base of the podium, mythological presences that we not infrequently find together with the Virgin, for the same reasons (think of Donatello’s Madonna and Child in the Basilica del Santo in Padua).

This, in short, was the theological compendium that could be read on the altar of the Confraternity of the Annunciata, where the work remained for more than a century: then, in 1615, the company moved to a new oratory, and theAnnunciation was placed on the high altar, only to be placed, in 1748, on another altar, flanked by a statue of St. Anne and one of St. Joachim. In 1763 Duke Francis III had it moved to the oratory of the Hospice of the Poor. Soon after, in 1774, another move, this time to the church of Sant’Agostino, then in 1782 again moved, to the high altar of Santa Maria della Trinità in Canalgrande, and finally, in 1821, the purchase for 500 zecchini by Duke Francesco IV, under which theAnnunciation entered the Estense Gallery. Where it has spent the last two hundred years, continuing to tell the story of salvation in the guise of apparent simplicity.

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.