Who paid for the picture?
This painting is about the annunciation, or is it? Looked at more closely it celebrates conspicuous consumption in an eye-catching way. Luxuries from all over the world crowd the work like an upmarket 15th century Renaissance catalogue. And there is Christ’s mother, the Virgin Mary, with her thoughts deep into a book oblivious to the world around her. So what’s going on and why did a group of monks from Ascoli, a remote town in Central Italy, commission such a work for their monastery?
The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, by Carlo Crivelli, 1486
The painting shows the Biblical story of the Annunciation. The Virgin Mary is visited by the Archangel Gabriel, who tells her that she is to be the mother of Jesus. Good news is being delivered to Mary by an angel in the foreground. On the bridge at the back, a man in a black hat reads a letter which seems to have been delivered by another winged messenger, a carrier pigeon, now in its cage next to the smaller man in brown. Meanwhile the town is celebrating its semi-independence.
It is an altarpiece painted for the monks of the church of SS. Annunziata in Ascoli to celebrate the town being granted a degree of self-government after years under papal rule.
Crivelli was born around 1430–35 in Venice to a family of painters. Reliable details of his life are few. He is said to have studied under Jacobello del Fiore – or was it with Vivarini, or maybe Francesco Squarcione in Padua? We just do not know.
Although he signed his works Carlo Crivelli “Veneti” (“of Venice”) he spent most of his life working in Le Marche where cliffs drop precipitously into the Adriatic.
He was apparently a master of his own shop by 1457, when he was imprisoned for six months for an adulterous affair with the wife of a sailor.
He was a vegetarian.
Crivelli scorned oil painting, which was sweeping into fashion throughout the Renaissance art community, to concentrate wholly on egg tempera, which suited his exacting, microscopic detail. He modelled raised objects in gesso (a sort of white primer) on his panels so his paintings venture slightly into the third dimension.
All of Crivelli's pictures are of religious subjects, although with a twist. His style was highly individual, with a strong element of Late Gothic fantasy. His technique and extravagant attention to detail was also rather old-fashioned for its time.
For a brief time in the nineteenth century pre-Raphaelite painters embraced his paintings for their sumptuous allegorical detail and their vivid, strange emotions. However Crivelli has once more fallen into near obscurity.
More recently this work was used by Grayson Perry as inspiration for one of his tapestries The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal from Vanity of Small Differences.
This picture is more celebratory than devotional. It was painted for Ascoli. In 1482 Francesco Sforza, a supporter of the Pope, was ousted from Ascoli, and the city was granted partial self-government by Pope Sixtus IV, of Sistine Chapel fame. The news of this reached Ascoli on 25th March, the Feast of the Annunciation, and four years later this altarpiece was placed in the church of SS Annunziata to celebrate the event. The period of self-government was rather short-lived: the Pope was soon back in charge.
Strategically placed at the centre of the picture is St Emidius. He is the patron saint of the city, martyred in 303 by pagans who objected to him smashing their idols. (One wonders what he would have made of Carlo Crivelli.) In the picture, he is carrying a model of the newly freed City of Ascoli, which hasn't changed much over the centuries. Saint Emidius is invoked for protection from earthquakes, necessary here, as Ascoli is only an hour's journey from L'Aquila, epicentre of the earthquake that struck in April 2009.
Crivelli has shown the scene taking place in Mary’s home, but he has updated the story and set it in a Renaissance town with fashionable new buildings: the ornaments in relief on Mary’ house were copied from the ancient Romans. But in many ways this story of the annunciation is eclipsed by the breadth of the rest of the painting.
Italy in the 15th century was made up of relatively small states whose rule had changed hands for centuries. Ascoli is in the Marche which was nominally part of the Papal States, but most of the territory was under local lords, while the major cities ruled themselves as free communes. In the twelfth century, the commune resisted both the imperial authority and the Republic of Venice, and was a maritime republic on its own. An attempt to restore Papal suzerainty in the fourteenth century was short-lived. During the Renaissance, the region was fought over by rival aristocratic families. The last independent entity, the Duchy of Urbino, was dissolved in 1631, and from then on, Marche was firmly part of the Papal States except during the Napoleonic period.
Fascinating Facts About Carlo Crivelli
This is clearly about a religious event, but why is it so over the top? Isn't it just a little cluttered? And who is the character busily distracting the angel when he has an important job to do? Saint Emidius of course - we worked that out from the title of the picture.
This picture would also have seemed different to people in late 15th century Italy, because of the convincing way Crivelli has represented three-dimensional space, which few artists at the time were as skilled in representing. The lines made by the buildings and the tiled pavement all meet at the vanishing point - the red hat on the man in front of the grill in the city wall in the distance.
A stylishly dressed man reads a message which a carrier pigeon has just delivered. There is some business being exchanged on the bridge which is intended to mirror the spiritual exchange between god and his handmaiden in the foreground.
Much of the clutter of the picture is symbolic, though it has to be said Crivelli did like to demonstrate his skill in painting such things as peacocks and exotic carpets. The bird in the cage is a goldfinch – a symbol of the young Jesus; in the room, we can see a glass jar and an unlit candle. The apple at the foot of the painting suggests Eve. Crivelli always tried to squeeze in some fruit and veg in his works. The coats of arms on the bottom of the picture are those of the Pope and the Bishop of Ascoli.
Crivelli does not let the architecture get in the way of his narrative — the shaft of light bearing the dove of the Holy Spirit enters the room via a very convenient hole cut in the solid wall. But, being Crivelli, he adds another characteristically quirky detail — the golden light or energy has left some sort of residual matter or reflection while passing through the masonry, imparting a golden efforescence to the immediate surroundings of the cavity.
The townscape and model is like an architect’s impression. It is represented in pristine condition, the streets are clean, beautifully paved and the buildings are sumptuously decorated in Renaissance style. Every detail is rendered in Crivelli’s trademark hard-edged clarity, from the dovecote high above the street to the little child watching the proceedings from the top of the stairs, and the peacock and eastern carpet adorning the loggia on the first floor of the Virgin’s palazzo.
Inside her room the Madonna is surrounded by the upmarket clutter of everyday life. Precious wood panels the walls, her bed is covered with a green embroidered velvet cloth edged in gold, a pure white sheet turned against this and a pile of luscious cushions. The shelf is loaded with stuff – candlestick, boxes, pots, porcelain dishes, leather bound books, crystal vase.
And it doesn’t stop there; it spills out of the door.
The doorway is flanked by antique style pilasters and Corinthian columns. An expensive Turkish rug is draped over the balcony – as they would have been at a time of public celebration. This is a prestige place with goods from across the trading world.
The Vision of Blessed Gabriele, 1489 St Thomas Aquinas, 1476
St Francis with Christ's Blood, 1500 Virgin and Child with St Francis & Sebastian, 1491
'Enthroned Madonna, St. Jerome and St. Sebastian,
Crivelli's paintings are all of religious subjects, done in an elaborate, old-fashioned style that owes much to the Paduan tradition of Squarcione and Mantegna and yet is highly distinctive, with a rich vein of fantasy.
Their dense ornamentation is often increased by the use of gesso decoration combined with the paint. The National Gallery has some of his best works.