Carlo Crivelli. Annunciation with St
Emidius. From the collection of the National Gallery, London.
On February 14th, 2012, the State Hermitage Museum was home to the opening of a new exhibit from the collection of the National Gallery, London, entitled the Annunciation with St. Emidius, which continues the series of exhibits entitled Masterpieces from the World’s Museums in the Hermitage.
The Annunciation with St. Emidius, the most famous work by the 15th century Venetian artist Carlo Crivelli (1430/35-1495?), is presented in the Hermitage in gratitude for the exposition of the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece Madonna Litta from the museum’s collection at the exhibit entitled Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan in the National Gallery, London.
This large altarpiece is signed "OPVS CAROLI CRIVELLI VENETI"("a work by Carlo Crivelli of Venice). The reference to the artist’s birthplace indicates that he was working far away from Venice; all of Carlo Crivelli’s primary works were created in the Marches, which were under the rule of Rome. The southern part of the region is home to Ascoli Piceno, a city that is associated with a significant historical event; on March 22nd, 1482, Pope Sixtus IV issued a special bulla, restoring the rights of municipal self-government. The Pontiff’s message, Libertas ecclesiastica, reached its destination on March 25th, on the Day of the Annunciation, which was then and there declared a municipal holiday. At the same time, Carlo Crivelli received the order for the altarpiece entitled the Annunciation for Santissima Annunziata (completed in 1486). Since Crivelli understood the full significance of this painting, he strove not merely to depict the biblical event, but also represent the exceptional circumstances that attended on the order.
A narrow aperture, framed with pilasters and crowned with a no less elegant moulding, opens onto the interior decoration of the room, where Maria kneels in prayer. Above the Madonna’s house rises the second floor, with a spacious balcony, creating a general impression of an aristocratic palace. Opposite it there is a similar palazzo, and the street running between them draws the gaze deeper in, where the perspective lines are closed by an arch, through which one can see the battlements that make up the perimeter of the city. In this ideal urban view, the people of Ascoli Piceno saw their native city, not as it truly was, but as a city of dreams, an image that corresponded with the cultural and aesthetic principles of the Renaissance.
The transference of a biblical event into a fantastical and yet realistic setting brought it closer to the present and satisfied the expectation of those who ordered the altar; all of the figures in the painting live in a celebratory atmosphere of happy anticipation.
Maria is illuminated by the glow of the Holy Spirit, a ray of light from the sky pierces the grilled window to reach her. This light, however, is invisible for the numerous figures that fill the background and foreground; these are the people of the city of Ascoli Piceno. All of them, occupying themselves with unhurried conversation on the steps of the palace, standing on the gallery or just strolling in the garden, are full of aching anticipation; those who cannot cope with the excitement gaze intently into the sky. They too are waiting for the "Good News;" it is no accident that the figure beside the Archangel Gabriel is Saint Emidius, the patron of the city, with a model of Ascoli Piceno in his hands. Carrier pigeons can be seen sitting on poles, which is exactly how the papal bulla was delivered to the city. A person standing on the arch is reading the message that the bird has just delivered. The only intermediary between the viewer and the figures in the painting is a little child; only he is permitted to behold the mystery of the Annunciation. The text on the moulding along the lower edge of the painting refers to an event that served as the occasion for the creation of the altar; LIBERTAS ECCLESIASTICA, the coats of arms of Pope Innocent III and Father Caffarelli are also there.
Carlo Crivelli strove to depict the entire world, as seen through the eyes of a 15th century artist. In the foreground, one can see an apple, symbolizing original sin, and a cucumber, symbolizing fertility and the Garden of Eden. Both fruits are "tricks" of a sort; the cucumber seems to move out of the background, moving from the space of the painting into reality. The peacock that sits solemnly on the cornice of the second floor is a hint of immortality, of the eternal life that awaits the righteous. Despite the abundance of graphic details, the composition does not seem overburdened; thanks to his highly developed sense of harmony, Carlo Crivelli was able to preserve the balance of the piece. It is no accident that the artist won glory as a master of delicate, refined style; he enriched the devices traditionally used by the Venetians with confident drawing and the contrasting interplay of light and dark, with mathematically accurate composition of space and architecture, a Jeweler’s attention to forms, the grace and elegance of his figures, which seem to have come out of the pages of tales of chivalry.
The curator of the exhibit is Irina Sergeyevna Artemyeva, the head academic associate of the Department of Western European fine art of the State Hermitage Museum and the holder of Ph.D. in Art History. The State Hermitage Musem’s publishing house has prepared an illustrated booklet for this exhibit, which was written by I.S. Artemyeva.