Almost every work in this small collection hanging in the former church of the Gesu is a masterpiece, with pride of place belonging to Fra' Angelico and Luca Signorelli. Fra Angelico, who was known during his life as Fra Giovanni, trained as an illuminator, joined the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, outside Florence, sometime around 1420, and had been elevated in parlance as the Angelic Painter by the time of his death in 1455. He did several Annunciations, and the one here, an altarpiece from 1436, shows his command of minute detail (obviously the hallmark of his training as an illustrator) in the delicate feathers on Gabriel's wings, the angel’s precious garment embroidered in gold, the Virgin’s elaborate robes, and the carpet of wildflowers (the new Eden) on which her house sits. The artist’s astute mastery of perspective is evident in the way the picture extends in spaces beyond the bed chamber and into the garden beyond the loggia.
Luca Signorelli was born in Cortona around 1450. He is best known for his terrifying depiction of the “Last Judgment,” with its scores of nude figures, in the cathedral of Orvieto . He painted the “Deposition” on view here for the cathedral in Cortona in 1502, and instilled Christ with so much realism and passion that a legend soon began to circulate that he modeled the figure on his son, who died of the plague that year. As Vasari wrote, “overwhelmed with grief as he was, he had the body stripped, and with the greatest fortitude of soul, without tears or lamentation, he made a drawing of it, to have always before his eyes what Nature had given him . . . and what cruel fate had snatched away.” The story is unfounded, though there’s no doubt about Signorelli’s telltale style. As in his works in Orvieto, the painting is packed with action, detail, and complex medieval symbolism: the crucifixion, the resurrection, and a surreal city by a lake all in the background, and in the foreground a swooning Mary, a blonde Christ, and a saint pocketing a crucifixion nail and the crown of thorns—presumably destined for numerous Italian reliquaries. Signorelli’s “Communion of the Apostles” (1512) is in the same room, showing the artist’s strong sense of perspective and architectural space; notice Judas in the foreground, hiding the host in his purse—ashamed of his imminent betrayal, he can't swallow it.