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Issue Date:  December 16, 2005

The gentle art of Fra Angelico

A retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum showcases the originality of a Renaissance master


On the crosstown bus through Central Park, I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged, distinguished-looking Italian man sitting next to me. I was on my way to see the Fra Angelico exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum and asked him if he’d been to the exhibition. “Oh, yes,” he said. “We Italians believe that if you don’t know anything about art, you know nothing of life.”

And what a lot there is to learn about both art and life from the Met’s marvelous Fra Angelico show. On exhibit through Jan. 29, it is the first retrospective of his work ever mounted in the United States. There are close to 65 paintings, drawings and manuscript illuminations from this artist who served as a bridge from the Gothic world to the new humanism of the Renaissance.

Born Guido di Pietro, north of Florence, to “parents unknown,” during the last decade of the 14th century, “Fra Angelico” began his apprenticeship with the respected artist Lorenzo Monaco but soon developed his own individual style, introducing a sense of realism that was gentle and serene. Indeed, an “ideal realism” is perhaps the best descriptive of Fra Angelico’s work, notable for its luminous colors and delicate lines.

Though he became a successful artist, Fra Angelico led a modest life. He was a Dominican friar, known as Fra Giovanni, and he remained faithful to his religious calling even as his artistic reputation grew. Humble, even ego-less, his art is remarkable for its innocence and ingenuousness, and he earned the honorific title of “Fra Beato Angelico,” or the “Blessed Angelic One,” soon after his death in 1455. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1984 as the “patron of painters.”

Fra Angelico was influenced by two giants of the art world. The first was Giotto, who had painted a set of important frescoes at Padua, near Venice. The scenes in the Arena chapel told the life of the Virgin and Christ and took a year (1305-1306) to complete. When Dante saw them, he lauded Giotto as the greatest painter of his time. The large compositions were truly original, bringing a revolutionary realism, depth, perspective and emotion to these biblical episodes. Then the returning Crusaders brought back the plague. Two-thirds of Europe’s population was decimated, and 70 years of chaos followed. Everything went under, including the art world.

It is from this darkness that Fra Angelico emerged. While his interpretations of religious subjects were sought after for their gentle beauty, he also experimented with perspective, shading, architecture and landscape. This is evident in the enormously complex first predella in the show, one of five small panels for the altar of Santa Lucia da Filicaia that were brought together from far-flung locales to be seen here in sequence as they were meant to be viewed. Painted in 1429-1430, these predellas would have been at the lower edge of an altarpiece and are no more than 10 by nine inches, with the exception of the center one being double-length. The first tells of St. James meeting with Hermogenes, freeing him of demons in a Christian act and giving him his staff for further divine protection. This is clear, precise painting in composition, detail and narrative, and gives us past, present and future in one complete package.

The fourth of these small panels, and my favorite, is quite different. Almost a monotone, with little depth, it shows a minute St. Agatha, in white, accompanied by four angels floating over her golden sarcophagus. Below are two seated and sleeping figures. St. Lucy has brought her aged and ailing mother to this unadorned darkish red chapel. She is having a dream-vision that tells her if she dedicates her life to the poor, her mother will be healed. In its understatement and in the flatness of its tonality, it reminds me of Matisse’s “Large Red Interior.” If there were one work that I could take home from the show, this would be it.

The second painter who influenced Fra Angelico was the brilliant but short-lived Massacio (1401-28), who brought to the Renaissance greater naturalism, proper perspective and visibly correct anatomy. His frescoes, across the Arno in Florence, were seen by everyone, and some years later Michelangelo got his nose broken in a fight defending their importance. Massacio was the first artist to show the Christ child as a plump baby stuffing his mouth with grapes, held by his amused mother. The grapes, of course, represent the wine and eternal life of Christ. The rendering of the Baby Jesus was a departure from the norm of representing him as a tiny man rather than a child. The iconography was also original as usually the Virgin was formal and “not amused.”

This same naturalistic sensibility is in Fra Angelico’s two small panels of the Annunciatory Angel and Virgin from Munich. He uses a subtle shading over a solid form, yet he adds a feeling of divine presence. The two figures are in profile facing each other, the angel in pink on the left with a golden wing, the Virgin in a deep blue cloak with a luminous white lining implying her purity. At this revelatory moment there is a sense of blessed timelessness and perfect harmony.

There are only two drawings confirmed to be by Fra Angelico, and both are in the exhibition at the Metropolitan. The drawings alone would warrant a visit. They are exquisite. “King David Playing a Psaltery” is a small soft-toned ink portrait of a young King David. He is seated on a marble sepulcher with an almost invisible psaltery in his hands. Beneath his robes, he wears leather armor; a simple crown adorns his head as he looks up. Above his shoulders, on either side, is printed, “Prophaeta David,” the prophet and poet in repose. The drawing and the terminology come together as one. Perfection.

The other drawing is of a crucifixion. What’s so touching about “Christ on the Cross,” done in 1425-26, is that the artist has used some red pigment on the cross that shows in the halo around Christ’s bent head. Christ’s wounds are touched with red as well, with thin lines of blood dripping from his feet. Crucifixions are often overdone; this one is not. It is a poignant depiction of pain and compassion and can serve as a preamble to the extraordinary frescoes in the monks’ cells at San Marco, Florence. Here in 1438, Fra Angelico was commissioned by the Medici to paint 54 scenes. The frescoes are his masterpiece; the most famous is a life-sized Annunciation, which like some of the other frescoes is shown in reproduction at the Metropolitan.

A painting that deserves mention for its innovative treatment of composition is the “Healing of Palladia by Saints Cosmas and Damian,” done in 1442. Here the way Fra Angelico divides the space seems strikingly contemporary, almost abstract. He takes a story and puts one figure against a black doorway and another figure, who is leaving, against a pale, soft-toned ivory-colored wall. The two figures are communicating, but they are in entirely different atmospheres even though they are in the same story. If some of Fra Angelico’s work seems a throwback to the iconic elements of Byzantine formality, such examples of his mature work as this have the profound simplicity of a Mondrian.

In the last room there are several pieces by Fra Angelico’s followers, including Benozzo Gozzoli, who worked with Fra Angelico in Rome. Gozzoli was Fra Angelico’s most famous assistant, but his paintings seem raw compared to his master’s and make for an interesting contrast. With Fra Angelico’s art, the more one looks the more one sees. Though he was a simple man, his work was sophisticated: the product of a mind exploring, inventing and developing. One thinks of pre-classic Greek sculpture before the style becomes solidified and perfected. The viewer sees the moments of hesitation where the artist is learning. For instance, in the predella of St. Agatha, the gold sarcophagus in the middle ground of the picture is slightly askew as Fra Angelico struggled to master one point perspective. This gives the painting a beautiful innocence and exemplifies the exploratory aspect of great art.

Fra Angelico’s contribution to art history has sometimes been eclipsed by other artists of the Renaissance. The Metropolitan exhibition brings to the fore a master craftsman who experimented in his own way with the innovations of the Renaissance and brought them into his treatment of religious art, the main way in which the mostly illiterate population of his time learned the stories of Christ and the saints.

When one can feel and understand what an artist is saying from 600 years ago, it becomes an everlasting gift. A golden glow remains in the mind’s eye after leaving this exhibition, not only from the elaborate use of gold leaf in the panels but also from the dolce toscani, the gentle Tuscan atmosphere, luminous colors and the innate sense of spirituality found in this painter’s work.

Joyce Rezendes is a painter in New York who has taught art history at Parsons School of Design, Fashion Institute of Technology and New York University.

National Catholic Reporter, December 16, 2005

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