The Painted Visions of Fra Angelico
“I, for my part, can truthfully say that whenever I see this painting, it seems to be for the first time, and that I can never have my fill of it.” Thus wrote Giorgio Vasari, known as the father of art history, in 1550 about “The Coronation of the Virgin” (ca. 1450) by Fra Angelico, the saintly Dominican friar-painter who is the subject of an enchanting special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until Jan. 29, 2006. A higher compliment for a work of art is scarcely imaginable. Yet, Vasari continues, “Those blessed spirits [therein depicted], one imagines, must appear in heaven just as Fra Angelico has painted them...because they are all full of life, their expressions are gentle and charming, and, moreover, the coloring could well be the work of one of the angels or saints themselves. So we can understand why the good friar was always called Fra Giovanni Angelico.”
Not only did Fra Giovanni paint like an angel; he was, in his personal life, an angel himself. The friar’s “angelic” style and “rare and perfect talent,” Vasari informs us, were the result of a “simple and devout life”:
Fra Angelico was most gentle and temperate and lived chastely, withdrawn from the snares of the world. He would often comment that the man who occupies himself with the things of Christ should cling to Christ.... It is also said that he would never take up his brushes without a prayer. Whenever he painted a Crucifixion, the tears would stream down his face; and it is no wonder that the faces and attitudes of his figures express the depth and sincerity of his Christian piety.
Thus began, through the vastly influential pen of Giorgio Vasari, the long-enduring “angelic” reputation of Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (born near Florence ca. 1390/5, died in Rome in 1455), about whose personal life, however, we possess very little documentary evidence. If Vasari is to be believed—as he was for centuries—the Dominican master’s distinctively graceful, “mystical” style not only had no peers among his contemporaries; it had essentially no connection to the revolutionary technical developments of the new Renaissance pictorial imagination then being developed in Fra Angelico’s Florence, most notably by Masaccio (1401-28). One of the last flowerings of the Gothic style amid the burgeoning of Renaissance classicizing humanism, Fra Angelico’s style was treated as a nearly supernatural phenomenon, unique and solitary. This assessment was readily accepted and further popularized by the 19th-century Pre-Raphaelites and other Romantic critics, including John Ruskin, who on visiting the Florentine convent of San Marco in 1848 declared Fra Angelico’s frescoes there to be not works of art but “visions.”
Not only did Fra Giovanni paint like an angel; he was, in his personal life, an angel himself. The friar’s “angelic” style and “rare and perfect talent,” Vasari informs us, were the result of a “simple and devout life.”
More recently, explicitly citing Vasari as his principal authority, Pope John Paul II celebrated the painter-friar in very much the same terms in the papal document Qui Res Christi Gerit, issued on the pope’s initiative (motu proprio) on Oct. 3, 2002. With that personal letter (not a step in the process of canonization, as mistakenly reported by the Met and others), the pope also granted to the Dominican Order approval for their observance of the liturgical cult of “Frater Ioannis Faesulanus” and formally conferred upon Fra Angelico what had long been his traditional, popular title, Beatus, “Blessed.”
“The Coronation of the Virgin,” much praised by Vasari, is not included in the Met’s exhibition (superbly organized by Laurence Kanter, chief curator of the museum’s great Lehman Collection), but that is no reason to think less of the show. The exhibition represents a remarkable achievement and a once-in-a-lifetime event. Spanning the artist’s entire professional career, it collects a prodigious number of objects from around the world, among them new discoveries and new attributions, newly cleaned and restored pieces, rarely seen items from private collections or dispersed fragments of larger composite works seen here together again after centuries of separation. It also has the distinction of being the first major monographic exhibition devoted to the artist in 50 years (since the 1955 anniversary celebration in Florence) and the first ever hosted in the United States.
Why the rarity of Fra Angelico exhibitions? The principal reason is simply that most of the artist’s best works are either frescos still embedded in their original walls or large wooden altarpieces that are too fragile to ship long distances. (Another reason might be the marked decline of Fra Angelico’s popularity since that 1955 anniversary—but more about this later.) Hence, the present exhibition includes only small to medium-sized panels (as well as drawings and manuscript illuminations), many of which represent secondary scenes adorning the bases of disassembled altarpieces. But even these smaller works are extremely rare outside of Italy, and the opportunity to see them here gathered together is another cause for rejoicing.
Using these works to illustrate and analyze the evolution of Fra Angelico’s artistic style, the exhibition aims to overturn the long-held myth of the painter’s essential isolation from the new artistic developments of his time and place. As the introductory wall panel states, “It is in an effort to restore his reputation as one of the pioneers of the stylistic revolution known as the Italian Renaissance and as one of the greatest masters of the Western pictorial tradition that this exhibition is dedicated.” Not surprisingly, it turns out that the angelic friar’s style was not impervious to the influences of the new humanistic art and did indeed contribute and respond to the new ways of representing reality, especially with respect to the construction of perspective and the rendering of more naturalistic human figures. In truth, the scholarly task of demonstrating this began years ago, even before the mounting of this exhibition; but, to be sure, this exhibition and its excellent catalogue advance the pace considerably.
As important as all this close analysis of style and technique might be for art historians and professional connoisseurs, it probably does not represent the focus of attention of the average visitor to the exhibit. In this respect, in its exclusive emphasis on technical matters of style and connoisseurship, the Met’s exhibition is faithful to what the big public museums conceive as their narrow, traditional role in the presentation of art, ignoring the growing public desire for another type of exhibition, more thematic in nature, that places the works more explicitly in the historic, social and religious context of which they are a direct product and reflection. It would be difficult for me to count the number of regular museum visitors (among them highly educated people) who have told me in the past several years that they find it difficult to be truly engaged and excited by a work of art (especially pre-1800 art) merely on the basis of style and technique. Instead, once they know more about its historical milieu, its subject matter and the originally intended message (most Old Master paintings have a carefully constructed message), they respond more enthusiastically and more appreciatively to those formal, technical qualities by which the subject matter and message are communicated.
Some of the works on display in Fra Angelico cry out for historical explanation. For instance, one of the most striking and most touching of the images is “The Meeting of St. Dominic and St. Francis,” a detail from “Virgin of Humility.” Kneeling at the feet of the Madonna, Dominic and Francis face each other with frontal directness, their eyes fixed on each other and their outstretched hands united in a warm, tight clasp. A common scene in Dominican and Franciscan art, the image makes sense only when we know of the often bitter rivalry between the religious orders founded by the two saints. Elsewhere, of all the possible scenes from the life of St. James the Apostle, why was that of “James Freeing the Magician Hermogenes” chosen? Might it have something to do with the Franciscan campaign against witchcraft then being waged, especially through the revivalist sermons of the charismatic Bernardino of Siena, who had preached to overflowing crowds in the very same church for which this altarpiece was made, only shortly before its making?
Moreover, we come across many allusions in the exhibition and catalogue to the involvement of Pope Eugene IV in Fra Angelico’s Florence and in his career. Isn’t it pertinent to our understanding of the friar’s artistic vision to know that his childhood and much of his adult life were lived in the spiritually and ecclesiastically unsettled aftermath of the Great Schism of the Western Church (1378-1417), which had sown chaos in the papacy and throughout all ranks of the Italian church? A reflection of this is the fact that Pope Eugene IV was living in exile in Fra Angelico’s Florence from 1434 to 1443, having had to flee in disguise from the violently angry populace of Rome.
Despite the lack of historical contextualization, visitors to “Fra Angelico” will happily find that even among these modestly sized works, what has been most celebrated in Beato Giovanni’s style is here in abundant evidence: the exquisitely delicate, masterful draughtsmanship; the rich, bold, luxurious colors in wonderful juxtaposition; the charmingly wrought human figures, especially the Madonna and Child, and saints who exude an ineffable ethereal quality and a grace, both corporal and spiritual (even in the midst of martyrdom, as Cosmas and Damian), that would not be equaled until Raphael. What struck me with greater force this time was the stirring realism and deep psychological “presence” of Fra Angelico’s faces, some of which must be portraits from life (e.g., “St. Anthony Abbot”). This, however, is true principally of his male faces, and not his more generically wrought female ones, perhaps not surprising in a celibate painter who lived and worked in exclusively male environments.
The scene that was most arresting for me, and I suspect for many viewers, is the unique and powerfully confrontative “Christ Crowned With Thorns.” Richly wrought in black and red and gold, it starkly contrasts the regal divinity of Jesus with his suffering humanity, vividly communicated even down to the unusual detail of the thoroughly bloodshot eyes. The latter detail, the accompanying label explains, comes from that medieval best-seller, the mystical Revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden, who says she received much of her information directly from the Blessed Virgin herself.
One would need to consult the text of Bridget’s Revelations to see whether she also specifies the further detail that Christ, Mary, the angels and most of the female saints were of the blond-haired, fair-eyed, white-skinned type that Fra Angelico uniformly presents. The blessed friar simply could not bring himself to depict them as the darker Mediterranean Semites and Latins that most of these personages historically were. This brings us to what for many today represents a considerable obstacle to the embracing of Fra Angelico’s art as a truly engaging, timely expression of Christian piety. There is too much ethereal sweetness and otherworldly charm, too many blond, alabaster-skinned angels and saints. This might make him ideal for Christmas cards and postage stamps, but can his art speak to us today as it did in centuries past? Can we identify with his world? In the post-World War II period, Fra Angelico’s appeal declined markedly among the general public, as even the more conservatively devout flocked in greater numbers and with greater enthusiasm to the more gritty, more earth-bound, un-idealizing devotional art of a Caravaggio. Caravaggio, that intriguing bad boy of the Baroque, seems to understand better the complexity, ambiguity and shadow side of all human experience, including the religious.
But who knows? Much has changed in our society in the past few years; maybe the times are ripe for a Fra Angelico revival.