Gaining Perspective

Fra Angelico at the Met

In the 1430s, when the Florentine painter Fra Angelico was at the peak of his career, he composed a three-panel painting of the Last Judgment. The left panel, Paradise, shows angels dancing through a flowering meadow as they lead the redeemed toward paradise. There is a soaring of the spirit in this lyrical painting. Heaven is seen as a great dance that all the faithful are invited to attend. Standing before this work one wants to dance and kneel at the same time.

This extraordinary effect is one of the reasons that the work of Fra Angelico (c. 1395–1455), the Dominican friar who was beatified by John Paul II in 1984, remains so popular today. Prayerfulness and jubilation, a combination rarely achieved in the work of other religious artists, are the responses many people give to his work. To mark the 550th anniversary of Angelico’s death, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has brought together seventy-five of his paintings, drawings, and illuminated manuscripts. (Forty-five additional paintings by his followers are also on display.) Although Angelico’s most famous works and frescoes remain in Florence, many of his exquisite smaller works are on hand. The Met’s exhibition is the first comprehensive one on the artist mounted outside Italy. A not inconsiderable part of heaven has come to earth at the edge of Central Park and waits there to dazzle your heart and eye through January 29, 2006.

Born in the countryside north of Florence and baptized Guido di Pietro, Angelico most likely began his career as a manuscript illuminator. He later served as an apprentice in the studio of Lorenzo Monaco, a Camaldolese monk and, at the time, the best known artist in Florence. Sometime between 1419 and 1422, Angelico entered the Dominican Observant order at San Domenico in Fiesole, where he was known as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole. (He later became known as Fra Angelico.) Contrary to conventional thinking, the organizers of the Met exhibit contend, Angelico already had a “flourishing career” by the time he became a Dominican. It has long been recognized that he was a thoroughly professional craftsman, aware of recent artistic developments (in sculpture as well as painting), and highly responsive to them.

Angelico was lionized by his contemporaries; the only artist who rivaled him in popularity was Masaccio, a Florentine painter known for his innovative use of perspective. Angelico’s work fell out of favor in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but was rediscovered in the mid-nineteenth. The pre-Raphaelites adored him, the legend grew that he never painted without first praying, and John Ruskin claimed that Angelico was “not an artist properly so-called but an inspired saint.”

The first painting one sees upon visiting the exhibit is the Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Two Angels (c. 1420–21). It has suffered damage over the years, but recent cleaning makes it possible to recognize the hand of the emerging master in the naturalistic gestures, the splendid color, and the spatial depth suggested simply through the positioning of the figures. (Angelico may have been inspired here by sculptors such as Donatello.) Nearby hangs Crucifixion (1420), a panel attributed over the years to various artists but now considered to be by Angelico. Before the image of the dying (or perhaps dead) Christ, the painter has assembled a semicircle of mounted soldiers around the cross. Beneath the cross is the swooning figure of the Virgin and her mourning companions. One’s eye moves up to the cross, down to the mourners, around the ring of observers, then back again to the cross—restless, but also somehow at rest. Angelico’s ability to foster this special spiritual sense would only increase as he continued to master his craft.

The young Dominican’s first major commission, painted between 1419 and 1421, was the main altarpiece for the church of San Domenico in Fiesole. Its majestic central panel, in which the Virgin and Child are pictured enthroned among angels and saints, remains in Fiesole, but the Met’s show includes three panels that were displayed near it, including two depictions of the blessed of the Dominican Order. The dramatic interplay of the simple Dominican robes and the highly individualized faces is a sheer delight. Look for Albert the Great, or Catherine of Siena.

The success of Angelico’s early career led to a number of commissions, chiefly in Florence. The greatest works from these transitional years—The Annunciation in the Prado and The Deposition in the Museo di San Marco—could not travel to New York, but the Met has several other extraordinary panels from this period. Among them are two drawings, Christ on the Cross and Justice. Each is a marvel of delicacy and power, at once dynamic and contemplative. Naturalism and a depth of feeling are also evident in other panels from this period, especially The Meeting of St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi, a theme seldom treated before Angelico.

One of Angelico’s favorite subjects was the Madonna of Humility. In a number of paintings he would represent the Virgin and Child not enthroned but seated on a cushion, accompanied by angels or saints. Several paintings in this genre are in the exhibition, including one from the Thyssen collection in Barcelona. Even more beautiful, to my eye, is a slightly later version (c. 1428–29), from a private collection in Switzerland. Sitting on her tufted cushion, the delicate, apple-cheeked Virgin wears an intricately patterned tunic. The child stands on his mother’s left thigh, leaning into her and nuzzling her face. In his right hand is a finch, a symbol of the Passion. Three angels hold a detailed cloth of honor behind the mother and child, while St. Catherine of Alexandria and a harp-playing angel sit before them. It is a painting of refinement and religious sensitivity and, in its use of perspective, a learned response to the achievement of the recently deceased Masaccio.

A narrative lyricism emerges in Angelico’s later work, a vitality that invites meditation. A Jesuit may be pardoned for saying that Angelico seems to anticipate the spirit of meditation fostered by Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. St. Peter Preaching (c. 1435–36) gathers a bustling, attentive audience in a city piazza to hear the good news. Two panels from the Guidalotti altarpiece dedicated to St. Nicholas (c. 1437) teem with tales of his life and death against a dramatic background of slender towers and distant hills.

The artist’s most important commission came in 1438, when Cosimo de Medici asked him to decorate the Dominican friars’ new home in Florence, the church and convent of San Marco. The Met’s show has three panels from San Marco’s high altarpiece depicting the life and death of Sts. Cosmas and Damian. Painted with Angelico’s customary flair, these paintings also show the artist experimenting with geometric abstractions.

After completing his work at San Marco, Angelico became increasingly involved in administrative duties for his order. In 1445, he traveled to Rome at the behest of Pope Eugenius IV, who is said to have offered to make him bishop of Florence. When Eugenius died, Angelico stayed on to serve Nicholas V. His sublime frescoes in the Vatican’s Cappella Niccolina (1447–49) depict scenes from the lives of the early deacons, Sts. Stephen and Lawrence.

To honor the singular artist celebrated in this exhibition, one should stop and pause before the last work from his hand, Christ on the Cross, between the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist, with the Donor, Cardinal Torquemada. It is unusually well preserved, and unusually moving, a study both of mourning and of redemptive love. It alone would assure Angelico of artistic immortality. Yet he gave us so much more. Anyone who has wandered the cells and corridors of San Marco knows how much art can reveal heaven on earth. It is not too much to say that this exhibition is a similar revelation.

Published in the 2005-12-16 issue: 
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Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, is president emeritus of Georgetown University.

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