It is one of the contradictions of the age of information that much of what is transmitted in the public domain is of less worth than the technology that made it available. So much the more delightful, then, is an event like the recent exhibition of the work of the Renaissance painter known as Fra Angelico at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which gave the American public an unprecedented opportunity to view a body of the work of an Italian artist. The most important group of Fra Angelico’s works are painted on the walls of the monastery of San Marco in Florence. It was a challenge to put together a group of paintings without the frescoes—his magnum opus—that could give a fair picture of the artist and his development. Not only did the organizers of this exhibition mass together enough paintings to show the viewer the full range of his work, but they offered newly discovered paintings, newly cleaned works, and a new assessment of the artist’s career.
Fra Angelico remains one of the five most famous and admired painters of the early 15th century in Florence. Born Guido di Pietro, he took the name of Fra Giovanni when he became a Dominican monk sometime around 1420. (In Art History 101 he is thought of as the “good monk” as opposed to the other great painter-monk Fra Filippo Lippi, who had a child out of wedlock with a nun whom he subsequently married. In fairness to Lippi, it should be told that he was left on the doorstep of the monastery, and may have been guided into the order without a proper vocation.)
The name Fra Angelico is a nickname indicating the angelic quality of his painting: his unearthly colors, his spiritual faces, his clear expression of his faith that resonates from his paintings. It is true that almost all painting of the time in Italy was commissioned of the same Christian subjects, yet not all painters were able to imbue their paintings with the certainty of their own faith. In Italy he has long been known as the Beato Angelico, although he was not officially beatified until 1984, when Pope John Paul II also made him a Patron of artists.
His style is an assimilation of the Gothic past and “Renaissance” contributions to painting – such as the representation of three dimensional figures in illusionistic space, perspective, and psychological depth – together with his own love of color and detailed design. In his early works, such as the two-part Annunciation at the beginning of the exhibit, we see the Gothic past in the quatrefoil frames for the two figures and the gold-leaf characteristic of the icons of the Eastern Church which were the models for the early Renaissance. His figures, however, are not flat stylized representations of the Eastern icon but can be seen as illusions of figures as seen through the window of the picture plane.
In a later section of the exhibition, we see paintings influenced by Fra Angelico’s contemporary Masaccio, who had a complete understanding of mathematical perspective and painted figures with more bulk and presence. (Fra Angelico soon reverted to his less substantial figure type.) Throughout his works, his saints and angels have an ethereal elegance. It is amusing to note in a series of saints he painted for the high altarpiece of the San Marco that even his St. Thomas Aquinas, a saint noted for his corpulence, is barely even chubby. The artist uses his "poetic" license to show the spiritual presence as more important than the physical.
There are three or four show-stoppers in the exhibition. The panel representing Paradise, part of a Last Judgment altarpiece, is from the Met’s own collection. It is in a vertical format, showing three or more tiers of saints (mostly Dominicans) dancing their way into heaven in the company of angels. This painting is one that shows off Fra Angelico’s style as well an any: the radiant pastels of the robes of the just stand out like cut-outs against the deep green foliage of the landscape which leads up to the gold of the heavenly realm. The costumes are decorated with his extremely delicate gold filigree borders, a constant in his work from his early days as an illuminator of manuscripts.
One surprising element in Fra Angelico’s painting is that, despite the sweetness of the colors, the elaborate decoration and the holiness in the faces, his works do not come off as saccharine. It is also surprising that his figures seem spiritual when the faces tend to have eyes that are small. (It was the large eyes in the canon of Byzantine proportions that emphasized the spiritual nature of the picture—the eyes being known as “the windows to the soul.”)
If Fra Angelico’s delicate faces deviate in proportion from nature, the features are somewhat smaller than they would be in life. The faces of his many Madonnas have these small idealized features, and yet are given psychological dimension by the lips that half-smile and the eyes that are engaged with the child or the viewer so as to breathe life into the idealized features.
Much of what we know about the great artists of the Italian Renaissance comes from a painter of the 16th century, Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Painters contains many errors, as it was written in a time where anecdote was more important than written primary source material. It is encouraging to know that his misleading dates and apocryphal stories can be corrected as documents and other historical evidence has been found or deduced—even at this late date. It is also exciting that several new works have been discovered or re-attributed.
One of the stated purposes of this exhibition is to re-assess the work of this great artist. What emerges is that our age of information can assist us in knowing much even about areas that seemed to be closed cases for historical research. The exposure to one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance, and his unapologetic expression of faith was a gift to the people of New York and its many visitors.
Antonello da Messina: A rare glimpse
Overlapping with the Fra Angelico exhibition – and continuing beyond it until March 5 – is a small exhibition of works by Antonello da Messina, an Italian painter of the fifteenth century who is well known by art historians, but not nearly as famous as his near-contemporary, Fra Angelico. These paintings are joined by related works from the same period.
Two of the six by Antonello are visiting New York from Sicily. The Virgin Annunciate is one of his most famous works. The Virgin Mary is presented receiving the message of an angel, not from our left, as is usual with the composition of this subject. The angel Gabriel is presumably standing in the position of the viewer. The effect is that the viewer sees the face of the Virgin Mary in a new light, as if from a more personal vantage point.
We can compare the effect of a close-up in a movie after seeing the same event on a stage from the orchestra. The model for the Virgin seems to be painted as she was, clearly a real Sicilian girl. The book she has been reading before the entrance of the angel (traditionally the book of Isaiah which prophesies the Virgin birth) has its pages in flux as if the angel has stirred a draft as it entered.
There are traditionally several moments in the Annunciation that can be emphasized in a painting: the Virgin’s uneasiness at the apparition, her humility, her question to the angel about how she can conceive if she has made a vow of chastity, or her acceptance of God’s plan. Antonello has managed to have the Virgin face the angel with an expression that is far from timid, yet has elements of humility and modesty in both her slightly averted eyes and the hand, which instinctively pulls her drapery close to her. Her other hand is slightly extended toward the angel (it comes forward at an angle difficult to draw without a knowledge of foreshortening, the use of perspective to make objects or bodies to appear three-dimensional—a cutting-edge technique in the first half of the fifteenth century.) The hand held up signifies her contribution to the conversation, but rather than a questioning gesture, the hand seems confident. The gesture seems to represent her fiat! the “let it be done unto me” according to God’s word.
One other masterpiece, also residing normally in Sicily, is a portrait of a gentleman. It was formerly called The Unknown Sailor until an art historian pointed out that Antonello painted barons rather than sailors. Like the Virgin, this portrait is clearly a good likeness of a real individual. The element that puts it above the norm is the subject’s expression. The unknown man is almost smirking. The painting was done at a time when most portraits were in profile, like the likenesses on ancient coins, and showed features in repose. Antonello has caught the mirth of a moment, with a smile that turns up more on one side, as if amused rather than happy. The eyes look at the viewer quizzically. It is interesting to note that this smile was painted about twenty years before the famous Mona Lisa’s.
If the visitor is lucky enough to see both Italian painters, it is natural to make a comparison. Fra Angelico’s delicate beings radiate spirituality but are given human emotions by their tender expressions. The Virgin Annunciate depicts a down-to-earth peasant girl, who is raised to the appearance of a saint by the dignity of her expression.
Sarah Phelps Smith is an art historian and critic who has taught at the University of Delaware and Swarthmore College. She lives in Ohio with family of eight children.