If Thomas Aquinas is the Angelic Doctor, fellow Dominican Fra Angelico is surely the Angelic Painter.
But maybe I'm biased. I've just come from the landmark exhibit of Fra Angelico's works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City — and been awed by what I saw.
Having assembled the first wide-ranging retrospective of Fra Angelico's works ever put on display in this country, the Met has timed its show with the 550th anniversary of the artistic master's death in Rome. The exhibit opened Oct. 26 and will run until Jan. 29. (For hours and directions, go to metmuseum.org.)
Here for the ogling — and contemplating — are more than 70 of his paintings, drawings and illuminations, along with an additional 40 or so works by his assistants and imitators.
Step by step, this visual feast reminds you why Fra Angelico was the preeminent painter in 15th-century Florence and beyond. This was clearly a Renaissance artist whose vision and talent were natural extensions of his faith.
This, in turn, helps explain why Fra Angelico, born Guido di Pietro between 1390-95, is now counted among the blesseds: Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1984, naming him patron of painters.
The friar's paint itself seems to have been snatched straight out of heaven. Right from his earliest efforts, he managed to bring forth vibrant, shimmering, seemingly self-illuminating images. Based on that aspect alone, the term “sacred art” seems apt.
And then there's the content. Clearly, Fra Angelico did nothing less than shout the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the rooftops, and tirelessly. It's just that his rooftop was the canvas and his voice, the brush.
I noted that he was particularly gifted, and particularly interested in, Virgin and Child motifs. I gazed long upon the large Virgin and Child Enthroned, watching Jesus sit happily on his mother's lap, reaching playfully for a perfect bunch of grapes she's holding.
This tempura-on-wood painting from his early years already hints at the powerful way he was to infuse all his scenes throughout his career with carefully considered spirituality and emotion. Both Mary and Jesus appear with a majestic humility — or is it a humble majesty? Mary doesn't look directly at her Son but gazes off, as if into the future. Her contemplative eyes already seem to catch a distant glimpse of the Last Supper and Crucifixion.
In the “Years in Transition” section is probably the most remarkable depiction of mother and child I've ever laid eyes on, Virgin and Child with Five Angels. It's an astonishing scene, possibly the first Fra Angelico did in what would be considered Renaissance style, boasting some of the most brilliant colors in the house. Jesus stands on Mary's lap, his cheek to hers. He clutches a lily; she holds a golden vase with three flowers and a lily. Mary's serenity surpasses human understanding; Jesus’ joy is palpable.
The Virgin's wide golden halo glistens three-dimensionally, and it's embossed with fancy gold-on-gold filigrees. Into the halo Fra Angelico wove letters proclaiming: “Ave Maria Gratia Plena.” The same words are repeated in the delicate, embroidered edges of her bright blue cloak.
The ornate tapestry that three of the angels drape for the royal background behind Mary and Jesus is an intriguing study of intricate floral and geometric detail.
Several similar pictures are called Virgin of Humility. In one from c.1436-38, Mary looks directly and humbly at her young son, who again and again stands on her lap.
Subtle touches, provoking thought as well as emotion, characterize all Fra Angelico's depictions of Gospel events. Indeed, making my way through the paintings, I couldn't help but note that Fra Angelico had an exceptionally keen intuition for translating the Word of God into works inspired by God.
Directly so? The friar himself seems to have thought that. “It was his habit never to retouch or alter any of his paintings,” wrote Georgio Vasari in his 16th-century Lives of the Artists, “but to leave them as they came the first time, believing, as he said, that such was the will of God.”
For example, even in this show's predella altarpieces — small scenes beneath large pieces from the high altars — Fra Angelico turns the saints’ facial expressions into insightful snapshots of their thoughts and emotions. On either side of Christ the Man of Sorrows, for instance, St. John weeps in silent anguish while Mary Magdalene's face reflects the pain in her heart.
In another, a wing from a triptych, St. Dominic gazes unfocused to ground as his mind carefully ponders a point John the Baptist makes on their walk together.
Dramatic narrative and riveting realism characterize all the scenes, from the last-minute rescue in the panel depicting St. Nicholas Saving Three Innocent Men Condemned to Death, to the more serene Naming of John the Baptist, one of a set of five predella panels. Like so many scenes, Fra Angelico sets this event amid Tuscan details, from the courtyard architecture to the expectant women neighbors decked out in Renaissance clothing.
One of his most recognizable paintings, tempura and gold on panel, is the head and shoulders portrait of Christ Crowned With Thorns. I stood speechless before the unforgettably pained eyes and expression of our Lord. His blood-filled eyes and mouth beneath the crown of thorns, and above his wide golden collar inscribed Rex Regnum — King of Kings — was inspired most likely by the accounts of the Passion by 14th-century mystic St. Bridget of Sweden.
Vasari gives another hint as to Fra Angelico's interior life when he writes: “He … [was] often saying that he who represents the things of Christ should always live with Christ.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.