PRINT September 2005


Fra Angelico

A MERE THREE YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH IN 1455, Fra Angelico was described by a fellow friar as “the greatest master of painting in Italy.” But his afterlife depends on something more than a claim to pictorial mastery. The Florentine friar-painter was officially beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1984, meaning that the artist’s upcoming monographic show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York is not only his first in more than fifty years, but also the first such exhibition devoted to the work of a saint—or, at least, a near saint. (Artists in particular are encouraged to pray for his intercession.)

Born around 1395, the prosaically named Guido di Pietro entered the Observant (or reformed) Dominicans around 1421, already having been a painter since about 1417. As Fra Giovanni, he held a number of important posts, including that of prior at the order’s convent in Fiesole. His closeness to Pope Nicholas V, for whom Fra Giovanni would paint some of his greatest late frescoes, was undoubtedly helpful to the prestige of the congregation. Only after the artist’s death, however, do we hear of his extraordinary personal piety. The Dominican poet Fra Domenico da Corella first remarked on the “angelic” quality of Fra Giovanni’s painting and attributed it to the man himself, defending the moniker angelico by pointing specifically to a late work—a set of painted cabinet doors for the Servite Church of the Most Holy Annunciation in Florence (ca. 1450). “Rich in skill and unerring in religion,” Corella asserted, Giovanni was possessed of the necessary grace to paint the Virgin—the implicit association here being with the founding miracle of the Servite order and the Annunziata itself (the church still displays a miraculous fresco of the Annunciation, its properties owing to the fact that it was brought to completion not by the tricks of human art, but by the intervention of an angel).

Following Corella, Fra Giovanni was regularly referred to as a pictor angelicus, a designation evoking the great Dominican doctor angelicus, St. Thomas Aquinas. The climax of this early hagiographical tendency appeared in Vasari’s biographies of 1550 and 1568, which provided such details as the image of the artist weeping as he painted a Crucifixion, and the pope’s plan to appoint him archbishop of Florence.

Angelico’s work after joining the Observant Dominicans was a pathbreaking application of the new pictorial science of Brunelleschi and Alberti. He demonstrated a mastery of perspective; few others working in the 1430s could arrange their figure compositions so convincingly in luminous painted architectural and landscape space. One of his most significant innovations was the use of
a simple rectangular format for altarpieces, more adaptable to the creation of three-dimensional space than the traditional polyptych format. Yet Angelico’s art could also answer to the requirements of a conservative sector of the art market, who wanted traditional hallmarks of good workmanship and reference to approved prototypes from past art. If anything, his painting manifested the vitality and assimilative possibilities of a Tuscan tradition extending back to Giotto and the Lorenzetti brothers. For example, his early reinterpretations of the Annunciation as a single-panel altarpiece (Madrid and Cortona), where painted architecture both proposed and transgressed the traditional divisions of a triptych, were further developments of the Lorenzetti experiments in the fourteenth century.

There were signs, however, of nervousness among early commentators about the sheer aesthetic interest of his work. In his preface to Dante’s Divine Comedy of 1481, the humanist Cristoforo Landino deliberately wove together two schemes of value when referring to the artist, describing him as “angelic, and blithe, and devout, and very ornate with great facility”—as if the writer was aware that a tension between the work and the painter’s persona needed to be reconciled. Angelico’s art embodied the urbane values of literary and courtly sophistication, characterized by grace and an effortless charm in which no painstaking effort was conspicuously invested; but his persona exemplified the otherworldliness of the saint and the mystic. Even his tomb epitaph, in the Convent of the Minerva in Rome, bid the observer not to praise him as a “new Apelles” (the standard classical term of approval for a virtuoso) but to recall how his earnings were always given to the poor.

Is there any necessary contradiction here? Most fifteenth-century Florentines were untroubled by any possibility of a conflict between true devotion and the seductions of expensive and luxuriant craftsmanship. It was by honoring God in this way—through conspicuous expenditure—that a society of bankers and cloth merchants invested in the salvation of its soul. In this context, Angelico, who was both devoto and ornato, would represent the exemplary congruence between an absolute, unalloyed, and orthodox Christian faith and the always potentially specious splendors of human artifice, illusion, ornament, and craft. Yet even within his cloister, Fra Giovanni would have been exposed to pressing scruples about the risks of stylistic refinement and material extravagance in the promotion of sacred truth. On one side, humanists like Alberti and Landino praised eloquence grounded in classical literature and elegance that emulated classical art. On the other, erudite clerics—several from Angelico’s own order—defended the simplicity and “rusticity” of scripture (embarrassingly unrefined in humanist terms) and of the ideal Christian life. Angelico himself was certainly aware that the vanguard of Florentine art in his generation had created a mode of expression that pursued emotional conviction and rejected ornamental finesse, lending itself to an understanding precisely in terms of sacred rusticity (think of the rugged, vagabond saints of Donatello, Masaccio, and Castagno).

The responses to Angelico’s art over the centuries are indicative of a need that lies at the heart of any project of representation calling itself “Christian art.” Renaissance Christianity, for example, needed a form of human art that would correspond as closely as possible to the most ideal basis of the Christian image: the icon not made by human hands, called into being by divine agency, signifying God’s approval of sacred art. A saintly painter of angelic character could fulfill such a need, and art at its most artful is redeemed. So when radical Protestantism attacked the cult of images of the Roman church, smashing them by the thousands and accusing the pope of promoting idolatry—or when reform-minded Catholics attacked the apparently pagan sophistications of Michelangelo and his followers—Angelico’s art was at hand to attest to the possibilities of good, sincere Christian craftsmanship, which taught the faith with all the suave blandishments of ornament. For Vasari, Angelico’s art was proof that there was no conflict between beauty and devotion. Writers of the Catholic Reform, like Bishop Gabriele Paleotti of Bologna, who attacked the excesses of modern painters, cited Angelico as an approved model of the Christian artist.

A rather different spirit enabled the modern recuperation of Angelico from the mid-nineteenth century onward, where an ongoing faith in the artist’s religious conviction led to his reinvention as a “primitive.” James Jackson Jarves, John Ruskin, and Alexis-François Rio saw in the friar an epitome of the unalienated craftsmanship of a true believer, for whom arduous work became inseparable from praying and the expression of authentic religious simplicity, uncontaminated by the rampant and propagandizing Catholicism that would bring the Renaissance to an end. This idea of the true believer, whose manifesto is his art, has always given the suave Angelico a radical edge not afforded his supposedly more worldly contemporaries. Even today, there is no account of Angelico the painter that is not that of Angelico the Christian mystic. This remains true of Georges Didi-Huberman’s 1990 study Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration, in which he attempts to grasp the assertively inventive strangeness of the decorated world in Angelico’s paintings, the tendency of the artist’s draperies, marbles, and landscape settings to assume a kind of mesmerizingly nondescriptive or abstract character. Far from taking this quality as the sign of an artist engaged by purely formal thinking, Didi-Huberman views all as a kind of pictorial theology, a mode of signifying the immaterial and the invisible, a testimony to the limits of representation.

Angelico himself is represented well in North American collections, especially in the form of small panels and fragments of larger ensembles. Many of these are to appear in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition, which will boast nearly eighty drawings and paintings from throughout Angelico’s career. Important European loans will enable the partial reconstruction of seven long- dismembered altarpieces, as well as one that will be reassembled in its entirety. Some problems familiar to Renaissance scholars will be revisited in this exhibition: The relation of Fra Angelico to the art of book illumination, the division of labor between Angelico and followers such as Zanobi Strozzi and Benozzo Gozzoli, and the vexed question of his early work. One problematic panel in the Met’s collection is now a focus of debate once again. Known as the Griggs Crucifixion, dated around 1420 and long attributed to Giovanni Toscani, the panel was recently reidentified as one of the earliest known works by Angelico. If this is the case (visually it is not self-evident), it is striking to reflect on qualities manifest in the work at this early moment, especially with regard to affective aspects, which are nowhere near as pronounced in Angelico’s more familiar production. The figures reveal an anguished emotionalism that finds a parallel in the work of Masaccio and Donatello. The temper of classical Fra Angelico is generally far more abstract and contemplative, sustained by the grace of bodies making gestures of ritual observance, by landscapes transfigured in golden sunlight. When Christ’s blood flows, it is the occasion of gentle rapture, not of violence and shock. (The horrifying but canonical subject of the Massacre of the Innocents is portrayed by the friar only once, at the end of his career.) There is one later Angelico, however, in which intense emotionalism is allowed to make a rare appearance: a rendering of the Last Judgment, ca. 1435–40, now in Berlin (very different from an earlier treatment still in Florence), in which bodies smile or even laugh, in which the blessed kiss in ecstasy and the damned tear their hair or claw and bite each other, as though the friar had allowed himself the indulgence of drawing on Dante. But beyond the Griggs Crucifixion, such euphoria and violence will not be conspicuous in the Met show. Instead, the suave elegance of the works on display can be seen as a kind of paradoxical asceticism, as if the friar was deliberately foreswearing the emotional rhetoric that so engaged his fellow artists under the sway of Donatello.

Stephen J. Campbell is a professor of Renaissance art at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

“Fra Angelico” will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 26, 2005–Jan. 29, 2006.