The first American retrospective devoted to the work of the great Italian Renaissance artist known as Fra Angelico (1390/5-1455) – and the first comprehensive presentation of his work assembled anywhere in the world in half a century – opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on October 26. More than 50 public institutions and private collections in Europe and America will participate in the landmark exhibition, which commemorates the 550th anniversary of the artist's death. Fra Angelico will feature nearly 75 paintings, drawings, and manuscript illuminations from throughout his career, supplemented by 45 additional works by his assistants and closest followers. Highlights of the exhibition include recently discovered paintings and new attributions, paintings never before displayed publicly, and reconstructed groupings of works, some of them reunited for the first time.
"The subtlety and technical sophistication of Fra Angelico's mind and hand are among the characteristics that set him apart from other artists of the Italian Renaissance," commented Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum. "The exhibition Fra Angelico illustrates the artist's endlessly fertile imagination and incomparable craftsmanship, as well as the reach and continuity of his influence into the second half of the 15th century."
Biography of the Artist
Born in the countryside north of Florence, Guido di Pietro was already an established artist when he joined the Dominican order sometime between 1419 and 1422, taking for himself the name Fra Giovanni. He received commissions for important altarpieces from his own monastery San Domenico in Fiesole, from other Dominican houses in Florence, Cortona, and Perugia, and from religious institutions as far away as Brescia in the north of Italy and Orvieto and Rome to the south. His prominence as an artist was challenged in Florence only by the brief and meteoric career of Masaccio (1401-1428), many of whose innovations Angelico anticipated in his own, still little-understood early works. By the time Masaccio left Florence for Rome in 1427, Angelico was indisputably the leading painter in Tuscany, a position he maintained for nearly 30 years, eclipsing the reputations of such gifted artists as Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), Domenico Veneziano (about 1410-1461), and even the young Piero della Francesca (about 1406/12-1492).
Known for his pious treatment of religious subjects – which he portrayed with unprecedented psychological penetration and a compelling realism – Fra Giovanni was first called "pictor angelicus," the Angelic Painter, shortly after his death in 1455, a name that came to be rendered in English as Fra Angelico. In 1984, Fra Angelico was beatified – the first step in the process toward sainthood – by Pope John Paul II, who also decreed him the patron of artists.
Much of Angelico's enduring popularity rests on his frescoes – especially those painted in the dormitory cells at the convent of San Marco in Florence – and on altarpieces too large to be safely transported. Instead, the exhibition will bring together a nearly complete selection of his works of smaller scale, presenting the entire range of the development of his genius over the full course of his career. Even in his most intimate creations – illuminated initials in liturgical manuscripts – Fra Angelico remained a monumental artist, conceiving narrative, drama, and human form with a grandeur that belied their physical format. His predella panels (the small painted scenes beneath large altarpieces) are among the most forward-looking and innovative works produced in 15th-century Florence, while his images of the Virgin and Child still retain their inspirational immediacy and presence, as well as their striking beauty.
The exhibition was arranged chronologically and by attribution. The first decade of Fra Angelico's career, until about 1422, was explored in a group of 17 paintings and drawings, which ranged from two recently discovered panels that may be his first efforts as an independent artist to his high altarpiece commissioned for the newly founded convent of San Domenico in Fiesole. Thirty-four additional works on panel, paper, and parchment chronicled his rise to prominence in Florence over the next ten years and his development of a distinctive personal style that paved the way for many of the accomplishments of later Renaissance painters in Tuscany. Chief among these were the panels of a monumental tabernacle triptych now divided among museums in Munich, London, and Parma; the only two surviving independent drawings by Angelico's hand; and ten of the 11 known panels from a reconstructed altarpiece painted for the Da Filicaia family chapel in the church of Santa Croce. The survey of the artist's career concluded with 24 of the finest paintings from the period of his full maturity, including nine fragments from the high altarpiece painted about 1440 for the convent church of San Marco and his last known autograph work, a Crucifixion painted for the Spanish Cardinal, Juan de Torquemada, now in the Fogg Art Museum.
The second half of the exhibition was dedicated to five of Angelico's assistants and followers, each of whom was introduced in the catalogue by a monographic essay and in the exhibition by a representative selection of works.
Five paintings by Battista di Biagio Sanguigni, Angelico's first documented colleague, included two panels from the altarpiece dated 1419, which formerly served as the artist's name-piece (Master of 1419) and three other paintings not previously recognized as his.
Zanobi Strozzi, who worked alongside Angelico intermittently for nearly 20 years, was represented by 22 paintings, drawings, and manuscript illuminations culled from every decade of his career. Some of these are new attributions as well; and several are executed in collaboration with other artists, including Fra Angelico himself.
Two of the exceptionally rare works by the Master of the Sherman Predella were included, along with a curatorial conjecture for that artist's identification.
Five paintings by Francesco Pesellino – perhaps the most influential artist active in Florence at mid-century – commemorated his stylistic debt to Angelico and his brief partnership with Zanobi Strozzi prior to his emergence as an independent master.
The presence of Benozzo Gozzoli in Fra Angelico's shop was investigated through collaborative works and a selection of paintings from his later career, illustrating the continuity of this tradition nearly to the end of the 15th century.
A fully illustrated catalogue, published by the Metropolitan Museum and distributed by Yale University Pres.
From a review in the NY Times:
National Gallery, London
"18 Blessed of the Dominican Order."
National Gallery of Art
"Attempted Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian."
Graphische Sammlung, Albertina
"Christ on the Cross," pen and brown ink, with red wash, on paper.
Vatican Museums, Vatican City
"The Stigmatization of Saint Francis," from the Vatican Museums
From another review:
Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1390/95-1455)
The Nativity, ca. 1429-30
Tempera and gold on panel
11 3/8 x 7 7/16 in.
Pinacoteca Civica, Forlì, Italy
© Nazario Spadoni, Forlì
Presumably part of a portable altarpiece, Fra Angelico's Nativity (ca. 1429-30) is an unusual nocturnal study of the infant Jesus' birth. The artist painted the manger, wherein the Holy Family resides and surmounted by nine haloed angels, at a sharp angle to the picture plane. In the foreground are: Saint Joseph, arms reverentially crossed; the glistening Christ Child; and the diminutive Virgin Mary, hands pressed against each other in a prayerful stance. Fra Angelico's depiction of the Madonna bears a sharp resemblance to others taken from illuminated manuscripts of the times. Behind her are a benign mule and ox in seated postures. The complacent animals and the manger's increasingly dark background suggest depth...
Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1390/95-1455)
The Virgin of Humility, ca. 1436-38
Tempera on panel
29 1/8 x 24 in.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
© Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Fra Angelico's Virgin of Humility (ca. 1436-38) from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam dates to the artist's period of artistic maturity. In a radical and innovative departure from the accepted canon of artistic symbols during the Italian Renaissance, the friar's Madonna holds a stiff sprig of lily (a Christian symbol of the Virgin Mary) in her right hand, usually reserved for interpretations of the Annunciation. Seated on a throne covered by a golden fabric with intricate designs, Fra Angelico painted the Virgin Mary with the sweeping folds of her monumental deep blue cloak. The Virgin Mother holds the infant Jesus in her left arm; the Christ Child gestures gently to grasp his mother in an endearing expression of sensitivity and humanity.
Truly the most arresting painting in the exhibition, and perhaps in all of Fra Angelico's career, is his Christ Crowned with Thorns (ca. 1438-39) from Livorno, Italy. A radical departure from his beatific angels and inspired scenes of the Nativity, this brilliant introspective tempera and gold on panel masterpiece has been the subject of much scholarly debate, due to its stylistic affinity with an early Netherlandish painting of the same subject by Jan van Eyck (act. 1422; d. 1441). Fra Angelico's confrontational composition is a visually disturbing bust-length portrait of Christ having been crowned with thorns while alive and before his imminent crucifixion. Traces of blood realistically trail over Christ's savaged face. His eyes reddened by agony and set deeply within the Savior's head, this iconic image is prophetic. The gold collar around Christ's neck identifies him as the King of Kings in Latin, words from the Book of the Apocalypse inscribed on the rim of Jesus' mantle
Another good review