Angels and Storm Clouds

John Haber
in New York City

Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico offers an embarrassment of riches, even beyond his sultry blues, pinks, and gold. In a show dedicated to the early Renaissance painter, the Met displays not just three stages in career but practically three distinct artists. I do not even count the glimpses of his probable teacher, Lorenzo Monaco, or the room above devoted to barely known followers. That still leaves three enigmatic figures.

The Met first imagines a young artist, still struggling with the Gothic and embracing the shock of an entirely new art. Next it shows a successful master of modest panels, bringing the new style to an audience attuned to the old-fashioned decorative fancy of multiple-panel altarpieces. Last, it evokes an older painter, finding his personal reconciliation of narrative coherence and visions of the godhead. Fra Angelico's San Marco Altarpiece: Beheading of Cosmas and Damian (Louvre, c. 1440)

Together, the three compose a rare and beautiful exhibition. Like the star of the show himself, they could also sum up the first half-century of the Italian Renaissance. But how many of them really represent Fra Angelico?

A one-way ticket

I could tell you, but the curators would have to kill you—or at least qualify their more grandiose claims. One could almost name the show "Unrepresentative Work Maybe or Maybe Not by Fra Angelico" or perhaps "Fra Angelico in American Collections and a Few Other Really Nice Places." For once, however, I am not complaining. The speculation has the potential to enhance one's understanding, and so does a close look at small-scale paintings. Often, the Met brings together panels that once formed a single work, and that feat alone makes a visit worthwhile.

Sure, I wish I could say that you will see the frescoes in Florence, at the Museum of San Marco, begun soon after the Dominican convent's founding in 1436. Perhaps anyone who pays full adult admission should receive a ticket to Italy on the way out. Fra Angelico has transformed one building into another, cell by cell, envisioning a Renaissance architecture still in the making. He embraces and extends Michelozzo's cutting-edge design, creating room after room of spare, solid walls and columns. They could hardly have less in common with the continuous circle of the Met's Robert Lehman wing.

These, along with imagined porticos and rocky landscapes, serve as the stage sets for a more intimate theater than the Renaissance had known, entirely appropriate to places for monastic contemplation. Angelico uses them to organize a scene, to lend gravity to his newly massive actors, and to make each one a viewer's proximate vision. When gentle curves, light primary colors, and an imagined central illumination soften the figures, their defiance of gravity becomes a miracle rather than an archaicism, for perhaps the first time in art history.

A few more altarpieces central to Angelico's reputation might not hurt either. One could see the artist daring to place a small, imaginary crucifixion panel front and center, before an enthroned Madonna, a circle of saints, and lavish trees behind them. In this way, he boasts of how much he has changed from the crucifixion's gold background. He establishes the picture plane as a window onto heaven, with contemplation of Jesus's death and a conception of three dimensions as equal keys to salvation.

One could see the first continuous landscape ever, even before Lorenzo Ghiberti's The Gates of Paradise, with Jesus's descent from the cross onto a bed of grass and flowers. Five saints need real ladders and delicate maneuvering to raise themselves up and to lower him to the ground, in a cycle that seems to perpetuate the moment for eternity. Two more complete a pyramid of figures, seemingly just minutes from a walled Italian town more modern and geometrically perfect, no doubt, than any that existed. The eye travels just as quickly from the central actors' clarity and calm in the face of death to storm clouds rising in the distance.

In two versions of the Annunciation, the portico sets off the main scene from Adam and Eve—on the other side of the perspective columns, in the far distance, and on the earth. They lack the tears, the agony, and the reduction to almost animal existence in Masaccio's Expulsion. Theologically, Angelico is linking the fall to salvation. In practice, one's eye moves back and forth between foreground and background as between the flowers and city of the Descent, making one never lose a sense of either hope or of tragedy.

The follies of youth

I say this not to discourage you from bothering with the Met, but to suggest why one cares in the first place. Without an artist's core works, one expects only disappointment. Indeed, I wish that more critics of the exhibition had voiced doubts. However, without the grandeur, Angelico becomes downright approachable. Instead of a revolutionary, one gets an artist finding his way to the Renaissance. Instead of a visionary, one finds him on closer terms with his characters—and with his time.

Almost one hundred years after Cimabue and Giotto, artists were challenging one another hard. In the interim, many painters had lost much of Giotto's spatial illusion but kept his imposing figures and faces, in effect updating the orthodoxy of earlier icons. Others were breaking down the rigid hierarchy, but again without the painted illusion. Architects were eliminating Gothic detail, and sculptors were heightening optical realism. A few painters were showing what they could do with people in the round, telling stories almost like folk tales.

Lorenzo Monaco, for one, gave only token attention to atmosphere or perspective, and he had no interest at all in human anatomy. However, he took his columnar figures from sculpture, and he told a good story. He helps explain why later centuries found his student so easy to love.

Guido di Pietro assumed the title Fra Giovanni da Fiesole as a Dominican, but he acquired the name Fra Angelico well after his death. It points to his conservative side, as well as to his sense of beauty for its own sake. One remembers him for what he preserved of past art, such as highlights in gold leaf or the intricate, pointed arches of that Descent from the Cross. One remembers how lightly those figures tread on the flowers or how meekly Mary bends toward the angel of the Annunciation. One remembers especially his robes in pink and luxuriant blue, building on but outshining the colors of Andrea di Bartolo in the 1390s.

One can contrast him with another leading artist of his generation, Filippo Lippi. Lippi presses his bulky figures into an often constricted space. When he wants echoes of the Gothic, he marbles the floor rather than breaks the illusion. Lippi's teacher, Masaccio, had taken in the new sculpture and turned out early Renaissance painting at last. However, Lippi was not alone.

I started by telling you about Angelico's major work to make that clear. He fully assimilates Masaccio while continuing his development on his own. His conservative elements conform to his mystical side and to his ease with a company of saints. His progressive elements give the viewer more immediate access to both. His contemporaries did not mind the paradox one bit, which helps explain why they kept him so busy, first in Fiesole, then in Florence, and later in Rome. He also helps one to see Renaissance art as more than a straight line, with humanism and science gamely marching on.

Architecture and empathy

I think of him as taking Lorenzo Monaco's two sides and pushing them up about twenty levels. He needs both sides to express the relationship between the human and the divine, just as he needs both the sunlight and the storm clouds.

Angelico sustains the paradox starting with the architecture and landscape. One notes it particularly in the many predella panels, small scenes at the base of an altarpiece that allowed painters to tell stories and to take chances. In some, architecture lets him divide a scene in two like panels of a cartoon strip. In another a wall, a road, and a line of trees help unite the landscape while setting off a grisly beheading in the foreground. A third version of the Annunciation, included at the Met, lacks the complexity of those elsewhere, but at least it has the basic architecture.

He excels at organizing large groups in space. In another predella panel, one hardly notices the devils cowering at the left, and the magician's comical scowl underlines the saint's generosity in expelling them. One vertical panel, originally the left side of an altarpiece, shows an ascent toward paradise. This time the uniform background gives no hint of perspective, as if time and space have themselves come to an end. Still, the double S of the procession implies a continuous line of entry.

His glowing colors also help with the paradox. They point to the past, but his use of gold as a color and as a carrier of light leads to the disappearance of extra-painterly means in the art to come. When gold rays stream into one scene, their distinction from the rocks and natural light clearly underscore reality and yet mark a vision. Almost nothing else in the show has the same depth of color and degree of preservation, but at least one can sense enough to ponder what one is missing.

As with the beheadings, Angelico does not shy away from blood and gore. His final years, in Rome, tend toward lesser work, especially as assistants become more involved. They, too, resolve the paradox, however—and now with a more focused, mystical connection to his subject. Jesus alone on the cross trails blood almost alarmingly. An Ecce Homo presents a large, rather ugly face unusual for Angelico and just possibly influenced by Jan van Eyck. Then again, he may never have seen the northern painting and simply looked within.

Last, he depends on faces and gestures for his mix of humanity and piety. As with Adam and Eve, he keeps considerable constraint, and the emotion often comes from just that sense of holding back. When Mary leans over her dead son or John over the dead Mary, the proximity of the faces carries an even greater feeling. One early commission, a ridiculously large number of saints on two small panels, all but begs for pro forma treatment. Instead, he leaves the illusion of a group portrait, even though he is imagining people supposed to have died long ago.

No angel

Besides all that it leaves out, the Met gambles considerably on what it leaves in. Not all that long ago, hardly anyone questioned where to place Angelico—in the "second generation," after Masaccio. To this day, every unquestioned work dates from the mid-1420s or later, around the time of Masaccio's last work.

Nearly half this exhibition recreates a younger artist, first as a student of Lorenzo Monaco, then reacting to Masaccio as if a truck had hit him. The Met includes a painted cassone, or chest, asking one to imagine Angelico as a assistant dealing with such workshop obligations. It even has three drawings from early in his life, two for manuscript illumination in collaboration with Lorenzo Monaco, one quite possibly on his own. I found it thrilling to think of Angelico just starting out, working out his first ideas. The Met, in effect, dares one to see the young Angelico as an innovator on a par with Masaccio—and perhaps an influence as well.

Two Madonnas have the mass, simple compositions, puffy faces, and clumsy expressions of Masaccio himself as a young artist. Someone had to bring art down to earth in a hurry, before building it back up again. The attributions to Angelico invariably hinge on his understanding of just that. Historians are looking for works related to Lorenzo Monaco with too much dignity for anyone else and works related to Masaccio with too much daring for his main collaborator, Masolino. Some attributions also hinge on a date: if works formerly placed late in the fifteenth century came this early, someone awfully good had better take responsibility.

I have mixed feelings at best. Fra Angelico took his vows by 1410, so he did not start as a more secular artist and then settle down. One has to assume that he started competently as well. He had to earn workshop assignments or they would not exist, he would have learned his basic skills early, and he had a gift that set him apart. He may have begun his career with more Gothic, disembodied figures than in his mature work, but not with those on the cassone, who look a bit like beached porpoises—and whose dearth of clothing hardly fit in with Angelico's monastic subjects either. A painting in the Met's own collection has unnatural crowding entirely foreign to Angelico, as well as faces so poorly foreshortened that they appear to have been ironed.

I can buy maybe a few. A head of Joseph, cropped out of a larger painting and now in a private collection, has the psychological insight I expect. I cannot make up my mind about the ones closest to Masaccio or the equally broad Ecce Homo, but call me dubious. Also call me annoyed. As in past exhibitions of Duccio, art from Lombardy, and the Northern Renaissance, the Met never once lets ordinary museum-goers know of doubts. Wall labels seem designed to sing the Met's praises.

Regardless, the exhibition creates a compelling picture of the new century in the making. To love Fra Angelico, one needs that sense of discovery. In that sense, the three versions of him do hang together—as a portrait of the early Renaissance itself. Now if only you and I had that ticket to Italy.

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Fra Angelico ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 29, 2006.


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