Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 336 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)
The Fra Angelico show now on view in New York is among the most provocative exhibitions of a Renaissance artist in recent years. It attempts no less than to revise the history of Florentine painting in the 1420s, a period universally regarded as a turning point in European art. According to the traditional account, during that decade Masaccio almost single-handedly created the new style of Renaissance painting, a style characterized by naturalistic images of lifelike figures portrayed in convincing perspective. By contrast Fra Angelico has usually been seen as a painter who, for all his technical accomplishment, stood apart from the artistic revolution started by Masaccio. The show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art discards that interpretation and presents a new view of Fra Angelico and Florentine painting.
While not challenging Masaccio’s preeminence, it suggests that Fra Angelico was of nearly equal importance in the transformation of Renaissance art. Just as Cubism was invented by Picasso and Braque working together, so the birth of Renaissance painting is seen in the exhibition as having arisen from the creative exchange between two masters—both Masaccio and Angelico. The case for this conclusion is based on the scholarship of the last thirty years, which has increasingly acknowledged Angelico as an innovative painter; nonetheless, it is a startling idea, presented at the Metropolitan with unprecedented force. It overturns much of what has been thought about Angelico for centuries.
The traditional interpretation of Angelico was strongly colored by Giorgio Vasari’s life of the painter, first published in 1550. Even by Vasari’s standards that text says very little about the artist’s work; instead it primarily celebrates the painter as an example of saintly virtue who
spent every minute of his life in the service of God…. A man of great simplicity, and most holy in his ways…he shunned the affairs of the world…living a pure and holy life…. He was most kindly and temperate, and he lived chastely and withdrew himself from the snares of the world.
Vasari writes that he believes Angelico’s soul is in heaven, and he wishes that “the churchmen of our own times would learn from this holy man.” According to Vasari, Angelico’s purity of spirit deeply affected his art: Angelico would “never have taken his brushes in his hand without first offering a prayer” and “never painted a Crucifix without the tears streaming down his cheeks.”
No doubt, Angelico was a pious man. At an early age he joined the order of the Dominican Observance and he held a series of high-level posts in its administration; he was even asked by the Pope to be the archbishop of Florence, although he declined the offer. Moreover, his entire oeuvre consists of sacred subjects painted for the instruction and inspiration of the devout; many of his paintings were made for Dominican convents, such as San Marco in Florence, and San Domenico in Fiesole, and they were intended to express the spiritual ideals of the order …