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.
Yet, the emphasis on Angelico’s piety has encouraged the belief that he was as cloistered and otherworldly in his art as in his life. He has been seen as a painter of almost medieval temperament, far removed from the more secular and humanistic concerns of Renaissance artists. This view persisted well into the twentieth century. In the first edition of his study of the painter, published in 1952, John Pope-Hennessy wrote:
Uninterested in the revolution in visual technique effected by his great contemporaries, save where this could contribute to expressiveness, he stands in opposition to the painting of his time…. The language he employed resulted not from an involuntary failure to keep abreast of the developments of his own day, but from intentions which differed fundamentally from those of other artists.
The interpretation of Fra Angelico began to change just a few years after Pope-Hennessy’s book was published. In 1955, to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of Angelico’s death, Italian scholars undertook new archival research, making it possible for the first time to reconstruct the artist’s life partly on the basis of documents rather than just from the remarks of Vasari and a few other sources. The change was dramatic. Previously it was believed that Angelico was born in 1387, that he entered the Dominican order in 1407, and that he painted his first known work around 1429 when he was over forty. He was thus seen as an artist who was older than Masaccio and other members of the first generation of Renaissance painters, and who had blossomed suddenly and relatively late in life. Thanks to the newly discovered documents, however, it became clear that he was born around 1395, and was only a few years older than Masaccio. He joined the Dominicans sometime between 1419 and 1423 and he was an independent artist working on his own account and accepting commissions for altarpieces during 1417 and 1418. The real Angelico is thus a more dynamic figure than had been assumed.
In light of such discoveries, historians began to give Angelico a more central place in early Renaissance painting. For example, in the second edition of Pope-Hennessy’s monograph, published in 1974, he wrote that Angelico was “a more cerebral, more progressive artist” than he had previously believed; and he cut from his conclusion the remarks about Angelico’s opposition to the painting of his day. He now viewed the painter as someone of major importance for the development of Florentine art, above all for the series of highly innovative altarpieces Angelico made. Nonetheless, Pope-Hennessy still thought that the painter had at first matured slowly, and he believed Angelico’s period of creativity and influence began only in the 1430s, not before.
One reason for this conclusion was evidence for dating several key works. It was thought that Angelico’s earliest extant documented painting was the altarpiece showing the Virgin and Child with saints that he executed for the Dominican nuns at the Florentine church of San Pier Martire. The record of a payment for the painting survives from 1429. It is a somewhat primitive work, unmistakably made well before Angelico matured as a great artist. Other documents, however, suggest that his powerful painting of the deposition of Christ from the cross—the Strozzi Deposition—from Santa Trinita in Florence was begun as early as 1429 and was finished by 1432 (see illustration on this page). That picture is a remarkable masterpiece made by the artist at the peak of his powers. It shows the figures not arranged before a gold background, as had been the common practice, but instead standing in a panoramic landscape, with a deep vista behind and a vast sky above. Nothing like it had ever been painted before. Similarly, sources indicate that another startlingly original painting, The Coronation of the Virgin now in the Louvre, must date from the early 1430s at the latest. It is impossible to believe that Angelico went from making the San Pier Martire altarpiece to the Strozzi Deposition and The Coronation of the Virgin in as little as a year. No painter we know of has ever developed that fast.
Faced with this problem, Pope-Hennessy chose to trust the evidence for the date of the San Pier Martire altarpiece; he dismissed the documents for the Strozzi Deposition and The Coronation of the Virgin, and assigned the pictures on stylistic grounds to the 1440s or later. Other scholars, however, were not convinced and yet were puzzled. There were simply too many other pictures whose sophistication seemed to suggest they were made in the unbelievably short time between the San Pier Martire painting dated to 1429 and the masterpieces of the 1430s.
In the 1990s the puzzle over the paintings was resolved when it became clear that the document relied on to date the San Pier Martire altarpiece had been misinterpreted: in fact it recorded a residual payment made sometime, perhaps even many years, after the painting was completed. During the Renaissance, it often took a long while to finish paying for a work of art, and we know that Angelico was making altarpieces as early as 1418. The painting could therefore have been finished much earlier in the 1420s.
Once the altarpiece was no longer seen as a work of 1429, the entire chronology of the artist’s early career became open for discussion. It was possible to accept without question that the Strozzi altarpiece was painted sometime between 1429 and 1432 and to imagine a progression among the works of Angelico that must have led up to that painting. In recent years, a number of different hypotheses about the artist’s early phase have been suggested, but they all propose that Angelico was making works of considerable importance by the mid-1420s at the latest.
The current exhibition is the most emphatic expression so far of this new tendency in Angelico scholarship. Laurence Kanter, the chief curator of the show, consistently gives dates for paintings that are much earlier than others have dared to put forward before. For example, only a few years ago it was bold to suggest that the San Pier Martire altarpiece and the San Domenico altarpiece of the Virgin and Child enthroned—the earliest surviving altarpieces by Angelico—were completed around 1424–1425; Kanter confidently dates them earlier to around 1420. He has even begun to reconstruct the juvenilia of Angelico’s career, tentatively identifying works by the artist from as early as about 1411, when the painter was only about sixteen years old.
What has emerged from such reconstructions is a radically new idea of Fra Angelico. According to Kanter, the artist was the first great naturalist in the history of Renaissance painting. He is distinguished from his contemporaries such as Lorenzo Monaco and Giovanni dal Ponte not by his prestige and otherworldliness but by the impulse to observe and depict form and light with unprecedented fidelity. This impulse, for Kanter, is the source of his genius and it manifests itself from the very beginning of his career.
What makes this claim startling is that most art historians believe that Masaccio was the foremost naturalist in early Renaissance painting, and that any comparable features in Angelico’s art must be largely owing to his influence. Kanter does not dispute that there was a period roughly between 1424 and 1428 when Angelico closely studied the younger artist’s paintings, particularly the great masterpieces such as the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel—including the famous painting of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise—and the fresco of the Trinity in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. But Kanter argues that before this period, when Masaccio was still a relatively unformed and rudimentary artist, Angelico’s pictures regularly show a command of naturalistic observation and detail without equal in Italian art.
There is much to be said in favor of this new interpretation. The exhibition assembles a number of pictures that for circumstantial and stylistic reasons can be dated to around 1420– 1424. Already in these works, Angelico displays unprecedented force in his modeling of human figures as three-dimensional forms in space. He consistently depicts figures bathed in strong, focused light coming from a single direction. As a result one side of the body is relatively brightly illuminated and the other side is in deeper shade, the contrast making the three-dimensional shape of the figure more evident. Typically, he also added strong highlights and deep shadows, representing folds in the drapery, which he arranged as two corresponding sets of emphatic vertical lines. Like flutes on a column, the bright and dark vertical lines make the curvature of the forms easy to read.
This was a radical departure in conception and technique from the standard method of well-known Florentine artists such as Lorenzo Monaco. In their works, the light on figures comes from no clear single direction, and neither the modulation of tone nor the arrangement of the drapery helps to create a convincing illusion of three- dimensionality. In comparison with Angelico’s, the figures by his contemporaries seem almost as flat as paper dolls.
Angelico’s depiction of light was as subtle as it was bold. The show includes two predella panels from the San Domenico altarpiece of about 1420 which represent a large group of Dominicans assembled in adoration. Angelico portrays with intense care the play of light on the folds of their habits. The white robes are painted in exquisite combinations of silver, biscuit, tan, and cream. The delicate shifts in tone capture the way the fabric absorbs and reflects light, and the texture, weight, and drape of the cloth are all suggested. One can almost imagine how the robe would feel to the touch. There is nothing like this in earlier Florentine painting and there is nothing like it in Masaccio’s surviving work either until his frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel and the Pisa altarpiece of the Madonna and Child with saints some five to six years later.
Before he entered the Dominican order sometime between 1419 and 1423, Angelico lived in the Florentine neighborhood of San Michele Visdomini, a small parish of a few thousand souls. Resident in the same neighborhood at roughly the same time was another young artist who, like Angelico, was dissatisfied with the current conventions for making pictures. Like Angelico, he too was searching for a new way to paint, based on his own intent observation of light and form. Just a few years younger than Angelico, that artist was named Tomaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone Cassai, but he is better known today by his nickname, Masaccio. In view of the interests they had, the two artists could well have known each other. Their relationship is undocumented, but as the Italian art historians Roberto Bellucci and Cecilia Frosinini have observed, they both used red, rather than black, to outline and separate areas of flesh, a technical device not found in the work of other Florentine painters.* Although this is a small detail, it may suggest that the two artists had some professional association. If in fact they met, Angelico would have been the older, more sophisticated, and more successful painter and initially he would have been more likely to have influenced Masaccio, not the other way around.
Indeed, Masaccio’s earliest extant picture, the San Giovenale altarpiece of the enthroned Madonna of 1422, possibly bears evidence of this influence. It is a crude but ambitious painting, with figures modeled in powerful contrasts of light and dark and yet rather inelegantly drawn. The central panel features a massive, sculptural Madonna in a monumental throne; at her feet kneel two angels, who turn away from the viewer in order to face the Virgin. In an essay in the exhibition catalog, Anneke de Vries proposes that this composition was inspired by Angelico’s San Domenico altarpiece, with its seated Madonna surrounded by angels. Lorenzo di Credi, another artist, radically reworked that painting in 1501, but X-rays reveal that the Fra Angelico Madonna’s throne originally was very similar in design to Masaccio’s; as was the placement of the angels in the foreground. Other evidence indicates that Angelico’s painting predates Masaccio’s by about two years, and Angelico’s is the more complex and successful picture in giving a clear sense of figures in space. The conclusion that Masaccio had been studying Angelico seems inescapable.
In the middle 1420s, Angelico and Masaccio pursued different visions of the possibilities of a more naturalistic style of painting. Masaccio preferred power of expression over elegance and refinement. His figures are massive and rugged, almost plebeian; the contrasts of light and dark in his paintings are stark and insistent, and some of his pictures seem to be set in the crowded streets of contemporary Florence. By contrast, Angelico sought to use exact observation of light to create images that are overtly visionary. His figures are more sublime and graceful; the illumination in his paintings is more subtle and integrated; and many of his pictures appear to take place not so much on earth as in the forecourts of heaven. Nonetheless, despite these differences in aesthetic temperament, the two artists paid the closest attention to each other’s work.
At the same time other artists took part in what was clearly a period of intense creativity and ferment. Masaccio collaborated with Brunelleschi and possibly Donatello, too, while Angelico turned instead to the examples of Gentile da Fabriano, who completed the glorious Adoration of the Magi in 1423 for the Strozzi family, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, whose reliefs on the north doors of the Baptistery were unveiled in 1424. Influence and inspiration flowed in every direction. For example, in Angelico’s panel of the enthroned Madonna and Child from the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection, the pose of the figures and the elegant arrangement of Mary’s veil reflect the example of Ghiberti, while the robust modeling of her robes as they fall around her jutting knee reveal Angelico’s study of Masaccio. Angelico’s picture in turn is likely to have served as a stimulus for Masaccio when he painted the Pisa altarpiece.
The period of creative collaboration and mutual influence did not last long. Gentile da Fabriano left Florence in 1425, never to return. Masolino moved away in 1425, came back to Florence briefly, and then went to work in Rome. Masaccio went to Pisa in 1426, returned sometime in 1427, but then joined Masolino in Rome, where he died early in 1428. Lorenzo Monaco, too, died around this time. Of all the great painters working in Florence in 1424, only Fra Angelico remained there to carry on the revolution in painting.
Synthesizing what he had discovered for himself and what he had learned from others, Angelico flourished, painting one major masterpiece after another. In the span of fifteen or so years, he made a series of dazzlingly original pictures, culminating with the high altar of San Marco painted between 1438 and 1442. In these works, he invented afresh the basic design of the altarpiece in Italy, replacing the traditional Gothic format with a new structure expressive of Renaissance ideals of order and harmony. Since the early fourteenth century, the common practice had been to divide the main tier of an altarpiece into a row of separate compartments, each with an arched top; often the Madonna and Child occupy the central compartment, while saints stand to the sides, one to a section. Angelico wholly rejected this arrangement. In his altarpieces typically the main tier consists of a single, undivided rectangular panel showing a visually unified image, whether of a narrative scene or a Madonna and Child with saints.
Moreover, in most earlier altarpieces by other artists the figures are shown on a shallow tiled floor in front of a gilded background of indeterminate depth. By contrast, in Angelico’s altarpieces both the foreground and background are depicted in abundant naturalistic detail and the space is deep and measurable. By the time of the painting for San Marco, the space is projected in perfect accordance with the rules of single-point perspective, possibly the first instance of this in a large-scale panel picture.
The use of a large undivided panel also allowed Angelico to expand the emotional and thematic range of the altarpiece. When he treated the traditional subject of the Madonna and Child with saints, the figures were no longer isolated in separate compartments; rather they are shown together in a heavenly throne room, and they appear to be united in profound and sublime meditation, a picture type that came to be known by the Italian term of sacra conversazione. The scale and unity of the picture also permitted Angelico to represent on altarpieces narrative scenes, such as the Deposition and the Annunciation, with unprecedented freedom. The innovations of Angelico quickly became part of the Renaissance canon. For over a century, artists making altarpieces in central Italy worked along the lines that Angelico had laid down.
For reasons of conservation, none of the main panels of these paintings could be in the show, although they are represented by some of the small panels from their predellas. The clarity of the space, the specificity of the detail, and the moving spectacle of the drama in works such as the Saint Peter Preaching from the Linaiuoli Tabernacle—a marble frame designed by Ghiberti which holds several of Angelico’s pictures—and the Decapitation of Saints Cosmas and Damian from the San Marco altarpiece give an idea of the masterworks from which they come.
The achievements of Angelico’s maturity are perhaps best represented in the show by one of the four paintings he made to decorate reliquaries at Santa Maria Novella, sometime before 1434. Although on a small scale—twenty-four inches high—it displays in full the technical and conceptual brilliance of Angelico’s great altarpieces. The lower third of the panel illustrates the Burial of the Virgin. The apostles, noble and tender, gather around her bier. They look from one to the other in compassion and the movements of their heads form a gentle visual rhythm, an effect that Leonardo and other artists drew on for their own narrative painting.
More remarkable still is the Assumption of the Virgin depicted in the upper portion of the panel. Mary floats upward, a radiant figure of beatific grace. She is surrounded by circles of fluttering angels, who are singing and playing musical instruments. The careful control of perspective in drawing the complex groupings of the angels, the delicate, sinuous swaying of their dancing robes, and, above all, the glow of light propagated in every direction around the Virgin create one of the most credible and sublime images of a celestial vision ever made. Writing about another of the reliquaries painted by Angelico, John Ruskin said it was
as near heaven as human hand or mind will ever, or can ever go. Talk of chiaroscuro and colour—give me those burnished angel wings, of which every plume is wrought out in beaten gold in zones of crimson & silver colour alternately, which play & flash…. [This] will give you some idea of the effect and power of light in them—and then the faces, without one shadow of earth or mortality about them, all glorified.
This description could serve for the present painting as well.
“The effect of and power of light” mentioned by Ruskin is, I believe, the key to Angelico’s artistry. The painter had an uncanny and unprecedented capacity for seeing and depicting light in extremely fine gradations of luminosity. Not only did this help him render figures convincingly as three-dimensional forms, it also helped him record in unmatched detail the texture of surfaces. In the Madrid Annunciation, for example, Angelico attempted to capture the specific visual character of an extremely wide range of materials: stucco, white marble, colored marble, stained glass, wood, gold brocade, linen, wool, fur, parchment, and so on. There had never before been anything quite like this in Florentine painting. Moreover, Angelico uses subtle variations in the brightness of light to make the ambient space of his pictures more believable and true to life. In the predella panel depicting the death of Saint Nicholas from the altarpiece Angelico painted for the church of San Domenico in Perugia one has a sense of the exact dimensions of the walls at the side and in the background precisely because light is shown falling across them, softly changing in strength as it descends. The description of light here is almost as tender as in a painting by Vermeer.
For Fra Angelico, as for few other artists of the time, light was an active element in his pictures. One is conscious of it as a dynamic force: it radiates, glows, extends from one point to another, filling the space as it goes. Masaccio and Gentile da Fabriano, too, had begun to examine the transient effects of light, but neither explored its properties as imaginatively as Angelico did. His achievement in this respect was one of immense originality.
Angelico’s acute attention to the descriptive and affective qualities of light may have been driven by theology as well as by a quest for aesthetic discovery. In Angelico’s paintings light often is used to form an image of the divine: it represents the Holy Spirit as it descends to the Virgin, the glory of God as the soul ascends to heaven, and the promise and the reward of salvation. The use of light as a religious metaphor may sound like a commonplace, but it was one with specific associations within the tradition of Dominican imagery, which Angelico, as a respected member of the Observant Dominican order, would have known well. Dominicans liked paintings that illustrated the transmission of truth from God through the apostles and the founders of the Dominican order to other mortals. In these pictures one symbol for the passage of wisdom was the book, another was light. For example, in the anonymous late-fourteenth-century Triumph of Saint Thomas gilded rays shoot from the mouth of Jesus to Moses, Saint Paul, and the four evangelists, then bounce off their books before hitting a massive figure of Aquinas enthroned at the center; in turn, rays of light shine from his books to friars gathered below.
Angelico kept the notion of light as the bearer of divine wisdom but he abandoned the traditional imagery of Dominican dogma for something far more dramatic and emotional. Angelico preferred pictorial narratives that showed the light of heaven striking a blessed recipient, and the recipient responding to this act of grace with intense spiritual fervor. The Metropolitan show contains one image of the Virgin of the Annunciation, a favorite subject of the painter. In this painting from the Detroit Institute of Arts, she bows her head and crosses her hands on her chest, while soft, warm light bathes her head and shoulders (see the illustration on page 12). Looking at this picture, even the most skeptical viewer can imagine Mary hoping with all her soul for the perfection and blessedness of mankind through union with God. The impression of profound feeling and deep sanctity is created almost entirely by the flush of golden radiance that illumines the picture.
One of the best accounts of an Angelico painting is by Henry James. In Italian Hours he describes the Crucifixion with Saints on the ground floor of the convent of San Marco in Florence, and in a passage of some twenty or so lines, he uses the word “yearning” twice. It is the spiritual yearning for grace, for enlightenment, for beatitude that fundamentally characterizes this painter’s art. James concludes, “No later painter learned to render with deeper force than Fra Angelico the one state of the spirit he could conceive—a passionate pious tenderness. …His conception of human life was a perpetual sense of sacredly loving and being loved.”
James asks, “But how, immured in his quiet convent, away from the streets and the studios, did he become that genuine, finished, perfectly professional painter?” Thanks to the research of recent scholars, we may be closer than ever before to answering this question.
January 12, 2006
Roberto Bellucci and Cecilia Frosinini, “Working Together: Technique and Innovation in Masolino’s and Masaccio’s Panel Paintings,” in The Panel Paintings of Masolino and Masaccio: The Role of Technique, edited by Carl Brandon Strehlke and Cecilia Frosinini (Milan: Five Continents, 2002), p. 41. ↩