Angels in America|
Last chance to see the Met's remarkable overview of the career
of Fra Angelico, "The Angelic Painter" (through January 29)
By Joseph Phelan
Christmas came early to New York this year, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its much anticipated exhibit of the work of Fra Angelico in late October. On two recent trips to the city, I've spent several afternoons walking through this show which is located in the Robert Lehman wing of the museum in a state almost of bliss and wonderment.|
Guido di Pietro (1395/1400-55) was an early Renaissance artist who became a Dominican friar and whose pious devotion to illuminating the Christian story in his art earned him the title of the Angelic Painter soon after his death. Thus he became known as "Fra Angelico" in English. In 1984 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II, the first step in the process of sainthood.
The series of frescoes which he painted to adorn the dormitory cells in the convent of San Marco in Florence are his true masterworks, and among the greatest frescoes of the period -- but being wall paintings they cannot travel. The Web Gallery of Art does have excellent reproductions of many of these works here:
Luckily there are many other works by his hand, consisting mostly of predella (the small painted scenes beneath large altarpieces) and other fragments, that have been dispersed since the 19th century to museums and private collections throughout Europe and North America.
In an extraordinary coup, the curators have hunted down (and in some cases discovered) nearly seventy-five of these paintings, drawings and illuminated manuscripts, as well as forty-five additional works by his assistants and close followers, presenting the entire range of his genius over the full course of his career and making this a truly once-in-a-lifetime aesthetic and spiritual experience.
Early on, Angelico became much sought-after for the subtle way he combined simple piety with heavenly color, qualities which are much in evidence in his blues, pinks and crimsons boldly placed together in this show. What magic he works when his subject is a scene from the life of the Virgin Mary. There are several ravishing Annunciations in the show. The demure beauty and steadfast faith of the fourteen-year-old Mary on that fateful day when the angel Gabriel visited her with the news that she was to be the mother of the Messiah seems especially close to Angelico's heart.
Apart from the unprecedented color and clarity of his compositions, there is an especially nuanced and dramatic vision of the human drama of faith which, despite the small scale of most of the work, seems monumental in its effect on us. We seem to see into the very souls of the serious, humble and devoted men and women for whom the coming of the Messiah is a life-transforming experience.
One of my favorite pictures, The Naming of John by Zachariah, is drawn from the beginning of St. Luke's Gospel when Zachariah, having been struck dumb earlier by the angel Gabriel for doubting that his elderly wife will conceive a child, is found sitting in his garden writing out the name of his son after the baby's circumcision.
And best of all, Angelico can surprise us with his range. Not everything is angels and heavenly choirs here, for there are a number of pictures of the Crucifixion. At the very end of the show there is one stunning piece in the form of a larger-than-life portrait of Christ Crowned with Thorns (see image at right). Angelico conveys to us here a "King of Kings" who has a look of utter horror in his bloodshot eyes. The artist here seeks to remind us that Christ's suffering for our redemption was not just a matter of stoic endurance, quiet forbearance and steely determination, but also one of anguish, terror and despair; an anguish, terror and despair which, for all its bloody gore and brutal violence, Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ failed in the end to convey. For an authentic sense of the Passion, as well as the rest of the greatest story ever told, we could do no better than to repair to the art of the quiet Dominican monk of the early Renaissance.
Postscript: : During my recent trip to New York my accomodations were provided courtesy of the Wellington Hotel, a real gem located on 7th Avenue and 55nd Street, It's in the heart of the theatre and shopping districts, and just a few blocks from Central Park and 5th Avenue.
The hotel was crowded with happy families the week I stayed there and no wonder, this is not only a fabulously convenient location to experience the electricity of Manhattan day and night, but a classy and quiet haven from all that excitement when you finally decided you've had enough. I don't remember sleeping that soundly even in the country.
The hotel is offering specials for this February and also for next Christmas.
Fra Angelico, through January 29 2006 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
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