Fra Angelico's art reassessed

A new exhibition brings to light how his influence continues to be felt.

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Her lovely face, so solemn with its heavenly charge, radiates spiritual intelligence as well as tender humility. Mary and the announcing angel, Gabriel, share a golden ground, their faces illuminated by damask. Gabriel looks directly at her; she looks down, modestly, thinking about what he has told her, what it all means. Innocent maid though she is, she realizes her son will change everything. She knows herself to be blessed.

The painter, Brother John (Fra Giovanni), was born Guido di Pietro. He was a 15th-century Italian friar whose early history we know almost nothing about, but who later was dubbed pictor angelicus (angelic painter) as much for his devout life as for his transcendent images.

Fra Angelico, as he became known, was one painter of his era who would never be lost to popular renown, although the passing years saw many great names eclipsed by changes in the arts and the fickle tastes of art patrons. That is partly because he lived what he believed and was honored for his faith, while his works were underappreciated for their innovation and mastery.

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Then when art history became a serious discipline in the 20th century, Fra Angelico lost artistic status, simply because his reputation as a painter had been so linked to his religious life.

A new exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the first such comprehensive exhibition in 50 years, brings to light just how much the artist had accomplished, how many other masters he influenced, and how his influence continues to be felt. The show and the essays in its catalog set about debunking many of the assumptions about Fra Angelico's work as simplistic religiosity.

Instead, they open a dialogue about his clear aesthetic intentions.

"Because [Fra Angelico's] spirituality has been the only thing people focused on for so long, we were almost at pains to discount it," says curator Laurence Kanter of his and his colleagues' presentation. "But we don't want to lose sight of it because it is so vivid and so real.... The issue is profound and complex, but at the level of intellect at which he operated, that spirituality pervaded and informed everything he did. Even his grasp of realism was employed to emphasize the spiritual message of his paintings."

The appeal of Fra Angelico's work to a modern eye may not have so much to do with the budding realism of the figures and the period's dawning understanding of perspective in landscape and in architecture as it does with abstraction - the precise balancing of forms and colors in the strong, clean construction of his compositions. Every minute detail is in the service of the whole. These immaculate compositions touch the imagination like the clean lines of Edward Hopper, and they touch the heart as do the gorgeous, floating rectangles of Mark Rothko.

"That abstraction was in some ways a Florentine tradition," says Mr. Kanter. "But in Fra Angelico's hands it was elevated to a sophistication that was unknown before him. It does remind modern viewers of the great abstract painters of the 20th century."

By the end of the 19th century, spiritual conventions in art had become so fossilized by rules and restrictions, says Kanter, they had lost most of their meaning. The artists of the time were no less spiritual than their predecessors, but they needed to search out new ways to express their own spiritual hunger and insights. Much of the abstract art of the 20th century came out of a response to that very real need.

It's not too far-fetched to think, perhaps, of an early Renaissance painter breaking away from the static standards of an earlier time in order to express something lively and new - if not explicitly, then implicitly - roused from his own spiritual affections, his own sense of the immediate presence of the divine.

Poised at the brink of a new style of painting that would emphasize the human over the divine and that would count the human eye with its perspective more important than orthodox conventions about the heavenly, Fra Angelico advanced art toward the High Renaissance and realized transcendence in his own work - that which is luminous, beautiful, and ageless.

The exhibit runs through Jan. 29.

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