Fra Angelico: Paintings of Contemplation

FRA ANGELICO AT SAN MARCO By William Hood. Yale University Press

338 pp., $60

FRA ANGELICO, Florentine painter of the first half of the 15th century, was one of those figures in the world of art who is only too easily subject to simplifying myth. That busy biographer of most major Renaissance artists, Giorgio Vasari, wrote of ``Fra Giovanni da Fiesole'' (as he was known after he became a Dominican friar and member of a small, poor community at San Domenico in Fiesole, near Florence) that he ``was a man of great simplicity, and most holy in his ways.... He was continually laboring at his painting, and he would never paint anything save Saints.''

The 19th-century critic, John Ruskin, described him as ``not an artist properly so-called but an inspired saint.''

Our century has been more levelheaded and less sentimental about Fra Angelico. Historians of his work have shown how much evidence there is that he was well aware of the work of fellow painters, both earlier and contemporary. It is true that he was a sincerely pious man and a painter who used his art to serve the beliefs, liturgical practices, and communal needs of his reformed Dominican order, the Order of Preachers. But he nevertheless learned from other artists, allowing their achievements to influence his own highly original sensibilities.

Fra Angelico cannot be accurately thought of as an isolated, old-fashioned artist, cloistered in a convent, painting almost naively out of direct inspiration. He planned and measured his works; he quite clearly set out to develop his radiant use of color, clarity of form, and convincing evocation of light, both by observation and experiment. He was a highly skilled artisan who, after initial training as an illuminator of manuscripts, continued to expand his technical abilities by painting first on small panels, then larger ones, and finally on walls, in fresco. He was in every way a serious professional artist.

Several serious art-historical studies have appeared about Fra Angelico, the latest published this year, ``Fra Angelico at San Marco,'' by William Hood. The detailed analysis in this volume places the artist firmly in his period and in Dominican context. The author shows how Fra Angelico's aesthetic decisions were based on the aim of clearly conveying theological messages on the one hand and, on the other, of achieving the realism of actual experience. Imaginative objects of contemplation are instilled with an authenticity that makes them something more than icons or symbols.

Professor Hood's exhaustive study is at the opposite pole to the brief encounters too often included in encyclopedias of art history under the heading Angelico. H. W. Janson's ``History of Art,'' as a particularly sad example, gives him 150 words ending with the following dismissive remark: ``... his figures, much as we may admire their lyrical tenderness, never achieve the physical and psychological self-assurance that characterizes the Early Renaissance image of man.''

Since Fra Angelico is a major contributor to ``the Early Renaissance image of man'' (unless by the word ``man'' is meant specifically male figures), such a statement seems oddly without justification. Possibly it is just a sexist assessment of an artist who had a special sensitivity to womanhood, a trait of the Dominicans generally, as Hood points out. The madonna or Virgin Mary held central significance to this order of friars. She features prominently in some of Fra Angelico's best-loved paintings. In particular, a sequence of annunciations, from his earliest to his latest period, stand out. This subject represents what Hood calls Mary's ``central act of obedience.'' This act of submission to God's will is described in Luke's gospel. Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she is to be the virgin mother of Jesus - for ``with God nothing shall be impossible.'' This Biblical event was an example to the Dominican of the kind of devotion and obedience expected of them in their own lives.

Fra Angelico was responsible for a large number of fresco paintings in the cells of a Dominican community in Florence called San Marco. One of these frescoes, considered to be completely by his hand, is the ``Annunciation'' in Cell 3. Painted with a spare economy that contrasts with earlier paintings of the same theme by the artist, this wall painting touchingly shows how a subject that might more commonly carry a dramatic public meaning when used as an altarpiece in a church, could take on a supremely meditative and private significance for a studious friar alone in his cell. The painter has turned it into a tranquil model of humility and sincerity. Fra Angelico's range could hardly be illustrated more potently by contrasting this annunciation with other annunciations he painted for different contexts, like a sparkling variation on the theme for an altarpiece in Cortona, or even his depiction of the subject in an early illuminated manuscript.

Yet for all its asceticism, the Cell 3 ``Annunciation'' in San Marco still epitomizes the sweetness of Fra Angelico's temperament. Hood writes that it ``is surely one of the loveliest paintings in Fra Angelico's entire oeuvre, for only few of the greatest colorists attempted before or after this to show the world in the lambent freshness of sunrise.'' The ``translucent surfaces'' of the architecture in the picture, which is unmistakably identified with the architecture of San Marco itself and with the walls of the cell on which it is painted, ``shimmer,'' writes Hood, ``in the soft currents of light gliding over them from just outside. It is like looking at nature reflected in a pearl.''

The last part of Hood's book looks in great detail at the particular ``Annunciation'' that is usually described as Fra Angelico's most famous painting. It is also a fresco in San Marco, but it is not in a cell. Hood believes it was placed deliberately at a point where visitors, rather than the friars alone, would see it. You confront it in the corridor as you climb the stairs to the north dormitory. Here all the cells are situated, but no friars inhabit them now. Instead, tourists peep into them as they pass by. Today's visitors probably experience this San Marco fresco as it was intended to be experienced - as a sudden surprise and a clear signal that they are approaching a part of the building where particular devoutness is called for. Hood points out that it is probably much more brightly lit in our day, however, than it would have been originally.

Like the Cell 3 image, this ``Annunciation'' is flooded with cool light from the east, morning light, but Hood does not wax quite so lyrical about it as he does the other. Nevertheless, his detailed study of this well-known painting discloses facets that most casual observers are unlikely to notice. He points out, for example, that while Mary casts a shadow, the angel does not.

Hood's book is an immensely serious undertaking and may not be the most accessible introduction to Fra Angelico that a newcomer could find. Perhaps an older book on the artist, ``Fra Angelico'' by John Pope-Hennessy, first published in 1952, reissued in revised form in 1973, could prove an easier route into this artist's work. Hood mentions his predecessor with approval (though he does not always follow Pope-Hennessy's opinions and dating).

Hood's volume has the enormous advantage of excellent color reproductions. Both historians treat this universally appealing artist's work with the aesthetic high-mindedness it warrants, while recognizing - as Pope-Hennessy puts it - that the painter-friar was different in his approach to religious art from ``other great religious artists.'' His paintings ``reflect the serenity, the discipline, the anonymity of communal religious life. In the case of Fra Angelico, more truly than in any other painter, the artist and the man are one.''

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