- The Washington Times - Friday, October 28, 2005

A lthough most famous for his 1438 frescoes in Florence’s convent of San Marco, the peasant-born Dominican monk Fra Angelico (aka Guido di Pietro and Fra Giovanni da Fiesole) also created numerous altarpieces and tempera-on-panel paintings for private, Dominican-associated patrons. Fortunately undeterred by the impossibility of exhibiting even a few of the frescoes from the convent’s 58 dormitory cells — generally recognized as among the world’s great art masterpieces — or moving the painter-monk’s larger altarpieces, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has nonetheless mounted the first major survey in 50 years of his smaller works (as well as a number by his closest associates) to commemorate the 550th anniversary of the artist’s death.

Recently discovered works, new identifications, never-before-exhibited paintings and reconstructed altarpiece groupings — some reunited for the first time — add to the exhibition’s excitement and groundbreaking importance.

The exhibit’s 75 works, while a once-in-a-lifetime treat for visitors, nonetheless furthers confusion surrounding Fra Angelico’s conservative, but multiple, styles.

Born in the countryside north of Florence between 1390 and 1395 and trained in Florentine studios, the painter-monk quickly became the most prominent artist in Florence. It was through his transition from the flat, patterned late Gothic style to the fuller, more three-dimensional early Renaissance expression introduced by Masaccio (1401-1428), and spiritually intense interpretations of religious subjects, that he came to be called “Pictor Angelicus” or the “Angelic Painter” after his death in 1455. (His saintly reputation was such that he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1984).

Only during what the museum calls “the short, meteoric rise” of the young Masaccio (1401-1428) did Fra Angelico’s prominence falter, only to re-emerge during the next 30 years. But within this short period, Masaccio, who died at age 27, revolutionized painting by creating light sources outside paintings and placing light against strong darks.

However, Masaccio only minimally influenced the Angelic Painter, who drew from both Gothic and Renaissance arts to better serve his Dominican order. Fra Angelico seemed to rejoice in his brilliant Gothic colors and delightful tiny botanical studies, although he did adopt, albeit awkwardly, Masaccio’s more naturalistic rendering of anatomy, drapery, perspective and architecture.

Although organized chronologically, the exhibit’s numerous Virgin and Child images reveal Fra Angelico’s stylistic and spiritual progression from the early hieratic “Virgin and Child Enthroned, With Saints Peter, Paul, John the Baptist and Antony Abbot” (circa 1411) to the still flatly patterned “Virgin and Child Enthroned” (circa 1417-20) from Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

His approach changes with the Fogg Art Museum’s more intimate “Virgin and Child” (1422 or 1423) and the fuller, more tender, Masaccio-influenced “Virgin and Child Enthroned” (1426?), in which the Child reaches for grapes, a Eucharistic symbol. Later, Fra Angelico entwines the Rijksmuseum’s “Virgin of Humility” figures (1430s?) as a prelude to the exhibit’s star painting from Bern’s Kunstmuseum, the intensely moving, diffusely lighted “Virgin and Child” image (circa 1449-1452?), in which the Child clings tightly to His mother’s neck.

Fra Angelico’s saints and angels demonstrate the intense, Dominican-focused nature of his art. His crucifixions, such as “Saint Peter Martyr and Saint Thomas Aquinas Before the Crucifix” still move us, as does the piteous, pen-and-brown-ink-with-red “Christ on the Cross” (circa 1425).

While Fra Angelico’s gold-filled, still Gothic annunciations light up the exhibition, his “Stigmatization of Saint Francis” is jarring because of the subject’s thrown-up hands, the backdrop of jagged rocks, and pelting light from above. His angels with intricately feathered wings and beatific faces from the Parma Tabernacle are unforgettable, as are the black-and-white-garbed, haloed saints in the “Eighteen Blessed of the Dominican Order” part of the High Altarpiece from San Domenico, Fiesole.

Mixing Fra Angelico’s works with those of his followers, however, dilutes the exhibit’s punch and tends to confuse visitors. Also, Washington viewers used to the stunningly handsome exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art and other museums will note the unfortunately unimaginative manner in which these great works are displayed.

Still, this is an astounding show and hopefully the beginning ofmore extensive and better presented exhibition by this Renaissance master.

WHAT: “Fra Angelico”

WHERE: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York City

WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays through Thursdays; closed Mondays except for holiday Mondays. Through Jan. 29.

TICKETS: $15 adults, $10 seniors, $7 students, free for members and children younger than 12 accompanied by an adult. Advance tickets available at www.TicketWeb.com or 800/935-4827

PHONE: 212/535-7710

WEB SITE: www.metmuseum.org

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