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Imperishable visions: an exhibition of Fra Angelico's work at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art prompts viewers to reconsider where we are artistically, culturally, and even personally today.

To the painter Fra Angelico, said a French historian, was reserved "the glory of fixing, in a series of imperishable visions, the religious ideal of the middle ages--just at the moment it was about to disappear forever." Now, for the first time ever in America, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is exhibiting a nearly complete collection of the portable works of this painter.

At a time when artistic craftsmanship has so often been devalued, and when negative, shocking, and even anti-Christian content has been regularly elevated by the popular media and even our art museums, we have this exhibit, one we need to attend. We need to take a closer look, remind ourselves again, reconsider, the wonderful roots of Western art.

See the way the areas receiving the gold leaf have been burnished to shine, embossed or scribed into ever-varying patterns. Pay attention to the way the frames of the altarpieces are incorporated into the design. And, more than that, behold the way Angelico not only embellishes with gold but fully incorporates it into the color scheme. And the way the colors set each other off as beautifully as Giotto's.

Notice the attention to detail in costume after costume, wing after marvelous angel wing, always changing in color and in pattern. Look at Angelico's sense of composition, which according to a great American muralist, Edwin Blashfield, is "large and noble.... Some of his door panels like the 'Flight into Egypt,' enlarged to colossal size, might worthily decorate a church wall."

Become aware of the logical way the artist is handling the new element called perspective. And the articulation of the details of the architecture and landscape, the amazing variety of handling he applies to landscape--from tapestry-like botanical studies that would do William Morris proud; to fine, classically rendered trees; and even to occasional essays into blotchy impressionism.

Look at the subtle modeling of the faces, look at the faces themselves, full, for the first time in the Renaissance, of not only expression but personality. Surely, said Michelangelo, "the good monk visited paradise and was allowed to choose his models there."

Look too to the larger expression of the individuals Angelico portrays. "Friar Angelico paints with perhaps the Flemish hope, to give us the Virgin of Virgins: clothed in a mantle of stars, with the beauty and gesture of the young girl, expressive of the white soul within. A wide space separates the other worshippers of beauty--Botticelli and Lippi, and their companions--from the blessed monk, Angelico, whose wish and whose expression is single. Theirs are not the Madonnas of the people, nor of the monk nor the devotee," remarks the American muralist of the Church of the Ascension in New York, John LaFarge

Feel the gentleness of spirit, the quiet, that seems to pervade everything. His Renaissance biographer, Vasari, said, "He was never seen to display anger among the brethren of his order--if he admonished his friends it was with gentleness and a quiet smile.... In fine, this never sufficiently lauded father was most humble, modest, and excellent in all his words and works." Interestingly, he recommended the study of painting as "elevating to the soul seeking heavenly things."

We become aware that Angelico's subject matter was always religious. He chose : to devote himself wholly to the sacred. He always prayed before picking up a brush and is said to have wept when painting the Crucifixion. But he was not weak. If you could see his "Last Judgement," you would immediately note the unintimidated rectitude of his judgment and his courage. He included kings and soldiers and popes in the populations of both heaven and hell.

Fra Angelico had clear artistic opportunities in both the craft guilds of his town and the Dominican Order in which he was likely educated. However, to him it was always a choice between the sacred and the profane, between the world and the church, between self aggrandizement and self abnegation, between work essentially for charity and working for large commissions, between temperance and self indulgence, between being ultimately his own boss and always being under another. Apparently for Angelico it was a simple choice. Later he would even refuse major positions in the Dominican Order, recommending others as better suited.

Saint Thomas a Kempis, in his Imitation of Christ, said, "Study therefore to wean your heart of visible things and to attend rather to the invisible. It is vanity to love what quickly passes away, and not be hastening thither where abides everlasting joy." Now, after 550 years we have an opportunity--with the help of the Metropolitan Museum--to review the works and celebrate the life of an artist who shared that vision: the medieval painter known as Fra Angelico. Here, in a show that includes no less than 75 of this painter's works--and a number of his contemporaries--is an important opportunity to rethink, to reevaluate, to reconsider where we are artistically, culturally, and even personally today.

Paul Ingbretson is a classically trained New Hampshire artist (see his work at
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Title Annotation:PURITY IN ART
Author:Ingbretson, Paul
Publication:The New American
Date:Dec 26, 2005
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