“Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth,” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is being billed as a reunion. The master painted four reliquaries for Santa Maria Novella in Florence during the second quarter of the Quattrocento. Heroic research executed in conjunction with this exhibition establishes with great conviction that Giorgio Vasari referred to these works in particular in his writings. Napoleonic haranguing of Italian Christendom obliged a de-acquisition in the early 1800s. By 1816, one of them, The Dormition and the Assumption of the Virgin (1424-34), was in the hands of an English rector.
Bernard Berenson, discovering its availability in 1898, unabashedly pleaded with Isabella to buy it: “If you let this one go, you must I fear give up every thought of ever owning a Fra Angelico. So, I beg you for your collection’s sake to take it, cabling me YELICO with the word Paris or Boston added, according as you wish it shipped and at the same time sending me the cheque.” He finally prevailed in lengthy and troubled negotiations to obtain it from a failing baron.
A photograph from 1926 in the superb catalogue shows the painting precisely where it is installed nowawadays (though not at the moment), hanging on the side of the fireplace in the Early Italian Room, above a Pinturicchio Virgin and Child (ca. 1490-95). This is an inconspicuous corner to which I drag any first-time visitors to the Gardner as soon as we climb the first set of stairs. (Come with me to the museum sometime, and I promise you an earful of rantings from an irredeemable art nerd.)
There are three reasons for my favoring this unassuming corner. One, it allows me to extol the virtues of egg tempera. Unlike oil paint, it neither darkens nor yellows. Varnishes also darken and yellow, but egg tempera colors dry to a uniform satin finish and consequently don’t need them. (Oils do, because lights and darks dry to markedly different levels of gloss, and a varnish unifies the surface.) The Pinturicchio is also a tempera painting, but some kind of oily layer, a glaze or a varnish, has failed on it in a typical way. Mary’s robe is the color of slate and the texture of alligator. In contrast, the Fra Angelico looks like it was painted last week.
Two, it’s an opportunity to point out that the Renaissance project of ever-increasing naturalism did not necessarily result in better art. The term “Italian Primitive” struck me as inapt the first time I heard it—Botticelli? Primitive?—but a pesky idea about progress in art causes people to mistake technical improvements for aesthetic improvements. The Pinturicchio Mary is a more specific portrait than Fra Angelico’s. (Also the young Jesus looks something like a real toddler.) And yet that additional observation lends it no edge at all over the older master. This raises the interesting question of whether art has ever advanced stylistically.
Three, this is the best thing in the building. That’s with competition like the Botticelli Virgin and Child with an Angel, the Piero della Francesca Hercules, the Holbein portraits, and much else. Something about the extraordinary complexity and intricacy, marshaled into a purposeful design and executed by the artist’s gifted yet humble hand, makes it unique in the collection. “Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth,” on through May 20, displays it in a Santa Maria Novella-inspired construction in the Gardner’s new wing. The old companions stand alongside one another, giving them a context that they haven’t had in over two centuries. Or, really, ever. Even when the four panels were originally together back in Florence they wouldn’t have been displayed in a circle like this. They were commissioned to be presented on particular feast days, one at a time throughout the calendar. Therefore they might have been admired as a group only by a handful of priests, monks, and beadles over the course of 350 years.
The works appear in estimated chronological order, with all of them dated 1424-34. The first, The Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi, is the most hesitantly executed and weakly attributed. It looks Sienese—that is to say, Byzantine—though not enough to disprove the master’s authorship. It is, in any case, sumptuous, with figures lovingly rendered in front of a background of gold tooled into red bole.
The second is The Coronation of the Virgin, in which the crowning takes place atop a flight of stairs marbled with the whole color wheel. (The artist must have been pondering what marble looks like in Heaven. Obviously it’s not like our relatively boring stuff here on Earth.) Saints crowd in below, facing the scene. The exception is Thomas Aquinas, who, in an act of pictorial self-consciousness that we don’t normally associate with this kind of work, looks at the viewer and shows us an open book upon which Psalm 104:13 (“Thou waterest the hills from thy upper rooms: the earth shall be filled with the fruit of thy works”) was once legibly inscribed.
The third is the Gardner’s Dormition and Assumption. I hope you’ll indulge my saying that we Bostonians have the best of the four Santa Maria Novella reliquaries. Chronologically, I think that this one could be the fourth instead of the third, based on its maximal surety and complexity. Dr. Nathaniel Silver, the curator of “Heaven on Earth,” permits me this view. A ring of clouds, in correct perspective, supports angels who welcome Mary. Her blue robe a tint lighter than the one she wears on her deathbed below, she ascends as if via a spinning of mystical gears.
The fourth is a comparatively simple effort, The Madonna della Stella. Among much that one could marvel at about this, the larger figures allow an opportunity to admire the modeling of their robes. The difficulty of painting this kind of shading in egg tempera is one of the things that prompted the near-total switch to oil across Europe, once reliable formulas were worked out. Fra Angelico’s technique is engrossing in its flawlessness.
The cumulative effect of the four is the sort of sublimity that prompts a critic to throw his hands up. Such beauty, such perfection. One could spend a lifetime admiring them and it would be a good life.
That goes just as well for the handful of other works on display. Of note is a collaboration between Fra Angelico and Zanobi Strozzi, a series of six small panels from 1437-40 illustrating the condemnation and martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian. I will go ahead and call it a comic. The saints, having survived attempts to drown them in Panel #3 and burn them in Panel #4, have been hoisted onto poles to be used as target practice in Panel #5. That doesn’t go well either. A cocked arrow is making a U-turn at the shooter even before being fired. As a heathen casts a stone at the helpless saints, another stone has lodged in his forehead, drawing drops of crimson blood.
The Gardner argues that Fra Angelico’s piety, genuine though likely oversold by Vasari, did not contradict a plausible ambition to avail himself of the deep intellectual and artistic networks—and commensurately wide patronage—that went along with membership in the Dominican Order. “Heaven on Earth” makes the case. Not only is Fra Angelico shown to be one of the greatest of masters, as one would expect, but also an inspired experimenter, unpredictable, gifted with a broad feel for subject and form, and consummately charming at every turn.