Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Annunciation

Did anyone ever paint the Annunciation better than Fra Angelico? Did anyone capture the beauty of the Madonna's face, or the wisp of gossamer fabric flowing down to the Christ child? Did anyone fabricate an angel's wing with such delicate, elegant grace? I don't think so.

I was privileged to spend this morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, which is currently offering a 70 picture exhibition of the works of Fra Angelico (literally, "The Angelic Friar," for he was a Dominican), whose real name was Giovanni da Fiesole (1387-1455). It is a stunning show, and increased my admiration for this modest genius in a black cowl. It was said that he wept whenever he painted a crucifixion, and that each stroke of his brush was preceded by prayer.

Fra Angelico and I go way back. In 1988 I wrote a fairly long paper on the Roman church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, where Fra Angelico is buried. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1984 (his feast day is February 18th). Since no one painted the Annunciation like Fra Angelico, I was determined to see the exhibition before Christmas. It wasn't too crowded, and there was a group of cheerful Dominican nuns with black habits! I also was able to help an Israeli couple grasp the meanings of certain Christian things like tabernacles and predellas (prayer kneelers).

Some of the paintings looked as fresh as the day they were painted, while others suffered from being hacked out of churches and altar pieces, but all radiated a golden light that transcended the actual gilding. Examples of works by contemporaries and students only reinforced Angelico's genius, and were (with a few exceptions: Pesellino, Sanguigni, and Strozzi) utterly lacking in that je ne sais quoi which marks a masterpiece. Below is a prime example of the Beato's achievement. My wife and I also managed to see Van Gogh's drawings, which I like better than his paintings, a lovely little exhibit of cameo jewelry (my wife's favorite), and then we stumbled through drawings on loan from the British Museum. But the Angelico's angels and Madonnas are presently filling my mind and feeding my soul.

Fra Angelico's motto: "He who does Christ's work must stay with Christ always." Amen.

{from the Prado Museum, ca.1432}

Some further examples of Fra Angelico's genius:

I think this pensive face of the Virgin is the most beautiful I have ever seen.

St. Dominic, the founder of Giovanni's order.


Blogger grant said...

The second image is currently on my desktop. Angelico is one of my favorite artists. I am so jealous that you have seen these first hand.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

New Jersey may be hectic place to live, but it does have some rewards.

11:27 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home