Encountering The Divine: Fra Angelico at the Gardner Museum

Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro, c.1395 - 1455) was described by Vasari in his Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori as "an excellent painter and illuminator, and ... a perfect monk". Vasari also lauded the Angelic Friar's surprising piety in the face of his immense artistic talents. Angelico ably captured the Catholic imagination of the Early Renaissance with his unusually sensitive and humanistic depictions of normally distant saints. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's current exhibition on the artist provides an incredible opportunity to see a series of Angelico's gold-drenched reliquaries, which invite viewers to look deeply and intimately at revelatory and beatific scenes.

On view at the Gardner Museum in Boston February 22 - May 20, Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth is an excellent show featuring stunning pieces. It is described by the Museum thus: 

 

Heaven on Earth reunites the Gardner's magnificent Assumption and Dormition of the Virgin, acquired by Isabella in 1899 and the first Fra Angelico to reach the United States, with its three companions from the Museo di San Marco, Florence. Conceived as a set of jewel-like reliquaries for the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella, they tell the story of the Virgin Mary's life. This exhibition invites you to explore Fra Angelico's ground-breaking narrative art, marvel at his peerless creativity, and immerse yourself in the material splendor of his craftsmanship.

 

The exhibition lives up to its promise, bringing together companion artworks that are rarely seen outside of their home at the Museo di San Marco in Florence. The reliquaries are presented in an ecclesiastically-inspired architectural setting constructed within the Museum's rotating exhibitions gallery. This context serves the practical purpose of highlighting the relatively small works within the Gardner's relatively large exhibition space. It also reminds viewers of the original intent of the pieces, which were housed at the Dominican Friars' Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and were meant for quite a personal kind of devotion.

 Fra Angelico (c. 1395 - 1455),  Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin , tempera with oil glazes and gold on panel, 1424-1434, 24 5/16"x15 1/16", Collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA

Fra Angelico (c. 1395 - 1455), Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin, tempera with oil glazes and gold on panel, 1424-1434, 24 5/16"x15 1/16", Collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA

The works on view are full of lively interactions between God and his holy courtiers. These are underscored by Angelico's eye for the humanity of his subjects, which gives them a vitality remarkable for the time. Each reliquary is also imbued with a sense of humor. Looking closely one can find a waiting angel with hands on hips, or St. Peter looking over his shoulder at the viewer. There are a few moments in which saintly observers of heavenly sights turn to the on-looker and invite them closer into the scene, fulfilling their traditional intercessory role.

In 1899, when Isabella Stewart Gardner purchased Angelico's Assumption and Dormition of The Virgin (1424-1434) it was the first piece by the artist to come to the United States. Gardner and her contemporaries were no doubt drawn to Angelico's work due to his technical virtuosity and the timeless beauty of his paintings. In bringing this stunning object to Boston, Gardner added to her own esteem as a collector with a refined eye. She also set the stage for viewers to encounter Fra Angelico's vision of the divine.

This exhibition is a rare and wonderful opportunity not only to see the Gardner's Angelico reunited with its peer reliquaries from Florence, but also to see these works in relation to the Gardner Museum's extensive and eclectic holdings. By viewing Gardner's collection in her original "Fenway Court" and carefully looking at the works in Heaven on Earth, visitors will not only gain an understanding of the connoisseurship that compelled Isabella to buy her Fra Angelico. They will come away with a sense of the deep faith and spirituality that drove the artist to create it in the first place.