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Staff Report

NEW YORK, 1 NOVEMBER 2005—In 1984, Fra Angelico was beatified —the first step in the process toward sainthood—by Pope John Paul II, who also decreed him the patron of artists. Small wonder when one contemplates the exquisite and deeply moving wooden altar panels by the Dominican friar on view until 29 January 2006 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And while much of Angelico's enduring popularity rests on his frescoes—especially those painted in the dormitory cells at the convent of San Marco in Florence and in the Chapel of Pope Nicholas V in the Vatican—and on altarpieces too large or too fragile to be safely transported, the nearly complete selection of his works of smaller scale on display manage to give some idea of the entire range of the development of his genius over the full course of his career.

Born in the countryside north of Florence, Guido di Pietro was already an established artist when he joined the Dominican order sometime between 1419 and 1422, taking for himself the name Fra Giovanni. He received commissions for important altarpieces from his own monastery San Domenico in Fiesole, from other Dominican houses in Florence, Cortona, and Perugia, and from religious institutions as far away as Brescia in the north of Italy and Orvieto and Rome to the south.

The Apostle Saint James the Great Freeing the Magician Hermogenes, ca. 1429–30
Fra Angelico (Italian, 1390/5–1455)
Tempera and gold on panel; 10 x 8 7/8 in.
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
© 2004 Kimbell Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

His prominence as an artist was challenged in Florence only by the brief and meteoric career of Masaccio (1401-1428), many of whose innovations Angelico anticipated in his own, still little-understood early works. By the time Masaccio left Florence for Rome in 1427, Angelico was indisputably the leading painter in Tuscany, a position he maintained for nearly 30 years, eclipsing the reputations of such gifted artists as Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), Domenico Veneziano (about 1410-1461), and even the young Piero della Francesca (about 1406/12-1492).

Fra Angelico:The Stigmatization of Saint Francis (circa 1428-29)
 Photo credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Known for his pious treatment of religious subjects—which he portrayed with unprecedented psychological penetration and a compelling realism—Fra Giovanni was first called "pictor angelicus," the Angelic Painter, shortly after his death in 1455, a name that came to be rendered in English as Fra Angelico. That said, Fra Angelico's naturalist pictures are never sentimental, although they can strike the modern eye as a bit sweet and his piety naive. One could say the same thing about Bach's choral masterpieces, but it does not make them any less great as works of artistic genius or profund interiority.  Further, the Dominican friar's works demonstrate considerable sophistication. His use of jewel-rich, buoyant colour and the precision in tiny details are but two of the many elements that conribute to the poetry, elegance and sumptuous glow of his paintings.

Fra Angelico: The Annunciatory Angel, left, and The Virgin Annunciate (1429-30)
tempera and gold on panel, each 12-3/8 by 10 in.)

© Detroit Institute Of Arts
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

The retrospective reunites approximately 75 paintings, drawings, and manuscript illuminations covering all periods of the artist’s career, from ca. 1410 to 1455. Included are several new attributions and paintings never before exhibited publicly, as well as numerous reconstructions of dispersed complexes, some reunited for the first time. An additional 45 works by Fra Angelico's assistants and closest followers illustrate the spread and continuity of his influence into the second half of the 15th century.

A once-in-a-lifetime show, local visitors and culture travellers should schedule at least two hours for the exhibition with the possibility of a second viewing in order to revisit favourite pictures or those that were difficult to see because of the inevitable crowds.

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