Review: Art for the Soul in ‘Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth’

Posted May 16, 2018 7:23 p.m. EDT

BOSTON — The most beautiful Italian Renaissance painting in the United States, “The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin” by Fra Angelico, is on full-time view but hard to find. Since 1903, the small picture has been in the same spot in the Early Italian Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here, though invisible when you enter the room. It hangs around a corner of a big, jutting-out fireplace. Unless you happened to wander over to a nearby window and glance to your left, you’d miss it.

Isabella Gardner (1840-1924), who positioned every item in her house-museum just so, and forbade rearrangement, placed the painting deliberately to give it plenty of gilt-enhancing natural light. It sets up a visual ambush but also provides a moment of solitary communion. In the chapel-like space, you can be alone with the painting, at least until someone else comes upon it and stops, wonder-struck.

At present, though, the wallflower picture is out of its corner and in the spotlight, as the centerpiece of a dream of a show through Sunday called “Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth,” in which the museum has united it with three related pictures from Italy and surrounded them with nine additional works. The ensemble, small though it is, illuminates an overlooked aspect of an artist we may think we know well: his skill, not just as gentle icon-maker but as a dramatist, a spinner of sharply observed narratives.

Born Guido di Pietro in Tuscany around 1395, Fra Angelico — angelic brother, a posthumous title — trained in the Florentine book industry as a manuscript painter and was widely regarded as a talent to watch. But rather than join an artist’s guild, which would have put him on the fast track to a lucrative career, he entered an order of Dominican monks, and specifically a back-to-basics Observant branch in Fiesole, with an in-town base at the monastery of San Marco.

Dominican life in 15th-century Florence was a complex environment. On the one hand, the order had a reputation for up-to-date learning, which attracted the loyalty and largess of high-toned patrons, notably the Medicis. At the same time, its reform-minded enclaves, committed to institutional poverty, supported themselves through handiwork, including art, and kept strong evangelistic ties to emotion-fueled popular religion.

Fra Angelico’s painting, although praised — and disparaged — by art historians over the centuries for its perceived sweetness, shares aspects of both strains. This comes through in the Gardner show, organized by Nathaniel Silver, associate curator of the museum’s collection, who has pulled off a diplomatic coup in landing unprecedented loans from the Museo San Marco, the chief repository of Fra Angelico’s work.

The most significant loans are those related directly to the Gardner’s “Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin.” That painting was one of four that Fra Angelico created from 1424 to 1434, for the sacristy of Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican mother church in Florence. All four were designed as free-standing reliquaries and encased in cabinet-like frames — since removed or replaced — embedded with sacred materials. And all four pictures are devoted to images of the Virgin Mary, with three depicting scenes from her life.

What you see first in these modest-size paintings is formal intelligence. You see the work of an artist who has a muralist’s eye for graphic surprise; a miniaturist’s sense of focus; and an opera director’s instinct for what can make ceremonial drama feel emotionally particular: the way a hand is raised, a body bends, a draped garment falls. Once an atmosphere of style-as-power is established, the heavy hardware of religious symbolism starts to feel light. Movement between heaven and earth becomes fluid. A new version of naturalism is in operation.

In what’s thought to be the earliest painting showing the Virgin’s life, “The Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi” divides roughly in half, with an image of the Annunciation floating above one of the three kings visiting the newborn Jesus. Both scenes are set against a patterned gold backdrop, like a curtain. In the Annunciation patterning also spreads across the floor: Mary and the annunciate angel are precious gems — a ruby, a sapphire — in a celestial jewel box.

The scene with the three kings has the same gold curtain behind it, but the ground is a green grass lawn sprinkled with flowers. The youngest king, slender and blond, looks unsure of what to do. He half hangs back, half approaches the baby, shyly, tentatively. He’s an amateur among professional actors of the sacred. Awed into awkwardness by the event, he’s a stand-in for us. The next painting in the series, “The Coronation of the Virgin,” is a single continuous scene that rises in tiers. At the bottom, 19 saints kneel in rows. They face a steep staircase that looks to be made of rainbow-colored clouds. At its top, an enthroned Christ reaches to steady his mother’s new crown.

The saints, for all their glamour, are earthbound. With their embroidered cloaks and crosiers, they’re too heavy, too human, to climb that cloud-staircase. Still, they’re riveted by the sight of it, or all but two of them are. In the painting’s foreground, St. Thomas Aquinas, intellectual-in-chief of the Dominican order, holds out an open book of psalms to us like a maître-d’ offering a menu. Less invitingly, farther back in the crowd, a gray-haired Saint Peter, clutching his keys to heaven, eyes us over his shoulder as if suspicious of our intrusion.

Of the Marian paintings in the show, none is more sublime than the Gardner’s own. When Bernard Berenson, who brokered its purchase, referred to it as “a darling” he wasn’t wrong. It has two separate but related scenes. In the lower one, the deceased Virgin lies in deathlike sleep amid a gathering of apostles. Four are about to lift her bier — you can sense from their postures that they are anticipating its weight — while others whisper among themselves or stare in numbed sorrow. Jesus presides over all, carrying Mary’s soul, in the form of a bright-eyed child tucked in his arm.

The second scene is about release. The Virgin soars upward, groups of angels execute a vigorous circling dance. If you look carefully you’ll see that their movements raise a breeze that lifts the hems of their gowns.

Close looking is precisely what this exquisite show encourages. It’s details that keep you looking: faces of saints as particular as high school yearbook portraits; Christ’s Passion as a stop-motion video scoured by grief and rich with Tuscan color; guiding stars that beam in the sky but also on Mary’s robe. Brother Angel was more a man of the earth than some of us knew.

Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth

Through Sunday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; 617-278-5156, gardnermuseum.org.