Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Fra Angelico at Museo del Prado, Madrid

I first heard about the Prado in Madrid and it's marvellous treasures forty years ago in 1976 when I started doing history of art at school but I'd never visited it until last month.  I was sensible and bought tickets in advance online so avoiding the enormous queue for day tickets. It was incredibly exciting to walk into that building for the first time after all these years of hearing about it - I wanted to see everything straight away, all at the same time, to bound round the corridors drinking in the incredible art on its walls.

But, first, I had to visit the Fra Angelico paintings and, as luck would have it, a large sign was hanging from the ceiling pointing the way to the Prado's latest acquisition, the 'Virgin of the Pomegranate' straight ahead and turn right. I couldn't help but catch the colour palette of a small Raphael on my left as I went into the room but it was the Virgin that my eyes were fixed on. There were a couple of people obscuring the view as I walked up to it but, miraculously, they moved on just as I got there. The Fra was with me.

The painting was acquired earlier this year from the Alba ducal collection along with a small panel that's on display behind the Virgin, apparently the last painting by Fra Angelico in a private collection. It's acquisition was a great triumph for the Prado and lucky for us that we can now see it at the Prado whenever we want. It's not very big but is truly gorgeous, covered in gold leaf and dripping in bright colours - the lapis lazuli used to create the blue of the Virgin's cloak probably cost as much as all the gold in the painting.

The colours have been marvellously preserved, probably because it's been in a  private collection for so long. The tooling of the golden haloes is astonishing and the golden cloak held by the angels is a marvel to behold, almost with the texture of silken chain-mail - it doesn't show in this photo but get up close to the painting and you can see it. Imagine seeing this painting in context back in the 15th Century lit by flickering candles and it must have been blinding in its magnificence, the colours having a heavenly glow about them and the light reflected back from all the tooling and reflections in the golden cloak. It must have been astonishing.

Mounted on the back of the display cabinet for the Virgin is a small predella panel for the 'Death of Saint Anthony Abbot'. I'm not sure which altarpiece this was part of the predella for (the paintings along the bottom of the main altar image) so that leaves me with some homework. My favourite person in the painting is the monk to the right with both arms raised in shock that echoes the actions of one of the monks in Giotto's frescoes in the chapel in Santa Croce in Florence on the death of Saint Francis.

Standing in front of the Virgin and looking to the right, through the doorway and up a few stairs is a masterpiece by Fra Angelico that I've seen many times in books but never in the flesh, 'The Annunciation'. I don't know if the frame is original but the glorious altarpiece retains its predella with scenes from the the life of the Virgin, ending with her death and ascension.

The colours in this altarpiece are wonderful, with rich pinks and blues and the gold leaf haloes you expect to see. On the left we see Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden in rough clothing, a scene that merges with the Virgin's garden outside her house, full of delicate plants and flowers - I saw carnations in bud in the garden but couldn't identify the other plants. Gabriel is ethereal and delicate, bowing gracefully before the mother of god to be as he delivers the news that she will be the mother of the Christ.

After I'd looked at the details I took a few steps back and sat on the bench conveniently situated in front of the altarpiece to gaze and absorb the beauty of this painting. So simple and so complex at the same time. How beautiful it is.

Then, with a backward glance, I went off to explore the rest of the Prado's amazing collection (and the Raphael I'd glimpsed earlier). Halls full of Rubens and Titians and Velazquez's and so many, many more, lunch in the full to capacity cafe, then Goyas and a host of artists I'd never heard of. Five hours later I was back sitting in front of 'The Annunciation' and saying farewell to the 'Virgin of the Pomegranate' before heading to the shop to buy postcards and other images of these glorious paintings as keepsakes.

I've finally been to the Prado and I've seen the glory of Fra Angelico once again. Brother Giovanni never lets you down.

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