Tuesday, 18 October 2016

'The Virgin and Child Adored by Angels and Saint Dominic, with Saint Peter and Saint Paul' by Fra Angelico and Studio

Today I went over to Oxford to visit the Ashmolean Museum to see this Virgin and Child altarpiece attributed here to Fra Angelico and studio. It's a small portable triptych, about 18" tall and made of tempera and gilding on wooden panels. These devotional pieces were made for the rich and powerful to use for personal worship as they travelled round their domains and beyond. The most famous one is the Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery, i.e. two panels rather than three, that was made for Edward II. There's no indication who this one might have been made for.

If you look carefully, the hinges are quite intrusive and the two side panels aren't the same size. This really suggests that the panels were added later to make it a triptych. It's a bit of a puzzle really. The notes beside the painting say that the panels 'have been cut down' and may have been 'altered or assembled' at a later date. I don't think there's any 'may' about it, the two wings were added to the original painting. And see below how the cutting gets so close to cutting into the haloes of the saints.

Taking a closer look, it's clear that the central panel wasn't by the good Fra - just look at the face of the Virgin and then at the wings of the angels. The face bears little resemblance to any other faces of the Virgin the Fra painted and the punch work on the gilding of the halo is really quite basic for someone who's supposed to be the mother of god. The Fra also knew that angels wings were multi-coloured and these aren't.

I wonder whether there's been any chemical analysis of the paint. The blue of the Virgin's cloak doesn't resemble the deep, deep blue of the Fra's Virgins or even the blue of the two saints on the wings. That suggests it's not the incredibly expensive lapis lazuli the Fra normally used.

The notes beside the painting say that, 'The central panel may be by an artist close to Benozzo Gozzoli, his senior assistant' and I'd agree with that - not by Fra Angelico but someone who's studied his works. I've no idea what 'close to' is supposed to mean.

Turning to the two saints on the wings is where I have real problems accepting that they might be by Fra Angelico. To be fair, the notes beside the painting state that they are 'probably by Fra Angelico', not definitely. The faces of the two saints are rather roughly painted and muddy, as are their feet, and that's something the Fra never did.

If you've seen the detail of the San Domenico predella in the National Gallery, in which the Fra paints dozens and dozens of figures smaller that the saints in this painting (including these saints), then there's no comparison. Where is the detail and the delicacy the Fra is famed for? I don't understand why the curators at the Ashmolean seem to think that these saints were 'probably' by the Fra?

Also, given that the wings to the triptych were obviously added later, I don't really see why the Fra would have a couple of paintings of saints hanging around on the off-chance that they could be attached to something else at a later date. That makes little sense to me really. Isn't that what apprentices are for?

I'm not a specialist but I have seen a lot of Fra Angelico paintings, numbering into maybe three figures bearing in mind San Marco and the exhibition at the Musee Jacquemart-Andree a few years ago. That makes me consider that this altarpiece is not by Fra Angelico but it does bear enough similarities - the composition and the colour palette - to make me think it is from his workshop. That means he probably saw it (or at least it's component parts) and maybe touched it.

The Big Book of Fra Angelico will note this as from the 'Workshop of Fra Angelico' until I see something to convince me otherwise.

It's still a lovely painting though, and I'm pleased I've had the chance to look at it in such detail. 

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