Thursday, 24 November 2016

'The Virgin of Humility' by Fra Angelico (Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection)

Earlier this week I flew to Barcelona to see a wonderful altarpiece by Fra Angelico. 'The Virgin of Humility' is on permanent loan to the National Museum of Art of Catalonia from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid.  The painting was further loaned to CaixaForum for its current exhibition of Thyssen Collection paintings, 'A Thyssen Never Seen'.  So it was to the CaixaForum that I found myself walking to on a grey, drizzly Monday morning.

The very civilised Thyssen-Bornemisza and CaixaForum allow photography so these are photos I took on my phone to show what the altarpiece actually looks like rather than versions nicked from the Internet. I haven't manipulated the images in any way - this is what the altarpiece looks like including with and without the frame. I can't read the catalogue so don't know anything about the frame but suspect it was added when the painting was part of the collection of Leopold II of Belgium (the plaque at the foot of the altarpiece names him as 'owner'). The style suggests it's later than the Fra painted but fully in keeping with how we see Renaissance religious paintings today.

It's worth bearing in mind that 'Virgin of Humility' is what we call this altarpiece rather than how the Fra referred to it. Paintings with this title often show the Virgin sitting in a natural setting - in a field, or a room - whereas this painting clearly shows the Virgin in the court of Heaven with its golden background and cast of angels with spotted wings. The angels hold a cloth of gold behind the Virgin and Child while two more serenade them at their feet.  The cloth is fabulously detailed with each golden rosette carefully scratched to create a three dimensional effect so you see the folds and creases. You can't really see that in online images and that's why you need to see the real painting 'in the paint' so to speak. It's all very clever and very effective.

There's an awful lot of gold leaf in this altarpiece and I've no idea who did that for the Fra and how they worked together. When you get up close you can also see the creases in the thick cushion the Virgin is sitting on so this is clearly a painting for a church or donor of high status. I need to do more research.

I really love the composition of this altarpiece. The Virgin holding her son and the Infant nuzzling up to his mother, cheek to cheek, while offering her a lily. When you get close you can see that the Child is wearing a shirt underneath his pink robe and you can see the almost invisible folds of the cloth along his arm. You can also see the Virgin's hair underneath and to the side of her veils, curling beneath her ear. That suggests that this painting was meant to be seen up close, at least by some privileged people. Including me.

I puzzled over the writing in the Virgin's halo - I stood for some time trying to work out what it said and failed. Anybody know?

The overwhelming impression of this painting is blue and gold, both rich colours, the pink of the Child reflecting the red of the Virgin's robe covering her midriff creating a link. It's a very tender composition, exquisitely finished, peaceful and calm. It's a delight to see this altarpiece from the Angelic One.

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