Thursday, 15 December 2016

'The Madonna of Humility' by Fra Angelico at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

On Sunday I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see great paintings from the Northern painters  over the centuries and in particular to see a small altarpiece by Fra Angelico, 'Madonna of Humility'. The good Fra painted a number of small, devotional altarpieces with the Virgin and Child that we call 'Virgin of Humility' but they were probably called something very different at the time, more likely named after the donor who commissioned the work, either an individual, a family or an institution of some kind. The relatively small size of this painting suggests it was either for a small private chapel or for a domestic altar in a private home. I don't know who or what institution this altarpiece was painted for but, whoever it was, they were very lucky to have such a gorgeous work from the Fra.

Exploring and wandering past early Dutch and Flemish paintings you see a wall with a small group of golden paintings glowing in the gallery lights. These are early Renaissance Italian paintings with the Fra Angelico in the middle, the pride of this collection.  They have the gold leaf gilding and glowing colours that is the tell tale give away of when they were painted and this is also the most obvious difference with the Fra's works as he moved away from the plain gilded background to his richly textured cloth of gold that has a lovely warm glow.

This is where you can notice the big difference with similar paintings by the Fra. How is the cloth of gold held up and where are the angels? Look at this 'Virgin of Humility' in the Thyssen-Bornemesza  collection and the composition is very similar to the Rijksmuseum version and here you can see the cloth of gold being held by three angels, framing the holy family. This suggests to me that the Rijksmuseum panel has been cut down from a larger altarpiece so that the angels are removed and so is half of the Virgin's halo. I suspect (and hope) that there are some angel heads framed in gold and in a museum somewhere that belong with this altarpiece. Maybe I'll find them one day.

The frame it is currently in is very nice, reflecting the colours of the painting, with stars against a blue sky painted around the curved top of the frame and the golden detail of the side panels. I would be very happy to have this painting on my wall.

It's a very gentle and peaceful composition that works well as a whole, with the slight blush on the Virgin's cheek and the infant reaching out to his mother. One of the joys of seeing paintings 'in the paint' in front of you is that you can examine the detail which you often can't by looking in books or online reproductions. Look at the folds in the Virgin's blue cloak and pink dress and the detail of the hem in which the golden pattern continues and reflects the folds. Given how relatively small the overall work is, this is incredibly detailed work that blurs even just standing a few feet away. This is partly the fine finishing detail of an important commission but also suggests the altarpiece was meant to be seen quite close-up.

Similarly the detail on the cloth of the golden cushion the Virgin sits on and the cloth of gold behind her which folds over to indicate it is being held in three dimensions rather than being hung as a prop. It's this detail that marks a great painting by a master who has the vision for the overall composition but who can also see the detail that brings the work alive.

My recent course at the National Gallery in London included a session on how paintings are hung in galleries and this is something I've started to notice. The Fra's altarpiece here is screwed  to the wall with heavy, thick bolts that you can just see in the shadow in this photo. Unusually, it's possible to get a view of the side of the frame from the doorway just a few yards away from where it hangs. It'll take time and effort to remove this painting from the wall!

It was lovely to see this wonderful altarpiece by Fra Angelico. I smiled when I saw it across the gallery and headed straight for it. The clever people at the Rijksmuseum have thoughtfully placed a comfortable bench in front of it so you can sit and gaze up at it. It's also a joy to get right up close and admire and enjoy the delicate details in the painting. Thank you Brother John for bringing more light into our lives.

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