Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Fra Angelico in Rome

My recent visit to Rome included visiting four places to learn more about Fra Angelico and see more of his works. These included the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, The Niccoline Chapel in the Vatican Museums, the Pinacoteca in the Vatican Museums and the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Palazzo Corsini, also called Galleria Corsini.

Fra Angelico worked in Rome in his later years and died there in 1455. He is buried in Santa Maria sopra Minerva and that's where I found this lovely stained glass window of him at the end of a corridor near his tomb. As a Dominican friar it shows him in his habit of a white robe under a black cloak, paint brush in one hand and the other holding a painting of the Virgin and Child. I couldn't help but smile when I saw this modern day honour.

Fra Angelico's tomb is in the vestibule to the left of the main altar, next to the small Frangipane Chapel. The tomb is about one foot high, made of marble and surrounded by a chain. It is carved with the figure of a friar and the Latin inscription on the bottom reads, 'Here is buried the venerable painter, friar Giovani of Fiesole of the Preachers' Order (1455)'. Just in front of the tomb is a stand for candles to be lit and left for the good Fra, which of course, we did. The Fra is one of the Blessed and, later, I was touched to see three Dominican monks enter the vestibule and walk into the church, and one of them knelt down to touch the tomb as he passed. Fra Angelico was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982.

The Frangipane Chapel beside the vestibule opens onto the tomb and, from that side, you can read the name inscribed on the side of the tomb, Beato Angelico. Above the altar in the chapel is a painting of the Virgin and Child that was originally thought to be by Fra Angelico but is now ascribed to his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli. Underneath the painting is an epitaph to Fra Angelico in Latin. As ever, different sources translate it slightly differently but this is the translation from the church itself:

"Do not praise me for having been like another Apelles
But for having given, oh Christ, all my earnings to the poor
There are works indeed that remain on earth and others (that hold good) in heaven
The city, flower of Tuscany, gave me birth."

I've waited a long time to visit the tomb of Fra Angelico so I'm pleased I was finally able to do so.

The next day I wandered down the road beside the Tiber to find the Galleria Corsini and a marvellous triptych by Fra Angelico that I later realised that I'd seen in an exhibition of Fra Angelico's works in the Museo Jacquemart-Andre in Paris in 2011. This is a small altarpiece showing the Ascension, the Last Judgement and Pentecost.

The vibrant colours glow and the gold leaf is laid on in intricate patterns and almost shimmied in the morning sunlight from a nearby window (that didn't shine on the painting itself, of course). It made me imagine seeing the altarpiece in a small, dim chapel, lit only by candles that would flicker and make the golden heaven behind Christ move and bring him to life. I wish someone would do that some day and then film it so we can see how the altarpiece would have looked 500 years ago.

The Galleria Corsini was very quiet when I was there so I could spend plenty of time looking at the painting and it was good to notice the figure of St Peter looks the same in all three parts of the altarpiece - his face is the same, only the hair changes to grey in 'The Last Judgement' since, presumably, that will be some time in the future when he's aged. Sometimes it's the small details that matter in paintings.

One of the jewels of the Vatican Museums is the Niccoline Chapel of Pope Nicholas V which was painted by Fra Angelico and his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli. It's one of the rooms that is normally closed to visitors to the Vatican but it's possible to book a tour that includes a visit to the chapel. It's a small chapel and the frescoes tell the stories of St Stephen and St Lawrence, early deacons of the church who were martyred. The Fra gives us an abbreviated version of their lives and martyrdom in simple story-telling scenes and gorgeous colours. We see the saints preaching and handing out alms and we see them killed, St Stephen stoned to death and St Lawrence burned alive on a griddle. Not terribly pleasant but a timely reminder to the popes and his cardinals of the trials the early saints went through. As ever, the Fra's narrative designs are easy to follow and it's the detail of the faces and the expressions that draw you into the paintings.

As ever, it's the detail that matters and, in the Niccoline Chapel, there are two details that make me wonder. One is St Stephen preaching to the women of Jerusalem and another is the young man in expensive robes at the court hearing for St Lawrence.

The young man is clearly in the court on the edge of the crowd but seems to be distracted and is looking over he shoulder to where we see St Lawrence being burned alive on the griddle. In part, he's signposting us to the next scene in the story but I wonder what he's thinking? He's wringing his hands so is he wondering if the court has (or is about to) make the right decision? Is he wondering how something this cruel can happen in his presence and why does God allow it? I don't know but I'll consult my book about the restoration of the frescoes to see if it sheds any light on the young man. The Vatican has published a lovely book about the frescoes and their cleaning which is well worth looking at.

Elsewhere in the Vatican Museums is the Pinacoteca, the picture gallery with a range of paintings collected by the Popes over the years. It includes three paintings by Fra Angelico, two predella paintings of the life of St Nicolas of Bari and a small Virgin and Child that, unfortunately, was out on loan when I visited.

The first panel shows the birth of St Nicholas, his discovery of a vocation by listening to a Christian preacher and his giving away of his worldly goods as the dowries for three sisters. The second shows him meeting a legate and providing grain to a city before saving the ship that delivered the grain in a storm. The colours are unmistakably Early Renaissance and the story-telling is Fra Angelico. He can tell a story in a very simple narrative that anyone can read, particularly people at the time who would have had a grounding in the stories of the lives of the saints.

It was disappointing not to see the small Virgin and Child altarpiece but it's also good to know that it's out in the world showing the beauty of Fra Angelico's works and the power of his beliefs.

I will treasure the memories of this trip to Rome to see the glory that is Fra Angelico. I wonder if there are other paintings there that I didn't find? 

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