Sunday, 17 September 2017

Fra Angelico in The Louvre, Paris

The Louvre has an impressive collection of paintings by Fra Angelico, including a major altarpiece and a large fresco. It's easy to find them since they're opposite the entrance to the Italian room or corridor which starts off with the early Italian paintings at one end and gradually goes through the centuries as you wander along. There are seven works on display so make sure you see them all.

The first you come to is a large fresco of 'The Crucifixion' removed from Florence by easing the plaster off the wall and attaching it to a new backing to hold it together. This was done in the mid-1800s and sold by an art-dealer at the time. It's about ten feet tall and so the characters are virtually life-sized and shows the crucified Christ with Mary and St John the Evangelist, with St Dominic kneeing at the bottom of the cross. Stylistically, it's similar to some of the smaller crucifixion scenes at San Marco in Florence.

The fresco is on the wall in the ante-room before you enter the main Italian room and, if my visit was anything to go by, is largely missed by visitors who walk straight into the room without really looking at the paintings in the ante-room.

I particularly liked the characterisation of St John, looking up at his Lord and wringing his hands as the mortal man dies on the cross before he rises three days later. Look at the anguish in his eyes as he looks up. The fingers don't look quite right as his hands are clasped tightly and I've seen better representations by the Fra of this anguish but it's still an arresting vision. I suspect both St John's and Mary's robes would be brighter if the fresco was cleaned with modern techniques but I also suspect that could be dangerous given the history of the fresco now that it's no longer properly attached to a wall.

Walking past 'The Crucifixion' you're faced with the large 'The Coronation of The Virgin' which is directly opposite the entrance door to the Italian room. It shows Mary being crowned Queen of Heaven by Jesus, surrounded by angels, saints and other dignitaries. It makes the viewer almost a spectator at the event since the viewer would be kneeling and looking up as well. It's bright and colourful and very noticeable. The court of heaven of angels and apostles is separated from the mundane world by the figures kneeling and looking up at the heavenly pair.

There are seven predella scenes beneath the coronation scene that focus on the Dominican order, starting with St Dominic as a pillar of the church, literally holding it up with his own body. The central scene is the resurrection to remind the viewer how Jesus became the one to crown the Virgin.

I really liked the small scene with angels apparently serving the Dominican friars at a table - I don't know which tale this is meant to represent but I'll find out.

A detail I really liked was the figure of the bishop at the bottom-centre with his green robe with small scenes of the life of the Christ embroidered into the cloak at the back to make sure that even when facing the altar, the congregation still sees the life of Christ on his back. As ever, it's the detail that's fascinating and this shows the Fra's early training as a miniaturist. The embroidered scenes are very detailed and you'd have to be quite close to see them properly. It's almost a 'show off' moment for the Fra since the bishop is placed virtually central on the panel - it's almost saying 'look what I can do', 'look at the detail I could paint if you commissioned me and paid me for it to the friary'. It's really impressive.

I've seen clerical robes like this with embroidered scenes on the back displayed in the museum at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, although none were green.

The third work by Fra Angelico hangs on the wall beside the 'Coronation' and is a small predella scene of 'The Martyrdom of Saints Cosmo and Damian'. They were doctors and brothers and the patron saints of the Medicis who had funded the building of the Fra's friary of San Marco in Florence. They even had their own cell in the convent that was decorated with two scenes by Fra Angelico. It looks like it's part of the same predella about the saints that are housed in Munich and Dublic (neither of which I've yet seen but they are on my list to visit when I can).

The remaining four works by Fra Angelico are all fragments that are housed in a glass case against the wall to the left of the 'Coronation' as you stand with your back to it. Unfortunately, the case faces a window so it's not that easy to see them properly without dodging round to avoid the reflections. They comprise a predella panel showing the beheading of St John the Baptist, a small round figure of Christ and two angels facing each other.

The predella panel shows three scenes in one painting: the beheading of St John, a servant carrying his head into the banqueting room and Salome dancing to entrance the king into giving her her wish for his head. It's very cleverly done but I don't know which altarpiece this was part of the predella for.

The small figure of Christ is similar to the Fra's painting of the 'Blessed Redeemer' in the Royal Collection and currently on loan to the National Gallery in London. Christ is shown from the waist up offering a blessing. It's probably from the pinnacle of an altarpiece but I don't know which one.

My favourites were the two angels that quite possibly have been looking at each other from other sides of an altarpiece for 500 years and now look at each other in a glass case. They're not the same angel simply reversed, they are different if you look closely. The most obvious difference to me was in the positioning of the fingers of the hands crossing their chests - they're slightly different in each painting. Also look at the hair, which is different in each angel. It reminds me of something mentioned on one of my courses last year that Christ is often shown with hair that is blond/reddish to mark his difference from mere mortals in a place where the main hair-colour is dark. These angels are following suit. They are lovely and I'm only sorry I couldn't take a better photo of them.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Louvre didn't have more Fra Angelico treasures, other fragments not on display or drawings attributed to the Fra and his workshop, but these seven works are on public display to enjoy and admire. All photos were taken by me so don't let that influence you. They are all gorgeous and well worth spending some time to see if you're in the Louvre. 

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