Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Fra Angelico in Boston

The people of Boston are very lucky in that they have three works by Fra Angelico on public display in the city. It is my duty and delight to report my sightings of new Fra Angelico paintings when I find them - sometimes I know they're there and visit places specifically to see them but, now and then, I have a surprise and find one that I wasn't expecting (which is another joy all together).

The most glorious of the Boston Fra Angelico works is the small panel bought by Isabella Stewart Gardner and is on show in her museum, 'The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin'. It's currently on display as part of the 'Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth' exhibition in the new wing at the Gardner Museum along with the three other reliquaries that the Fra painted for Santa Maria Novella in Florence as well as other works on loan to the exhibition.

It's part of Gardner's will that endows the Museum that the works can't be moved from where she placed them around her house other than for a short time for internal exhibitions. That will be why the other three reliquaries had to come to Boston from Florence rather than sending the Gardner reliquary to Florence.

The panel is normally hung on the side of a wooden fireplace in Gardner's mansion house beside a north-facing window in a corner room on the second floor (the first floor to British people). Apparently it was placed there deliberately so it receives constant light during the day rather than the vagaries of morning and afternoon light. This emerged during a very interesting talk from one of the museum experts in the Fra Angelico exhibition while I was there.

The second Boston Fra was an accidental find in the Museum of Fine Art (I really ought to do my homework properly). It's a small octagonal panel, about 10" x 10", hung a bit too high up on the wall in a corridor gallery in Room 219 on the second (i.e. the first) floor. It's a bit of a hodgepodge of art works in that corridor and it would be easy to miss the painting if the colours didn't attract my eye and, on a closer inspection, it's clearly by Fra Angelico. The painting is titled, 'Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints Peter, Paul and George (?), Four Angels and a Donor'. The label mentioned that a head of Christ used to be on the other side of the panel but doesn't mention where it is now.

The scene takes place in a garden - just look at all those tiny flowers - which makes the figure pf St George look even more awkward in his bulky armour. I can't think of any other painting by Fra Angelico that includes St George which may be why there is a question mark in the title after his name. The saint I recognised immediately was St Peter, not simply because he holds the keys or that he's dressed in his traditional blue and orange, but look at his face. I've seen that face before, such as in the Corsini triptych in which St Peter looks the same. I wonder if the Fra had a consistent approach to faces so that different saints always had the same face so that viewers could recognise them by their features and not just by their symbols? I shall have to do some research into this.

The third Boston Fra Angelico work is in the Harvard Art Museums, 'Christ on the Cross, the Virgin, Saint John the Evangelist and Cardinal Torquemada'. It's a very late work (estimated at 1453-54 and the Fra died in 1455) and is thought to have been commissioned by the cardinal with whom the Fra stayed with in Rome while working for the Pope. It's the central panel of a triptych, a tabernacle altarpiece that would travel round with the cardinal as a personal devotional piece. I don't know where the other two wings of the tabernacle are now.

It's an interesting, if rather stern, piece, with Adam's skull at the bottom of the Cross and the Cross turns into the tree of life at the top with a nesting pelican wounding itself to feed it's young, a symbol of Christ's sacrifice. Christ's blood flows down to the cardinal's red hat as he kneels there praying to his lord. Saint John looks particularly upset, with his hand pressed to his face and it looks like he's been crying.

I don't know if it was the snow, the time of day or the season, but the museum wasn't very busy at all which meant I could spend some time undisturbed in front of the altarpiece. It's hung on the wall in a glass case with a few paintings by Botticelli and his school on the adjoining wall.

So, there you are, the three Fra Angelico's of Boston. All are lovely and all are interesting in different ways. It's always rewarding looking at the detail in Fra paintings and these paintings have given me a new quest, to compare faces in different works by the Fra to see comparisons and differences in the same characters. Watch this space!

No comments: