Saturday, 12 January 2019

Fra Angelico in 'Florence' at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The big exhibition in the world of early Renaissance art at the moment is 'Florence' at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. In particular, the exhibition boasts 11 paintings by Fra Angelico and three drawings. Most of the paintings are small predella panels but there is also the richly coloured 'Virgin and Child' that greets you at the entrance to the room that holds the collection of Fra Angelico works (as well as works by other masters).

This Virgin and Child is a late work from about 1445/50 and the Fra is at the peak of his considerable powers. The delicacy and detail of the painting, the Christ Child gazing out at the viewer offering a blessing and the serenity of the Virgin gazing at her son make this a very contemplative piece. The Virgin's halo includes the words 'Ave Maria' and the baby's halo includes the cross of the resurrection - even as a baby he was destined to die and be resurrected. The Child is also a source of light in the painting, almost radiant against the deep blues and reds of the Virgin's clothes.

A sign that this is a late painting is that the traditional cloth of gold behind the Virgin (the Fra did many paintings using this approach) does not fill the background but it is drawn back to reveal the classical columns of a Roman chamber - the influence of the ancients is starting to be felt and reflected in art. This painting was the centrepiece of the Fra Angelico exhibition at Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris in 2011.

The predella paintings are displayed as a reconstructed altarpiece to display them as they would have originally been seen. The photo was taken in a lucky rare moment when the crowds parted in front of the predella. This was at the high altar of San Marco in Florence and the main painting is in the museum at San Marco but there's a black and white copy of the painting on display to give the predella paintings their context. Six of the seven panels along the front of the altarpiece have been brought together from around the world (including paintings loaned from Dublin and Washington) and the two paintings that were on the sides of the altarpiece are also on display. The panels are slightly larger than A4 size, but that'll give you an idea of the size. These paintings tell the stories of the lives of Saints Cosmas and Damian, the doctor saints and patrons of the Medici family (Medici means 'doctor'), and their three brothers. The saints were quite popular at that time in Florence due to the Medicis and, for a time, they kept popping up in paintings.

In order, from left to right, we have 'The Healing of Palladia' (left side painting)

'Saints Cosmas and Damian and Their Brothers before the Proconsul Lysius'

'Saints Cosmas and Damian and Their Brothers are hurled into the sea and saved by an Angel; They liberate Lysius from Demons'

'Saints Cosmas and Damian and Their Brothers Surviving the Stake'

'The Entombment of Christ'

'Saints Cosmas and Damian and Their Brothers are Crucified, Stoned and Pierced with Arrows'

'The Funeral of Saints Cosmas and Damian and Their Brothers'

 'The Dream of Saint Justinian' (right side painting).

You need know the tales of the saints to fully understand what's going on in these paintings but they are very narrative and easy to follow. It's sometimes the details that are the most interesting in the paintings, such as seeing the brothers being hurled into the sea as punishment in the background of the painting, with the foreground seeing the brothers getting rid of demons - why did the Fra focus on that part of the story rather than the brothers being saved by an angel? And the very graphic way that the killing flames at the stake burn the captors rather than the brothers, all down to divine intervention. I also really like the 'Entombment' which, in context, sits directly below a small Crucifixion scene in the main altarpiece, nicely continuing that story.

The two final paintings are an annunciators angel and the Virgin, small paintings with a gold background, both early works and likely to be from the early 1420s. They were probably part of an altarpiece back then but it's not known which one. Altarpieces were often broken up and elements sold as paintings over the years, particularly during and after the Napoleonic Wars, so it's not that unusual to have parts of altarpieces framed separately and sold to raise funds for the church or monastery. That's also how paintings have ended up all over the world and bringing them together again in exhibitions like this is a great attraction.

As well as the paintings, there are also three drawings, a delicate crucifixion attributed to Fra Angelico and two others attributed to him and his workshop. They're all quite small drawings in various media. The thing that really stands out is the use of red ink for blood and for the cross of the resurrection in the halo - even while dying it's a sign that Christ will be resurrected.

The other two drawings are on different sides of the same piece of paper. One is a portrait of a cleric and the other sheet of paper holds three small drawings of St Lawrence, a woman holding a child and a young man with clasped hands. I don't know if these were simply practice drawings or meant as sketches to use at a later date in a painting. The woman and child could easily be the basis of a Virgin and Child painting at some point. The man with clasped hands reminds me of some of the figures in the frescoes in the Nicotine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome, but who knows?

It was a great thrill to see so many works by Fra Angelico brought together in one room of the 'Florence' exhibition, alongside works by other masters. Having 14 works by the Fra in a single exhibition is an astonishing number and it's amazing that these delicate, small paintings and drawings have survived in such good condition over the past 600 years. The Alte Pinakothek is lucky to have quite a few of these works in its own collection so, when the exhibition closes, they'll still be available to see upstairs in the main galleries. Thank you very much Pinakotheken for putting on such a great exhibition with so many works by Fra Angelico. Well done!

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