Monday, 24 June 2019

'Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance' at the Prado, Madrid

This is the second great exhibition this year about the Florentine renaissance (the first being at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich) but this exhibition at the Prado focuses on Fra Angelico in the years 1420-1430 and his contribution to getting the renaissance underway in Florence, both in terms of developing new ways to paint and to his triumphs of storytelling. The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Prado's newly restored 'Annunciation' altarpiece and it is a glory to behold with Gabriel's glittering wings and the bright colours - we can only be grateful to those apprentices that would've spend days pounding rocks to extract the colours and prepare them for the Fra to carry out this amazing work. And, of course, to the restorers who've done such an amazing job.

One of the things that made this exhibition special for me was the number of Fra Angelico works on loan from all around North America and Europe, from places I would probably never go to and so never see the paintings. Paintings are loaned from the Hermitage in St Petersburg ('Virgin and Child' opposite, an early painting with gold background), from Fort Worth and Houston in Texas USA, from Yale University and San Diego in the USA, from Rotterdam and Frankfurt and Remagen. Paintings are also on loan from the great museums of the Met in New York, the National Gallery in London, the Vatican in Rome, the Uffizi in Florence and, of course, from Fra Angelico-central, San Marco in Forence. Works by other artists of the time are also on loan, of course, including a lovely little 'Annunciation' by Uccello from the Ashmolean in Oxford.

It's such a privilege to see the wide range of works exhibited and we should be grateful to the curators and teams that must've spent years preparing for this exhibition and negotiating the various loans.

The exhibition is about Fra Angelico and the vast majority of exhibits are by the good Fra. However, it also includes works by other contemporary artists to provide a more rounded picture of the time and how artists were developing and influencing each other. We see bas-reliefs by Donatello to illustrate how the Fra started to depict a more playful baby Jesus in paintings for the first time, paintings by his master Lorenzo Monaco, and examples of the gorgeous Florentine cloths that were being weaved and which the Fra depicted as clothes and drapery in paint.

There is a single painting by Masaccio, 'Saint Paul' (opposite)  since it's thought that his 'Adam and Eve' in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence influenced how the Fra depicted Adam and Eve in the 'Annunciation'. There is also an 'Annunciation' by Robert Campin to demonstrate how the scene was viewed differently in the traditions of the Northern Renaissance. There are many others, of course. The Fra was open to influences and he absorbed the ones that helped him develop his art and pave the way for subsequent artists. 

The first painting in the exhibition is a small 'Virgin and Child Enthroned' from 1411-12, i.e. before the Fra was ordained as a friar and took the name Giovanni, back when he was a teenage apprentice called Guido. This devotional piece was painted by the young Guido di Pietro while he was in Lorenzo Monaco's workshop, to Monaco's design but  painted by Guido. It was probably commissioned by the Alberti family in Florence since its coat of arms is prominently displayed at the bottom and may have been the central panel of a triptych. It's a lovely little painting and it's nice to see very early works from the Fra to begin to trace his development as an artist and story-teller.

Another early painting that I really like is the 'Crucifixion' from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. it was probably painted in 1418-20 so the Fra was still a very young man but, although it has a traditional golden background, he was already experimenting with the figures and positions he paints them in. Look at Mary Magdalene bending down behind the Virgin so you see mainly the top of her head and the head of the man holding the pole looking up at the daed Christ, head tilted right back. Something I always find strange is the little tuft of hair on the man's chest since body hair was so rarely included in paintings. The group is arranged in a circle around the base of the cross with the figures looking up while the Virgin collapses in shock at the front.

The next room is what I thought of as the London room since it included three golden panels with seven roundel paintings from the Courtauld collection and the five-panelled San Domenico predella and small roundel of St Romulus from the National Gallery. 

My favourite of the five panels is to the right of 'Christ in Glory' and shows the forerunners of Christ, saints and virgin martyrs. Out of all the many figures painted in the five panels only one looks out at the viewer and that is Moses, to the left of centre in the top row. I've never seen an explanation of why this is - it's not unusual for the Fra to paint a character looking out at the viewer but out of all these people, why only him? A reminder of the Old Testament commandments would be odd given that Christ came to provide a new Testament but there's probably a theological reason for it.


One thought I had about this predella and it being full of different biblical and historical characters was suggested by the label that said it was the Fra's first work after being ordained as a friar - is this a 'show off' painting? I think of 'show off' paintings as those that advertise the artist's skills - look what I can do and if you commission me I can do something of this quality for you. The Fra was demonstrating his painting skills but also his understanding of theological studies, putting characters in the right order of importance in the paintings. One of the many joys of the exhibition catalogue is that it attempts to name each character in the five panels, something Dillian Gordon did in the National Gallery catalogue (which is no longer in print for some reason).

The panels from the Courtauld are made up of seven small roundels (about four inches in diameter) with gold background. The choice of saints to portray is a bit unusual but the panels were commissioned for a convent so that might help explain it. I've always been quite fond of the Mary Magdalene figure who looks quite cross and is gesturing to her lord almost to say to the viewer, 'look at what you've done'. I also rather like the painting of an almost imperious St Catherine of Alexandria resting against her wheel.

In the next room there are two gorgeous Virgin & Child panels on adjacent walls, the 'Virgin of the Pomegranate', acquired by the Prado a couple of years ago, and the lovely 'Virgin of Humility' from the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection on loan to MNAC, Barcelona. 

The 'Virgin of the Pomegranate' is full of gorgeous blues and reds and gold, with the two angels holding up the cloth of gold wearing green. The rather chubby baby Jesus is helping himself to pomegranate seeds from his mother's hand (the baby is the image on the front of the plan of the museum for visitors at the front desk). The cloth of gold almost shimmers as you look at it and you can almost see the rich stitching if you look closely, the heavy drapery falling in complex folds around the Virgin. I particularly like the two angels whose job it is to hold that heavy cloth for all eternity, the green of their robes works well against the gold cloth, as they both look towards the Virgin and the playful baby. It's interesting that their wings are also painted mainly green. It's a very peaceful, contemplative painting and it's astonishing how those colours have stayed rich and bright over the nearly 600 years since it was painted.

On an adjacent wall is the most lovely 'Virgin of Humility' in it's golden tabernacle-style frame. I first saw this painting a few years ago at an exhibition of the Thyssen collection in Barcelona and have loved it ever since. We see the baby resting his head against his mother's cheek and gazing up at her, offering her a lily while the Virgin holds a vase of roses with a single lily. The cloth of gold is intricate in the way the folds fall and, again, is obviously rich and heavy. Three angels hold the cloth while two more sit at the Virgin's feet playing instruments. The angels holding the cloth aren't as prominent as those in the 'Pomegranate' panel and look rather too delicate to hold up that obviously heavy cloth but they manage to do so effortlessly. It really is a lovely painting.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the newly restored 'Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve' altarpiece for San Domenico, the Fra's home church at the time and for which he completed three altarpieces. The restoration was carried out to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Prado and no better painting in the collection could have been selected.


The altarpiece is a perfect example of the Fra's great contribution to pushing forward the Renaissance in Florence as well as his skilful story-telling. Brunelleschi's theories of perspective are evident in the architecture of the Virgin's room and the innovation of having the altarpiece as a square without gothic arches is the first example of this approach, soon to be followed by almost every artist. The prominent addition of Adam and Eve leaving the garden and, in effect, walking through the Virgin's garden, is another first for the Fra. 

I was particularly taken with Gabriel's golden wings that glittered with new life after the restoration. You can clearly see each individual feather in his wings and and they glow and glitter almost as if they're becoming still after flying. I stood there swaying from side to side to watch the feathers move and take turns shining - I don't know what the guards must have thought I was doing. I also liked the graceful folds in his robe and then lime green lining that shows at the bottom and the blue under-robe.

It was also lovely to see the bright light coming through the window in the room beyond the doorway and see the leaves of the trees in the garden outside. 

I suspect that when most people think of the 'Annunciation' they think of the Angel and the Virgin - I certainly do - so it was inspired to use the Adam and Eve section of the painting as the face of the exhibition. It features on the posters for the exhibition and is the cover of the catalogue. What a great idea. It also helps to emphasise that these characters are actually one third of the painting and are an important part of the biblical story, with the Virgin wiping away original sin and the baby to be born is the ultimate descendant of Adam and Eve and is the one who will eventually free them from eternity in Limbo. There's a lot that can be read into this painting.
Near the altarpiece was a copy of a contemporary book illustrating trees and flowers, showing that the detail the Fra included in the garden was part of a tradition and the flowers were real, not simply made up to look pretty. 

The restoration work is incredible, with the colours almost luminous, making the altarpiece much brighter than it was previously, almost like a veil has been lifted and we can see it properly for the first time. Thank you Prado and thank you Almudena Sanchez for carrying out the restoration. Thank you also to the American Friends of the Prado and the Friends of Florence for donating so much to the cost of the restoration.

The predella of the altarpiece has been removed and hung at eye height so we can more easily look at it and appreciate the smaller paintings showing scenes from the life of the Virgin. They are lovely little paintings and I really liked the Nativity scene with the kings obvious in their crowns and the lookers-on in contemporary Florentine dress just as the scene is set in a Tuscan landscape. Something I hadn't noticed before but now can because of the hanging of the predella is the small angel flying over the hillside at top-right calling to the shepherds. It's always worth looking at the details in paintings by Fra Angelico.

Further on through the exhibition you come to a three dimensional painting, almost life-sized of a 'Crucifixion with St Nicholas of Bari and St Francis'. This was exhibited in Florence for the first time after being restored and I saw it there last year. It puzzled me at the time, wondering what it had been cut out from but, it seems, this is how it was originally done, as a piece to stand out so that viewers can get closer to the crucifixion and almost be part of it. Sadly there's a lot of damage to the figure of St Nicholas but the red of the blood dripping from the cross is as bright a scarlet as you could want.

It was designed for a boys club at the time in Florence where the boys could channel their energies into singing religious songs and chants with this work in the background. I wonder what it must have felt like to be there at the time?

Also on display is one of the four reliquaries Fra Angelico painted for Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The four reliquaries were brought together in Boston, USA, last year for the first time in several hundred years.  Three of them can be seen in San Marco in Florence and the fourth is in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. This reliquary is the 'Coronation of the Virgin' in which Christ crowns his mother as queen of heaven. It's very colourful and can almost glow under the right lights. St Thomas Aquinas looks out at the viewer, presumably exhorting the viewer to read the Bible or his other works. Along the bottom of the frame is a scene of six angels, the holy couple and the baby all in blue. The reliquaries are quite small so it's a testament to the Fra's skill that he can get so much detail into small paintings.

In the final room of the exhibition were two halves of what was thought to be a small, portable diptych, brought back together again - the two halves are in different museums in Detroit and in Newark. The paintings are pocket sized, just about the size of a modern day postcard, and one shows the Virgin and Child with Angels while the other shows St Dominic witnessing St Francis receiving the stigmata from the flying seraph. I couldn't find a photo of this work online so this is a photo I've taken of the piece from the catalogue. I thought the diptych was delightful and am grateful to be able to see these works when I am unlikely to ever travel to the museums that now hold them.

The final works in the exhibition are two luminous panels depicting the 'Marriage of the Virgin' and the 'Dormition of the Virgin', both in the bright colours I've come to expect from the Fra.

There is a lot going on in the 'Marriage' painting, with the young men on the left breaking sticks to try to find the new growth that will win the hand of the Virgin, the men pounding Joseph's back in jealousy that he won her hand, the priest looking sideways at Mary, presumably checking that she really wants to Mary the much older Joseph, so much storytelling. The colours are gorgeous with so much detail included, such as the gold embroidery on the priest's green robe. I suspect this is one of the problems of looking at paintings by Fra Angelico - we risk seeing only colourful, pretty pictures without recognising the complex storytelling and innovations in terms of how to tell the story, how he developed new approaches that subsequent artists took on and used and how he developed new ways of painting these stories.

I haven't really commented on the works of other artists included in this exhibition since I wanted to focus on the works by Fra Angelico - there are about 60 of his works in the exhibition so I've only scratched the surface and included some of my favourites. The focus on his work between 1420-1430 helps to illustrate that the Fra was still a young man and still learning and developing his art, soaking up and contributing to the artistic life and development of Florence which was bursting with new ideas at this time. This is all ably demonstrated by this exhibition and by the careful work of its curator, Carl Brandon Strehlke. Although you can't take photos in the Prado, where possible I've used my own photographs when I've seen some of the works elsewhere to illustrate this blog. Other photos are taken from the web.

This is a great exhibition and, if you're in or planning to visit Madrid over the summer, it's certainly worth seeing. Well done Prado and happy 200th birthday!

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