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Heaven on Earth

Gardner Museum displays restored Fra Angelico works

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
Heaven on Earth
Fra Angelico (Italian, about 1400-1455), “The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin” (detail), 1430-1434. Tempera on panel, 61.8 x 38.3 cm (24 5/16 x 15 1/16 in.) (Photo: Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston)

A small painting by Early Renaissance artist Fra Angelico, located in a quiet corner of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is reason enough for some visitors to frequent this palazzo on the Fenway. Viewers bask in the gilded radiance and serenity of the scene, which portrays the Virgin Mary as she is laid to rest and then welcomed by an angelic chorus into heaven.

On the web

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Now through May 20, the Gardner’s aptly titled exhibition, “Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth,” presents this painting along with 12 other works by the artist. Some displayed for the first time this country and most newly restored, they turn two galleries into luminous spaces inducing contemplation and delight.

As the first home of a Fra Angelico in America, the Gardner is a worthy host for this spectacular exhibition. Curator Nathaniel Silver edited its handsome catalog, with essays by 11 contributors and in-depth articles on each work, most written by Silver.

In 1899, Isabella Stewart Gardner acquired her Fra Angelico, entitled “The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin.” It is one of four reliquaries — displays that hold sacred relics — painted by Fra Angelico between 1424 and 1434 for the church of Santa Maria Novella, one of the Dominican edifices in Florence that displayed many of his works. Each venerates the Virgin Mary, a patron and protector of the Dominican Order. The other three are housed at the Museo di San Marco in Florence, next to the Convento di San Marco, where, while a resident, the friar painted frescoes on the walls of the monks’ cells.

Newly restored, all four reliquaries are reunited for the first time in centuries in this exhibition, displayed side-by-side on temporary walls that evoke their original setting, a church sacristy, where a priest prepares for mass.

Angelic style

Function and aesthetic appeal unite in the works by Fra Angelico, which inspire intimate encounters with the sublime and also render Bible stories and parables for edification in an era when literacy was reserved for an educated few.

Fra Angelico (about 1395-1455), born Guido di Pietro, was raised near Florence. He and his brother were groomed for lucrative professions: his brother trained as a scribe, while he learned to illuminate books, mastering art of the miniaturist, which he later displayed by crafting images abundant in splendid, revelatory details. Both men chose to become friars and entered the Dominican Order.

After his death, the Dominicans anointed the artist “angelic,” singling him out as one of its illustrious members, a circle that includes Thomas Aquinas, scholar and saint. In 1982, Pope John Paul II further exalted Fra Angelico with beatification, a step toward sainthood.

Yet Fra Angelico’s artistry speaks for itself. His images conjure a sensory experience of paradise, and make masterful use of glistening, combed gold in the service of spiritual uplift. They are equally faithful to physical reality, rendering Bible stories, parables and legends with great immediacy in warm earth tones of richly layered egg tempera paint.

His visions of Paradise celebrate the Tuscan countryside, a paradise on earth with its spring flowers and green hills familiar to visitors of Feisole, a picturesque hill town on the fringe of Florence where he served for a time as prior of a small Dominican residence.

Rendering the interactions of Jesus and Mary with great tenderness, Fra Angelico portrays their figures as sources of shimmering light.

Let there be light

The Gardner reliquary is visible as never before in this exhibition, not only because of its eye-level placement and superb lighting, but also thanks to the Gardner conservators, who removed modifications by previous owners, including dark clouds and a squared-off frame. Described with the intensity of a detective story, a catalog essay details the process and what it revealed about the techniques of Fra Angelico as he applied gold leaf and egg tempera layers to a sheet of poplar with delicate, precise strokes, the better to render “the curls of saints’ beards, the crow’s feet on their faces and the strings on the angel’s viola.”

The image employs gold on gold in gorgeous geometric patterns to render Mary’s funeral bier and the glittering host of angelic musicians welcoming her ascent, and also portrays the eye-to-eye exchange of the apostles as they bear the weight of her body.

The dual magnets of human drama and sublime beauty are also at play in the exhibition’s first gallery, which offers a sampling of the settings in which Fra Angelico’s works were viewed in churches and in home chapels of wealthy patrons.

The seven works include a triptych, a three-part image for private devotion; and altarpieces that stood behind an altar and were visible to the congregation. The predella, the base of an altarpiece, was also laden with detailed images.

A newly restored altarpiece on public display for the first time in four decades is “The Entombment of Christ” (about 1450), from the National Gallery of Art. Set in a Tuscan river valley, this spare and evocative image includes scenes before and after the death of Christ, including the garden of Gethsemane, the hillside with the three crosses and the open tomb.

The magnificent altarpiece “Paradise” (1431-35), from the Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, is a perpetual visual prayer.

Christ and Mary stand in an orb of dazzling light, surrounded by 85 figures, all, like them, adorned with jeweled haloes. Angels dance, sing and play trumpets, lutes and wind organs above a host of saints. Yet in this dense human assembly, no two look the same. Fra Angelico endows each saint with a distinct portrait. Mary Magdalene is carrying her jar of ointments with which she bathed the feet of Jesus. Saint Giles, patron of healing, is attired in his jeweled miter and holds his staff, as prior of the church of Sant’Egidio, the original setting of “Paradise.”

Mary and Joseph

A predella of this altarpiece, “The Marriage of the Virgin,” shows the wedding of a youthful Mary and aged Joseph — the only figures in the image with haloes and joyful faces — and also the contest leading up to their marriage. The high priest has ordered each of Mary’s many suitors to break a branch, decreeing that the one whose branch blooms will be her spouse. Demonstrating the timeless power of Fra Angelico to engage an audience, two teenagers were captivated by the scene and its slapstick element: irate young suitors are shown striking Joseph’s back as he weds Mary. Addressing the disappointed young men in the picture, one of the teenagers says, “It’s just not your day.”

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