Dragons, Virgins Beguile in Paris Fra Angelico Exhibit: Review

"Scenes from the Life of St. Nicholas" (1447-49) by Fra Angelico, at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre. Source: Musee Jacquemart-Andre via Bloomberg

Painters are no saints, except perhaps one: In 1984, Pope John Paul II beatified Fra Angelico, the first step in the process toward sainthood.

The pope also appointed him the Roman Catholic Church’s official patron of the arts.

Exhibitions of Fra Angelico’s work are rare events. His masterpieces -- especially the frescoes in the dormitory cells at the convent of San Marco, one of Florence’s most popular tourist attractions -- don’t budge. His large altarpieces are too delicate to travel.

That explains why the show at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris is the first organized in France.

To bring together 25 of Fra Angelico’s works, mostly from Italian collections, is no mean feat: Many curators strongly object to lending paintings on wood.

They are embedded in an equal number of paintings by contemporaries such as Lorenzo Monaco, Fra Angelico’s teacher, Filippo Lippi and Benozzo Gozzoli.

It’s a small yet delightful show.

Fra Angelico (ca 1395-1455) was born near Florence as Guido di Pietro. Around 1420, he joined the Dominican order adopting the name Fra (Brother) Giovanni.

The name by which we know him was inspired by Giorgio Vasari’s 1568 “Lives of the Painters,” which praised his luminous colors as worthy “of a saint or an angel.”

Much of his fame rests on the elaborate golden haloes around the heads of divine or holy figures.

Naive Image

Vasari portrayed Fra Angelico as a naive artist of endearing simplicity who worked directly from divine inspiration, even refusing to retouch his pictures because he believed them to be “the will of God.”

That image was further sentimentalized by the Nazarenes and the Pre-Raphaelites in the 19th century, who claimed to pick up where Fra Angelico and other “Primitives” had left off. Research has shown that to be mostly wishful thinking.

The painting monk may have been humble, yet he also was a professional artist of great subtlety and sophistication.

Looking at his Virgins, Crucifixions and Last Judgments, you realize that neither the style nor the choice of subjects was revolutionary. The Dominicans were known for conservative views. It’s no accident that the popes, after having launched the Inquisition, entrusted them with administering it.

While Fra Angelico was busy decorating his monastery in Fiesole, his fellow Dominican Pierre Cauchon oversaw the trial of Joan of Arc that ended with her death at the stake.

In the 1440s, the painter was twice called to Rome to decorate two chapels at the Vatican. Here, far from the strict rules of his order, he opened up and took new artistic risks, even toying with the great novelty of his age -- perspective.

One of the inventors of that novelty was Paolo Uccello (1397-1475). His “St. George Slaying the Dragon,” from the museum’s own holdings, is the most original -- and the most amusing -- picture in the show.

“Fra Angelico et les Maitres de la Lumiere” is supported by GDF-Suez SA and runs through Jan. 16, 2012. Information: http://www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com or +33-1-4562-1159.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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