The modern mind doesn’t easily accommodate itself to the idea that the art of painting may sometimes achieve the status of a spiritual vocation. Christian iconography plays a central role in many of the paintings we regard as masterworks of Western art, and yet our response to those paintings tends, for the most part, to remain aesthetic—which is to say, secular. However intense our admiration of the art may be, we don’t feel called upon to respond to it with prayer or other expressions of religious devotion.
It was therefore with some astonishment that I recently witnessed a very different response to a religious painting. At the Fra Angelico exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I observed a middle-aged woman demonstrably offering her prayers to a painting of the Holy Virgin. There was no mistaking the piety and ardor that this woman brought to her act of worship; she was clearly oblivious to the group of onlookers that had silently gathered to witness her prayers. Moreover, I doubt if I was alone in feeling that the intensity of her response to this picture of the Holy Virgin had the effect of altering our response, too—not only to the particular painting, but to the entire exhibition. For however many minutes it may have lasted, the encounter seemed to transport the viewer from the public world of the art museum to the more private realm of spiritual meditation.
But then, Fra Angelico has long occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of artists and the art public. His very name places the painter in the company of the angels, and that’s the way his many admirers have come to regard him—as a saintly figure. About the depth of his religious vocation, there has never been any doubt. As William Michael Rossetti has written: “According to all the accounts that have reached us, few men on whom the distinction of beatification has been conferred could have deserved it more nobly than Fra Angelico. He led a holy and self-denying life, shunning all advancement, and was a brother to the poor; no man ever saw him angered. He painted with unceasing diligence, treating none but sacred subjects; he never retouched or altered his work, probably with a religious feeling that such as divine providence allowed the thing to come, such it should remain. He was wont to say that he who illustrates the acts of Christ should be with Christ. It is averred that he never handled a brush without fervent prayer and he wept when he painted a Crucifixion. The Last Judgment and the Annunciation were two of the subjects he most frequently treated.”
Yet this saintly figure was also one of the most productive painters of his period—and one of the most accomplished. There’s a passage in E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art that gives us a vivid account of the scale of his labors: “Fra Angelico was a friar of the Dominican order and the frescoes he painted in his Florentine monastery of San Marco round about 1440 are among his most beautiful works. He painted a sacred scene in each monk’s cell and at the end of every corridor, and as one walks from one to the other in the stillness of the old building one feels something of the spirit in which these works were conceived …. There is hardly any movement in Fra Angelico’s painting and hardly any suggestion of real solid bodies. But I think it is all the more moving because of its humility, which is that of a great artist who deliberately renounced any display of modernity despite his profound understanding of the problems which Brunelleschi and Masaccio had introduced into art.”
The Fra Angelico exhibition at the Met cannot, of course, offer us the same order of experience as a visit to San Marco in Florence, but it’s a beautiful and moving exhibition all the same, and it’s not to be missed by anyone with a serious interest in painting. It remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 29, 2006, and is accompanied by an excellent catalog.