The Revival of Interest in Fra Angelico
© Fr. Michael Morris, OP
The revival of interest in Fra Angelico dates from the late 18th century. In 1778 the German archaeologist, Alois Hirt, rediscovered Fra Angelico’s frescoes in the Chapel of Nicholas V and had them engraved so that they could be enjoyed by a larger audience. In 1797 another German, Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, penned a work called Outpourings from the Heart of an Art-Loving Friar and its romantic recollection of how art was inspired in the cloisters of the Middle Ages triggered a group of discontent artists studying at the Art Academy in Vienna to leave their school and form a pseudo-monastic commune in an abandoned monastery in Rome. The Italians ridiculed their peculiar dress uniform and called them “the Nazarenes,” a nickname that stuck and characterized entire generations of artists seeking to revive Christian art by imitating the style of Fra Angelico. Concurrently, another German, August von Schlegel, published a richly illustrated book on the painter-monk’s Coronation of the Virgin hanging in the Louvre. It was translated into French in 1817. Shortly thereafter in 1836 the Frenchman, Alexis-Francois Rio, included Fra Angelico as the representative figure of Christian art in his De la Poesie Chretienne. While Rio’s account did little more than underscore Vasari’s treacly mythology of the Dominican artist, Montalembert’s review of Rio’s book bolstered the image of Fra Angelico’s legendary piety, a piety which seemed to grow dramatically with each successive account of the artist’s life penned by Catholic authors. Vasari’s story of the artist weeping as he painted scenes of the crucifixion became so exaggerated by Rio and Montalembert that the painter-monk was fast becoming a mystic model for artists pursuing religious themes in their work in the 19th century. In their elevation of Fra Angelico as the model for all Christian artists, such militant Catholic authors attempted to establish the standards by which a truly religious work of art should be judged. That is, a painting cannot possibly be a great work of art unless the painter himself wholeheartedly adhered to the articles of faith represented in the work. This notion survived well into the 20th century with the Sacred Atelier in Paris founded by the eminent artist and lay Dominican Maurice Denis.
By the middle of the 19th century paintings began to appear in the Paris Salon showing the painter-monk kneeling reverently before his canvas, awaiting the divine inspiration that would guide his brush. Between the years 1835 and 1845, the French Dominican friar Lacordaire formed a confraternity of artists in Paris based upon the model established by the Nazarenes in Rome. He called it the Brotherhood of St. John, a kind of secular order of artists who were attached to and imitative of the conventual life. After French interest was stirred in Fra Angelico the enthusiasm then crossed the Channel and took hold in England.
The agent who opened English eyes to an appreciation for that early Italian “mystic school” of painters, of which Fra Angelico was the exemplar, was Alexis-Francois Rio. He had an English wife and numerous English contacts. Added to that was the fact that he had an engaging personality that placated his ultra-Catholic revisionist art history. When he visited England in 1838/39, he was received enthusiastically by leading members of English political and intellectual society. He was the personal friend of Gladstone and Cardinal Wiseman. The art historian Mrs. Jameson found him fascinating and his work enchanted her. Carlyle found him honest and sincere. Lord Lindsay and Ruskin read his book with interest. In fact, it would seem that Rio’s writings had a bigger impact upon the English than they did upon the French. His influence can be measured by the noticeable change in taste affected by English writers and artists of the mid-century who were searching for a transcendent religious quality in art. In 1845, Anna Jameson wrote a book imitative of Rio called Memoirs of the Early Italian Painters. In it she contrasted two painters: Fra Filippo Lippi and Fra Angelico, one a libertine and the other an apparent saint. Using Vasari as her source, she described how Angelico “prepared himself by fasting and prayer, imploring on bended knees the benediction of heaven in his work.” So far removed from evil was this pious Dominican, according to Mrs. Jameson, that she found fault with his representations of discord. But of things closer to heaven, she found his renderings incomparable. “In the heads of his young angels, in the purity and beatitude of his female saints, he has never been excelled—not even by Raphael,” she declared.
Lord Lindsay, on the other hand, discovered that Vasari’s account of Fra Angelico had been largely derived from a certain Fra Eustachio, a friar of San Marco and an artist, who had been invested in the Dominican habit by Savonarola in 1496. The testimony this monk gave Vasari was given 40 years after Angelico’s death, leaving ample time for fresh legends to reach somewhat fantastic proportions. Lindsay’s treatment of Fra Angelico was found in his own 3-volume work, published in 1847, entitled Sketches in the History of Christian Art. In this popular work, Lord Lindsay divided the Christian art of Europe into two main camps: The First Period which was noted for its imaginative spirituality, and the Second Period, noted for its classicism and reasoning. Lindsay, a painstaking scholar, transcended denominational bias and placed the painter-monk as the last great light in a line-up of artists contained in the First Period of Christian art. Of Fra Angelico he wrote: “…Ecstasy and enthusiasm were his native element, and the emotions of his heart animated his pencil with a tenderness and repose, a love of peace in which no one has yet excelled or even equaled him.” By comparison, John Ruskin fluctuated between the loveliness and weakness of the painter. He began with reverent praise for the artist but stated, as Mrs. Jameson had done, that evil had a hard time displaying itself in his work: “Thus throughout the work of the best religious painters, of whom Fra Angelico may be taken as a type, there cannot be found the smallest trace of sympathy with terror. There are no grand forms of clouds or crags—no effects of gloom—no conceptions of ghastly form.” In spite of the loveliness of Fra Angelico’s work and its aspirations to reveal in paint visions of truth and goodness, Ruskin noticed the limitations of Angelico’s “purist ideal.” His life, his vision, his paintings were so tied to the ethereal things of heaven that the painter-monk shortchanged what Ruskin’s philosophy of art prized most: truthfulness to Nature.
In dealing with a man like Beato Angelico, who was considered a saint as well as an artist, one is faced with a rare phenomenon. There is a tendency to set a higher value on his art than one ought—not for its sake, but for his. Ruskin concluded that the greatest art is produced by good, but not distinctively religious, men. And yet, one might justly ask how much of Ruskin’s Evangelical bias contributed to his evaluation of Fra Angelico’s work. Certainly this was a factor in the aesthetic evaluation of the Dominican artist made by such men as Robert Browning or Charles Kingsley, men whose anti-Catholicism colored their view of art. And for those English critics like Lord Lindsay or Mrs. Jameson, who obviously admired the work of the painter-monk, qualifications were customarily made which distinguished praise of Angelico’s art from any intimations of praise for the monastic state.
Beyond the question of prejudice tempering English critics from praising Fra Angelico’s work unreservedly, there still exists the philosophical difference of equating excellence with the Idealized or with the Natural. Ruskin’s final position, that the Angelican ideal is not art of the highest type, can be understood for the fact that the fulcrum which balances the Ideal and the Real in the philosophy of such ersatz monks as the Nazarenes shifts in favor of the Real in the understanding of the English critics and painters who do not share that group’s enthusiastic Catholic sympathies. Thus while “Truth” was the central concept to both Nazarenes and Pre-Raphaelites, the latter found it on the side of Nature while the former felt it could only be derived from Christian heritage. At one extreme, Catholic theorists like Rio and Pugin would promote a stylized art reminiscent of a monastic asceticism long past, and, at the opposite extreme, Protestant theorists like Kingsley or Browning would defend the full-bodied art of the late Renaissance or Baroque period for its unrepentant glorification of human passion. In between such extremes dwelt Catholic and Protestant art-lovers of various stripes.
Images: Top left - Fra Angelico, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1828-1822. Lower right - Fra Angelico, The Coronation of the Virgin, 1434-1435
Fr. Michael Morris, OP, is Professor of Religion and the Arts at DSPT and the Director of the Santa Fe Institute, a research library dedicated to the study of religious art. The classes that he teaches include Christian Iconography, Religion and the Cinema, Art and Religion in the Modern Era. More information about his classes, research interests and publications can be found on his faculty page.