Fra Angelico and the prodigy Masaccio are considered the major artists of their time--the second quarter of the fifteenth century--but their contributions were entirely distinct from each other. Of the two, Masaccio's impact is easier to identify: He more or less laid the foundations for High Renaissance painting. His fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel has been described as the "school of Florentine painting" by the formidable sixteenth-century art writer Giorgio Vasari, since everyone who was anyone learned from his example, including Fra Angelico himself. Masaccio was the first to apply to painting the principles of perspective (discovered by the architect Brunelleschi), as well as the first to imbue his figures with roundness through the use of light and shade. It was from Masaccio that Leonardo learned chiaroscuro, the way bodies are defined by light and shadows from a single source of illumination. And everyone learned from Masaccio's compositions how to group figures together in a natural way. When Vasari divided the Renaissance into three periods, he named one after Masaccio.
No period in art is named after Fra Angelico, but his achievement is arguably more profound--albeit more elusive--than Masaccio's. The difference between the two quattrocento masters is essentially the difference between two kinds of illusion. Masaccio discovered how convincingly to make a two-dimensional figure on a flat plane look like a three-dimensional object in real space. Fra Angelico discovered how convincingly to create the illusion of a living figure whose exterior features express an inner spiritual state--the look of love, a state of devotion or one of anguish.
Contrasting the two artists in his great work on aesthetics, Hegel praised Fra Angelico for his invention of what the philosopher called "interiority"--"the investigation of inner coordination, the indwelling meaning of facial expressions." Fra Angelico's work is infused, Hegel writes, "with the fervor of a religious love remote from the world, with a conventual purity of disposition, elevation, and sanctity of soul." He was not called Fra Angelico for nothing. But who would expect an exhibition of works by so pure a spirit, so naïve a faith, so innocent a vision to be the hottest show of the season? No one would say that the remarkable exhibition of Fra Angelico at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through January 29) is likely to be the school for contemporary New York artists. But it is the show to which artists tell me they keep going back.
It was in the depiction of interiority that Hegel believed painting had found its highest vocation, one that, moreover, distinguished the art of the Christian era from that of the classical era, whose defining medium was sculpture. A Greek statue of Aphrodite embodies the idea of erotic love but tells us nothing about what is going on inside her mind. What Hegel describes as "the spiritual depth of feeling, the bliss and grief of the heart" would not have been in the Greek repertory. It would simply have been taken for granted that mothers and their offspring are bonded through love. Christianity demanded that paintings of the Madonna visually depict this love. Thus Hegel contrasts those pictures with an Egyptian image of Isis holding her child, Horus, on her knees:
In a general way the subject here is the same as it is in Christian pictures of the Madonna: a divine mother with her child. But the difference in the treatment and portrayal of this subject is enormous. In this pose...there is nothing maternal in [Isis], no tenderness, no trait of that soul and feeling which is not entirely missing even in the stiffer Byzantine pictures of the Madonna. What has Raphael, or indeed any other of the great Italian masters not made of the Madonna and the Christ-child! What depth of feeling, what spiritual life, what inner wealth of profound emotion, what sublimity and charm...does not speak to us out of every line of these pictures!
Fra Angelico's masterpiece is the complex of frescoes he produced between 1440 and 1445, in the common spaces and cells of the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence. As far as I know, Hegel never traveled to Italy. His knowledge of Fra Angelico was in all likelihood based on engravings of some of the more famous San Marco frescoes--The Annunciation, say, or The Coronation of the Virgin. Yet he must have recognized through these works that however much the Renaissance based itself on classical models, a face like that of the Annunciate Virgin would have been unthinkable in classical representation. The Greek sculptors were well in advance of quattrocento painters in handling human anatomy. The latter excelled in showing through facial expression and body language how a figure like Mary would respond to the astonishing revelation that she would give birth to an incarnate god. She bends forward, holding her hands to her middle, as if protecting the life that is already within while her face shows her contemplating the meaning of her new role. The angel genuflects, acknowledging the difference in their stations. The drama of disclosure is enacted within a loggia, in the execution of which Fra Angelico demonstrates how much he has learned from Masaccio. The perspective is impeccable. The rational order of the architecture contrasts with the cosmic disruption of the historical order. A new era has begun.
Fra Angelico was at the height of his powers in the San Marco frescoes. Several of these wonders appear in beautiful reproductions on the upper level of the show at the Metropolitan. By contrast, many of the works on the lower level of the Lehman Wing are primarily of an art-historical interest. The paintings here merely reflect the gloriousness of Fra Angelico's vision, which comes through even in the reproductions on the upper level. The lower level shows the present state of art-historical scholarship: Several works now attributed to him were once thought to be by different artists. We must take the word of the scholars that these are autographed, or mostly autographed works. Despite their attribution, however, they have very little of the exalted interiority of the San Marco frescoes that so inspired Hegel. The Lehman Wing thus has something of the structure of Plato's allegory of the cave. How, then, did Fra Angelico become the artist whose work is a place of pilgrimage, the man whose name was given to him only after his death in 1455?