instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I know what I like

I'm not sure what to say about the Fra Angelico exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I saw with a small group last Saturday. For me it was more a pilgrimage to venerate relics than a visit to look at paintings. You can read the review I'd have written at Clarity's Place; the three paintings she mentions are the three I'd have mentioned if I'd mentioned only three.

The criticisms of the exhibition are probably valid. The works displayed are bits and pieces (they sell a booklet containing a couple of essays on how tempera panels from the early Renaissance got split up and how, in one case, they were reunited); the arrangement is somewhat unsatisfying (the Cranky Professor says the space is too big; I didn't mind the elbow room, but the layout of the works was a little confusing); none of his frescoes are included (and in fact, I'm not sure I had ever seen pictures of more than a few of the paintings before).

But like I say, I wasn't there for the museum experience.

It's true, what I had been told, that you can't really tell what Fra Angelico's paintings look like from photographs; the colors are never reproduced quite right, and the colors -- not so much the hue as the saturation -- are key to both the artistic and theological meanings of his paintings.

This Nativity, for example, may be most notable for how uncomfortable the Christ Child looks. In person, though, what's most notable is how the Christ Child glows. I doublechecked the lighting to see whether they had some sort of microspot on the lower half of the painting. (Of course, it's not hard to glow if you're made of gold, and another thing that's hard to tell from reproductions is how much of a painting is inlaid gold -- like, in this case, the rays coming out of Baby Jesus.)

One of the most remarkable works in the exhibition is Christ Crowned with Thorns -- I mean that literally; a Google search on "Fra Angelico" "Christ Crowned with Thorns" returns half a dozen or more reviews of the exhibition that remark on the painting. It is so untypical of his work that, when I first saw it from thirty feet away, I assumed it was by one of his assistants and almost overlooked it.

When not on loan, the painting is in the Church of Santa Maria del Soccorso in Livorno, Italy.