There are many reasons to be dazzled by the 13 works in “Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth,” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum through May 20, among them the painter’s jaw-dropping, luxuriant color, his innovative compositions, and his wondrous precision.
They all pull a viewer into the Dominican friar’s irrepressible vision. But his attention to ordinary sensation and behavior roots us there: Yes, we say to ourselves, I know what it’s like to lift something heavy; I know how it feels when a breeze stirs my clothing. I know the way young men vie for a girl’s attention. These are not always at the center of Angelico’s works — which, after all, depict mystical and miraculous events — but they make us feel we could be there.
Imagine the spiritual life of everyday Florentines in the early 15th century. Say some lost their parents to the Black Death. Perhaps others lost more than one child. They know life’s precarity. The Catholic Church provided order, security, and succor. Even if they did not read, Bible stories shaped their imagination, their morality, and their conceptions of love. Angelico’s scenes brought to life the archetypes that underpinned their perceptions of how life works.
They, too, offered a kind of succor. In addition to being freighted with affecting detail, Angelico’s temperas are sweet, but not sanctimonious. Scenes of death and destruction feel hopeful, although grief is plain on the faces he paints. This is no dissonance. It’s an expression of faith.
“Angelico” is a posthumous sobriquet. While it declares the painter angelic, it also aligns him with another erudite Dominican,the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, called Doctor Angelicus. Scholars maintain “Angelico” denotes the painter’s intellectual rigor.
Angelico’s paintings craftily build on the spatial ingenuity of his contemporary Masaccio, and their narrative inventions spring from his lively engagement with theology. But the paintings themselves insist that “Angelico” has as much to do with the artist’s faith as it does with his wit and creativity.
The painter was born Guido di Pietro in the mid 1390s, and early on studied manuscript painting. By 1423 he had entered a Dominican convent in Fiesole, outside Florence, and in short order he was Fra Giovanni, the Dominican order’s go-to painter.
Four reliquaries the artist painted for the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence between 1424 and 1434 anchor “Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth.” They depict episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary. One is in the Gardner’s collection; the others come from Florence’s Museo di San Marco.
This is the first time in more than two centuries the four pieces have been reunited. That’s big enough news, but it gets bigger. They likely have never been exhibited together. At Santa Maria Novella they were kept in the sacristy, and each was brought out on the appropriate feast day. Only rare visitors, such as the pope, were invited into the sacristy, and would have seen these four works in concert.
Nathaniel Silver, the Gardner’s associate curator of the collection, and his exhibition design team have devised a temple-like installation for the reliquaries in a space with vaulted entryways.
The lights are dim. The pieces gleam with gold, ultramarine, and vermilion. Together, they emit a humming light. In addition to their radiance, they seem to pulse with centuries of accumulated attention and reverence. Artist and viewers have imbued these works with living imagination, and the installation conjures that. It’s an energy some would call holy.
This, of course, was Angelico’s intended effect: to ignite the souls of devotees. Today the faithful are catholic museum visitors, not Catholic churchgoers. Still, it works.
The Gardner’s splendid reliquary, “The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin” describes two scenes: Mary’s death and her ascent into heaven. The painting has been through a lot. Somewhere along the line, a collector disliked its gable shape and added corners to make the piece rectangular; gloomy clouds were painted in. This is how Mrs. Gardner purchased the work. Only now, for this show, has the museum restored it to its original form.
In the bottom scene, the Virgin lies on her bier. Men bend to lift her. The one at her feet points, offering guidance to his comrade at her head; the bier will be heavy. In the top scene, angels swirl in jubilation and Mary lifts her hands as if enchanted by her sudden buoyancy. The swirl of angels, the tilt of a tree below, the soft billowing of her robes, all suggest a rush of air pulling her upward. We sense the uplift.
Angelico has cunningly rendered a usually static horizontal scene in a vertical format in “The Coronation of the Virgin” reliquary. That gives him the chance to rank the saints on hand, with apostles at the top. Aquinas looks out at us knowingly from the bottom row; he made the case that divine wisdom conveys knowledge from above. Ethereal, iridescent steps fill the center, a stairway to heaven that symbolizes Mary as a path to the eternal.
Displaying the obsessiveness of a manuscript illuminator, Angelico made scenes come alive with the force and urgency of a superhero comic. Indeed, one predella from the Annalena altarpiece, “Six Scenes From the Life of Cosmas and Damian” reads like a comic. In lively panels, the brothers miraculously survive fire, stoning, and being tossed off a cliff. I won’t tell you how it ends.
Angelico wasn’t always forward thinking; his liberal use of gold leaf was a Gothic tradition that deep-pocketed patrons continued to invest in. (Frescoes Angelico made in the cells of the San Marco convent in Florence, for the private devotions of his brothers, are more humble in their materials.)
Remember his works were on display in churches, illuminated by candlelight. The warm and flickering effect would surely make haloes shimmer and wings flutter.
Imagine, then, Angelico’s altarpiece “Paradise.” It’s the first known rendering of a vision of the mystic St. Bridget of Sweden. More than 80 saints and angels celebrate as Jesus places a jewel in Mary’s crown. The artist painted it atop a base coat of gold scored with pinpoint radiant lines, making Christ and his mother equivalent to the sun.
In candlelight, “Paradise” would be lambent — at once majestic and comforting. The faces of saints, apostles, and angels would fall into shadow, but the warming effect of the altarpiece might spark sweet heat in the heart of average Florentines. They would find hope, and reassurance. They would, in a sense, find home.
FRA ANGELICO: HEAVEN ON EARTH
At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way, through May 20. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.