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Fra Angelico's art reassessed

A new exhibition brings to light how his influence continues to be felt.

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Her lovely face, so solemn with its heavenly charge, radiates spiritual intelligence as well as tender humility. Mary and the announcing angel, Gabriel, share a golden ground, their faces illuminated by damask. Gabriel looks directly at her; she looks down, modestly, thinking about what he has told her, what it all means. Innocent maid though she is, she realizes her son will change everything. She knows herself to be blessed.

The painter, Brother John (Fra Giovanni), was born Guido di Pietro. He was a 15th-century Italian friar whose early history we know almost nothing about, but who later was dubbed pictor angelicus (angelic painter) as much for his devout life as for his transcendent images.

Fra Angelico, as he became known, was one painter of his era who would never be lost to popular renown, although the passing years saw many great names eclipsed by changes in the arts and the fickle tastes of art patrons. That is partly because he lived what he believed and was honored for his faith, while his works were underappreciated for their innovation and mastery.

Then when art history became a serious discipline in the 20th century, Fra Angelico lost artistic status, simply because his reputation as a painter had been so linked to his religious life.

A new exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the first such comprehensive exhibition in 50 years, brings to light just how much the artist had accomplished, how many other masters he influenced, and how his influence continues to be felt. The show and the essays in its catalog set about debunking many of the assumptions about Fra Angelico's work as simplistic religiosity.

Instead, they open a dialogue about his clear aesthetic intentions.

"Because [Fra Angelico's] spirituality has been the only thing people focused on for so long, we were almost at pains to discount it," says curator Laurence Kanter of his and his colleagues' presentation. "But we don't want to lose sight of it because it is so vivid and so real.... The issue is profound and complex, but at the level of intellect at which he operated, that spirituality pervaded and informed everything he did. Even his grasp of realism was employed to emphasize the spiritual message of his paintings."

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