Fra Angelico

One of the common pitfalls of adolescence is the idea that if you like something, everyone must like it.  Conversely, if you don’t happen to like something, it must be unworthy of being liked by anyone.*  Who cares if the artist/the work has a great reputation?  They must have earned it because people in the past had bad taste.  Too bad you/I wasn’t there at the time to set things right and prevent a great injustice.

I remember at 16 arguing with my friend over the superiority of Rush (my choice) to Depeche Mode.  Looking back I can see how the discussion might have been enjoyable in theory, but at 16 proved only frustrating.  I think he argued that Rush stank because you couldn’t dance to their music (very true, with rare exceptions).  I shot back that Depeche Mode had zero value because they never had any chord changes in their songs, which is very obviously false (I think I meant to argue “key changes,” but that also must be false).  In retrospect then, I must cede victory to him for at least stating something mostly correct.

Sometimes such attitudes can persist past adolescence, and I confess that I never bothered to understand the merits of the Renaissance painter Fra Angelico.  Many years ago I  saw one of his early paintings of an angel and I immediately thought, “Boring!”

Perhaps the large wings turned me against him.  Angels, beings who inspire fear every time (I think) in Scripture, seemed flat and contrived in his work.  Those who admired him must be wrong, perhaps succumbing to an unhealthy desire for sentimentality.  Now of course it’s fine not to like things, but then to think that others who like them must be inferior to you is nothing less than arrogant stupidity.  Again, however, such attitudes are quite common among adolescents, and we must go gingerly on them.  Those in the Renaissance would have said that the average teenager has too much heat and moisture in their bodies to listen to the cooler voice of reason.

I shudder to think back on my judgmental attitudes, and can give thanks for coming across Reconstructing the Renaissance, a book largely about giving Fra Angelico (literally, Brother Angelico — he was a monk) a rightful place among Renaissance masters.  To call this post a “Book Review” will stretch your credulity, for the text of the book itself meant little to me, and much I could not really understand.  The author takes up his pen largely (so it seems) to argue for the authenticity of some paintings, and the proper chronology of some of the works.   This latter point may seem silly, but I suppose that a proper chronology would ensure something of Angelico’s proper influence upon later painters.  What really grabbed me, however, were the wonderful, high quality pictures throughout the book that allowed Angelico’s great gifts to shine forth.

Unfortunately web images cannot do justice to the wonderful presentation of the paintings found in the book.  High quality paper and vivid background color make looking at the numerous included works a real delight.  Below are some of my favorites. . .

“The Virgin Annunciate”

Virgin Annunciate (Fra Angelico)

“The Deposition”

The Deposition

“The Naming of St. John the Baptist”

Angelico’s work consistently uses color magnificently, and his subjects always have a serene dignity that no doubt the artist himself possessed.  One enters a different place in his world.  One wishes for the peace his subjects have.  The title of the book comes from a painting of St. James freeing Hermogenes, who earlier had persecuted the apostle.  Again, his same qualities shine through, though lest anyone think Angelico could paint only “pretty” things, the devils in the background show his versatility.

St. James Freeing Hermogenes

I do not recommend this book to read, though I I do think that if you can find it cheap (as I did at a used book store) do go ahead and take the plunge.  Look at the pictures and feel all the stormy “heat” of adolescence melting away.   I will leave it lying around my house, in hopes that he and my other children might pick it up one day.  Perhaps then, they may avert the follies of their father’s youth.

*Some adults appear to go in the opposite direction by claiming that nothing has objective value, in apparent rejection of the foolishness of youth.  I say “appears” because I think a lot of similarity exists between the overcommitted teen and cynical adult.  Both reduce everything to their own personal point of view, a purely subjective standard.