Voyage in Italie – Florence et Venise

detail of the painting 'Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist' by Luca Signorelli, c.1500; the detail shows Fra Angelico; the original is in the Cappella di San Brizio in Orvieto, Italy; the image was swiped from Wikimedia CommonsIn the midst of all the commotion and travail of the fifteenth century in Florence there stood a tranquil convent wherein dreamed, sweetly and piously, a mystic of ancient days, Fra Angelico da Fiesole.

Nothing disturbed him in his peaceful contemplation. Around him all actions were prescribed and all objects colorless; day after day regular hours brought before him the same white walls, the same dark luster of the wainscoting, the same straight folds of cowls and frocks, the same rustling of steps passing to and fro between refectory and chapel. Delicate, indeterminate sensations arise vaguely in such monotony, while tender reverie, like a rose sheltered from life’s rude blasts, blooms afar from the great highway clattering with human footsteps.

But the splendor of eternal day was disclosed to Fra Angelico’s eyes, and henceforth every effort of the painter centered upon expressing it. Glittering staircases of jasper and amethyst lead up to the throne on which celestial beings are seated. Golden aureoles gleam around their brows; red, azure, and green robes, fringed, bordered, and striped with gold, flash like glories. Gold runs in threads over baldachins, enriches embroideries on copes, radiates like stars on tunics, and gleams from diadems; while topazes, rubies, and diamonds sparkle in flaming constellations on jeweled crowns. All is light; it is the outburst of mystic illumination. Through this prodigality of gold and azure one tint prevails, that of the sun and of paradise. This is not common daylight; it is too brilliant; it effaces the brightest hues, completely envelops all the forms and reduces them to mere shadows. In fact, the soul is everything; ponderable matter becomes transfigured; its relief is no longer perceptible, its substance having evaporated; nothing remains but an ethereal form which swims in azure and in splendor. At other times the blessed approach paradise over luxuriant meadows strewn with red and white flowers, and under beautiful blooming trees; angels conduct them, and, hand in hand, they lovingly form a circle; the burden of the flesh no longer oppresses them; their heads starred with rays, they glide through the air up to the flaming gate from which a golden illumination issues. Christ, on high, within a triple row of angels pressed together like flowers, smiles upon them beneath his aureole.

Fra Angelico’s personages are worthy of their situation. Although beautiful and ideal, his Christ, even in celestial triumph, is pale, pensive, and slightly emaciated; he is the eternal friend, the somewhat melancholy consoler of the ‘Imitation of Christ,’ the poetic, merciful Lord which the saddened heart imagines, and not the over healthy figure of the Renaissance painters. At the day of judgment he does not condemn; his countenance is turned toward the blessed, toward those whom he loves. Near him the Virgin, kneeling with downcast eyes, seems like a young maiden who has just communed. Under the long blue gold-embroidered mantle in which she is enveloped her form is scarcely defined. No one can imagine, till he has seen it, such immaculate modesty, such virginal candor; Raphael’s virgins compared with her are merely simple, vigorous peasant girls. Fra Angelico’s other figures are of the same order. Every expression is based on two sentiments – the innocence of the calm spirit preserved in the cloister, and the rapture of the blessed spirit that sees God. There are no violent or eager emotions in this world that he paints; all is partially veiled, or arrested midway by the tranquillity or the obedience of the cloister.

But the most charming of Angelico’s figures are the angels. We see them kneeling in silent rows around heavenly thrones, or pressing together in garlands in the azure. The youngest among them are sweet, lovable children, with minds unruffled by a suspicion of evil; they do not think deeply; each head, in its golden circle, smiles and is happy; it will smile forever, and this is its entire life. Others, with flamboyant wings like birds of paradise, play on musical instruments or sing, and their faces are radiant. One of them, raising his trumpet to his lips, stops as if surprised by a resplendent vision. Another with a violoncello to his shoulder seems to muse over the exquisite sound of his own instrument. Two others with joined hands seem to be contemplating and adoring.

To the harmony of tones is added the harmony of colors. Tints are not increased or decreased nor intermingled as in ordinary painting. Each vestment is of one color; red contrasted with blue, bright green with pale purple, gold embroidery placed on dark amaranth, like the simple, sustained strains of an angelic melody. The painter delights in this; he cannot find colors for his saints pure enough or ornaments sufficiently precious. He forgets that his figures are images; he bestows the faithful care of a believer, of a worshiper, upon them; he embroiders their robes as if they were real; he covers their mantles with filigree as fine as the finest work of the goldsmith; he paints complete little pictures on their copes; he delicately unfolds their beautiful light tresses, arranges their curls, adjusts the folds of their tunics, carefully defines the round, monastic tonsures on their heads; he even follows them into heaven that he may love and serve them there.