Early Renaissance Artist Blends Tradition with Innovation

Art lovers braved the icy rain on April 12 and flocked to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to pay homage to its latest exhibit, Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth. While navigating the gallery, visitors took turns standing face to face with Angelico’s work, some close enough that their noses nearly grazed the breathtaking altarpieces and frescoes.

After visiting the exhibit, visitors filed into Calderwood Hall and found an open spot in a sea of red seats. They came to hear Carl Brandon Strehlke, curator emeritus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, speak on the evolution of Angelico’s artistic career as part of a lecture entitled “Fra Angelico: Devotion and Painting.”

The event was the second in a three part lecture series on the exhibit. The final lecture, “From Saints to Celebrities, Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Relics of History,” will be held on April 28. Casey Riley, assistant curator at the Boston Athenaeum, will serve as the guest speaker. The exhibit runs through May 20.

“Anyone who has worked on this artist knows that Carl’s research has repeatedly broken new ground and shed new light on some of his most important paintings,” said Nathaniel Silver, the Gardner Museum’s associate curator of the collection, as he introduced Strehlke to the podium.

Next year, to celebrate the Museo del Prado’s 200th anniversary, Strehlke is organizing an exhibition on Angelico and the early Renaissance.

The lecture outlined the history of Angelico’s career, both as an artist and a Dominican Friar in 15th century Rome—on the cusp of the Italian Renaissance. Having studied the artist for the past 40 years, Strehlke joked that he isn’t sick of Angelico quite yet, assuring the audience that Angelico is an artist that “keeps on giving.”

“Let’s bring Angelico back down to earth,” he said. “First, we have to take a closer look at that name.”

“If you were to look up the artist in the index of an Italian book, you would find that he’s not listed under the letter ‘a’ for Angelico, or the letter ‘f’ for Fra, but rather the letter ‘b’ for “beato,” or blessed”, explained Strehlke. This title emphasizes the significance and impact of Angelico’s work and the power of the narratives he produced.

Angelico was officially made blessed by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and was declared the patron saint of artists in 1984.

“Making Angelico blessed was an important step for the Vatican, but it only confirmed the long-standing tradition,” Strehlke said. “For Florentines, he was always ‘Beato Angelico.’”

Strehlke went on to outline the evolution of Angelico’s career, starting with the artist’s humble beginnings in the workshop of Lorenzo Monaco in Florence. At every stage of his career, Strehlke said, Angelico remained at the forefront of artistic innovation, and was one of the earliest revolutionary artists from the Florentine Renaissance. Strehlke presented viewers with five of Angelico’s works throughout his career, influenced by contemporaries, including Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Filippo Lippi, to showcase his constant evolution in style and form.

The first work Strehlke showed the audience was Altarpiece with the Madonna and Child, completed in 1420. Among the details he pointed out was the playful and squirming Baby Jesus, whose animated figure echoed developments in contemporary sculpture of the time and signified a clear break from tradition.

“At first look, Angelico’s might be like many others,” Strehlke said. “What I want to focus on, however, are several details which show us an artist working within a traditional framework, but, already at the start of his career, engaging in a search for a new type of realistic depiction.

“Don’t be afraid to look closely. What you find may surprise you, I know it always surprises me.”

Feature Image By Isabel Fenoglio  / Heights Editor