Fra Angelico and the Gothic

The gothic style exemplified.

When, many years ago, I first decided that I’d like to try to paint in the service of the Church I decided I wanted to paint like Fra Angelic (or perhaps Duccio). I suppose you might as well aim high!

Fra Angelico, who worked in the 15th century, had the balance of naturalism and idealism that appealed to me. It seemed just right for prayer. It’s just an anecdotal observation, but when I meet people who have the same outlook in regard to the liturgy and orthodoxy in the Church, it seems that invariably they feel the same about him as I do; and John Paul II described him in his Letter to Artists as one whose painting is ‘an eloquent example of aesthetic contemplation sublimated in faith’.

Unfortunately, the late-gothic style of Fra Angelico is not a living tradition and I couldn’t find anyone who painted that way who could teach me. I decided that as it appeared to sit stylistically between the Romanesque (which is an iconographic form) and the baroque and these were forms that are taught today, to some degree, I would learn both and try to work out how to combine the two. I am still working on that now!

What is it that characterizes gothic figurative art?

We start to see a change in figurative art  which begins in the 13th century. The Romanesque style, that dominated in the West up to this point was still fully consistent with the ancient iconographic tradition (that originated in the early years of the Church and is the dominant style of the Eastern Church today). Around the 13th century a change began to occur in how people thought about the nature of the world around them. It was still very Christian, but gradually there was an increased appreciation of the beauty of the world around us and in the reliability of the senses to communicate reliably the true nature of our surroundings to us. As a result, it was no believed that the world we live in, although fallen and imperfect, is nevertheless good, ordered and beautiful. So there may be evil and suffering in the world, and it may not be as good and beautiful as it ought to be, but it is nevertheless God’s creation and still good and beautiful. People thought this before the 13th century too, but there was less faith in the idea that what we perceive with our senses is the true picture and consequently, there was, relatively, more interest in the beauty of the world to come.

What caused this new naturalism in art?

This new interest in the present world caused both the rise of naturalism in art and the development of science fostered by the Church. I have read of two main reasons for this. One is the incorporation of the philosophy of re-discovered works of Aristotle (who trusted the senses more than his teacher, Plato) into Christian thinking, by figures such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. This provided the intellectual basis for the development. Second is the spirituality of St Francis of Assisi. He loved nature as the work of God and as Franciscan ideas spread so did an enthusiasm for, and curiosity about, nature.

Let’s look at a very famous fresco by Fra Angelico of the Annunciation on the walls of a cell at San Marco in Florence. He consciously employs some of the developments of the new naturalism: there is cast shadow, there is single-point perspective creating a sense of depth in the covered cloister; the archangel is in profile. But there are also stylistic aspects that we are accustomed to seeing in iconography: the figures are painted in the middle distance, the edges of each shape are all sharply defined and the colour is evenly applied (unlike the baroque which has selectively blurred or sharp edges and selective use of colour or monochrome, usually sepia, rendering).

If, incidentally, you are interested in knowing more about the basis of the stylistic elements of both the iconographic style and the gothic then you might like to read my book, the Way of Beauty, or take the program courses offered by www.Pontifex.University. Also, very soon I am going to start a whole series of blog postings that will explain the basis of these styles – starting with iconography.

Coming back to this painting by Fra Angelico, if we examine further, we can see that the light source that is casting shadow is from the left. If cast light were the only source, the face of the Archangel would be dark, yet it is bright. Fra Angelico is showing the face of the Archangel glowing with the uncreated light of holiness, which is what we are used to seeing in the Byzantine iconographic form. So we see, both iconographic style and a new naturalism!

So much significance in one little shadow – what it says about Our Lady

I was giving a lecture once about this painting and a student asked me about the shadow. He pointed out that Our Lady is a saint, he could see that her face wasn’t in shadow and there was strong halo, representing he uncreated light coming from her. But also pointed out that there is a strong cast shadow on the wall behind her. Wouldn’t you expect her radiance to obliterate that, he asked? I agreed with him, you would. But I couldn’t say why Fra Anglelico had painted it like this. I speculated that perhaps it was due to the fact that there were two light sources from the left – the natural light and the uncreated light from the angel and that the combined intensity of light would cause the shadow against the wall. I had to admit even as I said it that my answer sounded contrived. Nevertheless, putting aside my inability to account for it, it did seem that Fra Angelico was being quite deliberate in his manipulation of light and shadow. Another Annunciation, shown below, has the same effect of this cast shadow of Our Lady.

The questioner suggested an answer: Fra Angelico was a Dominican, and not a Franciscan. At this time the question of her Immaculate Conception had not been decided and the Dominicans, who did not accept the Immaculate Conception and were in dispute with the Franciscans over the issue, who were. Perhaps, suggested the questioner, Fra Angelico was making a theological point to the Franciscans, by dimming her light ever-so-slightly, he was suggesting that she wasn’t born without original sin (which is what is meant by the Immaculate Conception). This was an ingenious, and I couldn’t say that it wasn’t what Fra Angelico had in mind. I certainly preferred it to my answer!

Later, however, someone in another class, a priest, gave the most convincing reason so far. Luke 1 tells us that the words of the angel Gabriel were:, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”. This is the most compelling reason I have heard so far!


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