Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Penitent Saint Jerome

Fra Angelico, The San Domenico Altarpiece (detail), c. 1422-23

In the 1420s Fra Angelico painted three altarpieces and illuminated a choir book for the church and convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, the first of which was a triptych with the Virgin and Child flanked by two sets of saints: Aquinas, Barnabas, Dominic and Peter Martyr.  However, as Diane Cole Ahl explains in her monograph Fra Angelico (2008) it was united into a single panel and repainted by Lorenzo di Credi in 1501.  One of the alterations Lorenzo made was to replace the gold background with a continuous architectural and landscape setting - a serene pattern of water, fields, trees and distant mountains under a misty sky that fades into blue.  Why was this done?  It was possibly part of the renovation of the church, but another motivation could have been to pay homage to the saints and to the revered artist himself:  Lorenzo 'left the figures as they had been painted as precious relics of Angelico's mastery.'  The result is a beautiful hybrid work.  Looking at it, even in reproduction, you feel a particularly strong version of that familiar longing in front of a Renaissance altarpiece to travel beyond the foreground figures and out through the window into the idealised world beyond.

Fra Angelico, The San Domenico Altarpiece (detail), c. 1422-23
landscapes added by Lorenzo di Credi in 1501

When Fra Angelico began his career gilt backgrounds were still the norm and in early paintings like Madonna and Child with Twelve Angels (c1423-4) he placed his figures on solid architecture under a gold leaf sky.  But when he came to paint the Annalena Altarpiece (c. 1435), the simple golden background had been superseded by a realistic interior decoration, showing the Virgin, Child and saints in sacra conversazione before a golden cloth of honour.  This rapid evolution culminates in the San Marco Altarpiece, painted with Benozzo Gozzoli, with its gold throne, mosaic floor and curtains opening onto a golden sunset over a realistic landscape.  It might almost be dusk falling on a Viennese park in the time of Klimt and Schiele. 

 Fra Angelico assisted by Benozzo Gozzoli,
San Marco Altarpiece, c1438-40

Egon Schiele, Autumn Sun, 1914

I'll be saying more about Fra Angelico in my next post, but I can't leave this specific subject without mentioning one more early Fra Angelico painting where the gold background seems less regal or ornamental than harsh and frightening.  Saint Jerome in the wilderness has often been painted by artists interested in landscape, but here he is shown starkly alone, half in shadow, among bear rocks beneath a molten sky. 

Fra Angelico, Penitent Saint Jerome, c1424

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