Heaven on Earth with Fra Angelico

Close your eyes and think of the artwork that fills the churches around Italy.

I studied renaissance art and still have a tough time not immediately thinking of gold leaf, lapis lazuli, biblical scenes, and a group of deadpan angels staring at me.

Here's the thing, you can go to a museum like the Uffizi in Florence and say — seen one Madonna and Child, seen 'em all.

And I totally get that (note — the Uffizi is not to be tackled in one trip), but artists like Fra Angelico knew exactly what they were doing when creating their artworks.

Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin, 1425.

You could make the assumption that any artwork produced at this time was merely to get the Catholic Church more of money, but I doubt centuries of artists would have been pushed over so easily.

They probably knew that what they were providing for viewers was way more useful than any mass. Hey, if you could paint something that's so beautiful the viewer thinks they're seeing a true image of heaven and makes them feel closer to god, wouldn't you?

Paradise, 1431-35.

And yes, it was all still extremely devout in nature, but I think it was much more about creating a reflection of the beauty of heaven than fooling the church-goers.

What I loved most about the Fra Angelico exhibit at the Gardner this spring was the attention to detail in his works.

Six panels from the Amalena Predella, 1437-40

The exhibit primarily focused on his smaller paintings, so you could get up close and personal.

To add an even more personal touch — the majority of the works, were about the Virgin Mary's life and sourced from Florence — transporting me right back to sun-drenched Tuscany.

His four reliquaries from Santa Maria Novella were also on display — in a makeshift sacristy to show the viewer how they look in the Florentine church.

Madonna della Stella, 1433.

Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi, 1424.

Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin, 1433. (Gardner museum)

The Coronation of the Virgin, 1429.

Since the 19th century, the reliquaries have stood empty. But they're still vibrantly beautiful.

I realize I didn't do a proper introduction of just what a Gardner museum special exhibit is. With Isabella's will stipulating that none of the art be removed from the palazzo the curators have dreamed up an extremely unique idea to utilize their brand-new exhibition space and give the collection more context. They'll chose one or a few pieces from Isabella's collection and build an exhibit off of that, for instance the Fra Angelico she has inspired this whole exhibit — bringing in pieces from all over Florence!

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