The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts is the only venue in America for the extraordinary “Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth” exhibition. This amazing collection of reliquaries which express the life of the Virgin Mary, and other paintings of the greatest painter of the Early Renaissance, will be on display until this Sunday May 20th, 2018. Earlier incorrect media reports had the last day as May 28th.
I will be posting my photos of the Gardner Museum’s exhibit starting with this post and continuing on through the upcoming weeks and months. The exhibit consists of more than just the exquisite four reliquaries and it will be my pleasure to bring to you my photos of all of it. I am grateful to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for allowing me to take photographs of the exhibit.
I will proceed with the first photo showing the image that you see as you climb the stairs of the Museum to the second floor where the exhibit is located. That image is of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels as she ascends in a vortex-like movement, toward God the Father. The reliquary containing the complete image was acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1899. This is the first time in history that all four reliquaries are reunited since they were split up and acquired by collectors and museums around the world.
My wife and I were privileged to visit the Museum and exhibition last week. Words cannot describe the restored reliquaries and paintings in this display. I am not embarrassed to say that at one point I was choked up with emotion as to the beauty, technical skill, narrative brilliance in explaining Sacred Scripture, and the theological depth that Fra Angelico expressed in these sacred images.
Beato Fra Angelico (birth name Guido di Pietro) was a Dominican friar and known by his religious name as Brother John of Fiesole. The first historical record of Fra Angelico as a painter is the 1418 record of payment for a painting commissioned by the church of Santo Stefano al Ponte in Florence. Fra Angelico is believed to have been born in the late 1390’s and died in 1455. He is buried in Rome at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. He was beatified (beato) by Pope Saint John Paul 2 on October 3, 1982, and in 1984 the Pope declared that Fra Angelico was the patron of Catholic artists (that is why I named this blog after him). Beato Fra Angelico’s feast day is celebrated every year on February 18th.
As you come up the stairs leading to the second floor of the Museum and turn the corner you first see an enlarged version of Fra Angelico’s Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin located below. This image is showcased because it is found within the reliquary acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1899.
This enlarged version of the Virgin Mary is found within the reliquary, and is its centerpiece, seen below.
The above outer frame and base, which contains Fra Angelico’s painting, is known as a reliquary. A reliquary is a container which holds the relics (bones, hair, etc) of deceased holy people or declared saints of the Roman Catholic Church. The reliquary allows the faithful to venerate, not worship, the life, deeds, and mortal remains of the person whose relics it contains. Fra Angelico painted the four reliquaries’ images specifically for the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence between the years 1424 through 1434 The painting is rendered in egg tempera, oil glazes, and gold. It is simply stunning.
There is another separate painting in the exhibit which concentrates just on the dormition of the Virgin Mary. I will show that to you in the next post.
The “Heaven on Earth” exhibition is made possible with the support, in part, by the Robert Lehman Foundation and the Massachusetts Cultural Council (the Council receives its funding from the State of Massachusetts and the National Endowment for the Arts). The media sponsor is WBUR in Boston. The Museum’s Executive Director, chief conservator, curators, conservators, and support staff brilliantly provided the technical expertise and planning for this exhibit. The companion book, edited by Dr. Nathaniel Silver (with contributions by more than ten experts) is also very well done and a worthy addition to your library.
Photos and text © Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018. Thanks again to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for this beautiful exhibit and enabling the public to enjoy, be edified, and to take photos of it.