Fra Angelico and the Armadio degli Argenti – Part 3 of the “Heaven on Earth” Exhibition

Today’s post is Part 3 in my series that began on May 16, 2018 concerning the recently concluded exhibition of extraordinary egg tempera paintings by Fra Angelico. The exhibition was held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts and entitled Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth.

Today’s  painting concerns a major piece of the exhibition – the Armadio degli Argenti.  The four panels of which the Gardner Museum only showed one is also known as the “Silver Chest.” It was commissioned in 1450 and completed in 1452, three years before Fra Angelico’s death.

This panel (123 x 160 cm) includes eleven compartments: The Road to Calvary, The Disrobing of Christ, The Crucifixion of Christ, the Entombment of Christ, The Descent into Limbo, The Three Marys at Christ’s Tomb, The Ascension of Christ, Pentecost, The Last Judgment, The Coronation of the Virgin, and the Lex Amoris (Law of Love). The panel is seen below.

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This panel is one of four that decorated a large cupboard-like chest. The chest contained highly valuable silver votive offerings that were donated by the faithful of Florence to the Church of Santissima Annunziata. Their donations were in honor of a miracle working fresco of the Annunciation of Mary in a side chapel of that church.

The entire chest was commissioned by Piero di Cosimo de’Medici during the church’s restoration. The paintings within the thirty-six “compartments” are painted in egg tempera and gold on a wood panel (The Last Judgement occupies two compartments).

In 1782, the panels were separated from the chest in, thankfully, an unsuccessful attempt to sell them. In 1812 they began their journey to the Galleria dell’Academia, and finally to their current resting place – the Museo di San Marco.

Some close-ups of the panel are found below.

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The “compartment” above was entitled Lex Amoris (Law of Love) by Fra Angelico. It shows a menorah covered with scrolls on which are written items relating to the New and Old Law, and emphasizing the New Law as superior. The scrolls specifically relate to the Sacraments of the Church and specifics of the faith. We also see the twelve Apostles and the twelve Hebrew prophets on each side of the menorah showing that they are all connected through the holy Cross of Christ (top center with red and white standard). The purpose of this panel is to explain that in the coming of Jesus Christ you see the fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy of the Messiah, which does not stand alone, but is related to other events in Jewish history. Notice the female in the lower left corner holding a shield which proclaims “Lex Amoris” (Law of Love) versus the Jewish tradition of “Lex Timoris” (Law of Fear). In her right hand she holds an open book. A beautiful allegory of faith that is beautifully executed by Fra Angelico.

IMG_1762The above photo is one of the thirty-six panels describing events of the New Testament, in this case the Coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Notice Jesus’ mother Mary at the top center of the image with the Apostles and disciples (Peter is on her top right, and John is on her top left). They are receiving the Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit symbolized by the tongues of fire. A curious crowd gathers below the upper room as described in the Acts of the Apostles. IMG_1760

This is a close-up photo of one of panels in the Armadio degli Argenti in this case showing part of the image of the Last Judgment. Notice one of the angels dragging a sinner from the right side of Christ, the abode of the saved – to the left side of Christ, the abode of the damned prior to their being cast into hell.

The beautiful book, published in union with the Gardner Exhibition, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth – was edited by Nathaniel Silver and published in 2018 (Boston, London). It was extremely helpful (pages 210 – 215) in my commentary.

photos (iPhone 6, no flash) and text © Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018

2 thoughts on “Fra Angelico and the Armadio degli Argenti – Part 3 of the “Heaven on Earth” Exhibition

  1. Sandra Goth

    Breath taking. I particularly like the idea of the Menorah illustrating the old and new law, this would be a wonderful piece to have for us to meditate on, as would all of the complexities of the panels. Thank you for your photographs and explanations.

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