Madonna of the Star

Several weekends ago, J and I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to see Heaven on Earth, an exhibition of works by Fra Angelico. The highlight of the exhibit is a collection of four reliquaries originally commissioned by the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The Gardner Museum owns one of these reliquaries, and the others are visiting from Florence’s Museum of San Marco: the first time in two centuries that the four pieces have been displayed side by side.

Assumption and Dormition of the Virgin

Heaven on Earth is an eye-popping display of radiant richness. J and I went to see the exhibit the weekend it opened because J is a fan of Italian Renaissance art, and Fra Angelico (aka Guido di Pietro) is one of his favorites. Seeing these four reliquaries in person, I can see why.
Fra Angelico’s paintings gleam blue and gold in a darkened gallery, museum-goers crowding and craning to admire intricate details up close while attentive guards repeatedly reminded us to step back.

Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi

You can’t blame us for hovering close. The figures in these paintings are small; unlike a mural or altarpiece, a reliquary doesn’t offer much space to work with, and Fra Angelico had a lot of iconographic ground to cover. These four reliquaries depict in sumptuous detail key moments from the life of the Virgin Mary: the annunciation and adoration of the Magi, the infancy of Christ, Mary’s dormition and assumption, and her coronation in heaven.

The Coronation of the Virgin

Although Fra Angelico was Italian, his paintings reminded me of the works J and I had seen at the Museum of Russian Icons earlier this year. In each case, an intricately detailed painting is intended as a window from this world to the next, the physical properties of gilt and pigment serving a larger spiritual purpose. Museum-goers at the Gardner were looking at rather than through Fra Angelico’s artistry, but it was impossible not to feel transported by so much grandeur collected in one small space.