Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth Catalog

Accompanying the exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, this catalogue explores one of the most important artists of the Renaissance. Fra Angelico (about 1395–1455) transformed Western art with pioneering images, rethinking popular compositions and investing traditional Christian subjects with new meaning. His altarpieces and frescoes set new standards for quality and ingenuity, securing his place in history. With the intellect of a Dominican theologian, the technical facility of Florence’s finest craftsmen and the business acumen of its shrewdest merchants, he forged the future of painting in Italy and beyond. 

The exhibition reunites for the first time Fra Angelico’s four reliquaries for Santa Maria Novella (1424-1434; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Museo di San Marco, Florence). Together they cover key episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary and capture in miniature some of his most important compositional innovations. Assembled at the Gardner with exceptional examples of Angelico’s narrative paintings from collections in Europe and the United States, Heaven on Earth explores his celebrated talents as a storyteller and the artistic contributions that shaped a new ideal of painting in Florence.

The following review of the Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth Catalog was written by Eliot W. Rowlands, a freelance art historian and specialist in Early Renaissance Italian paintings. Rowalands's review was featured in the September 2018 edition of The Art Newspaper:

This publication accompanies a small but important exhibition earlier this year at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the home of the first autograph work by the artist to enter an American collection. For this occasion, the Gardner’s Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin was reunited with the three other painted reliquaries of Marian subjects by Angelico (Museo di San Marco, Florence) that were ordered by the artist’s fellow Dominican, Fra Giovanni Masi, for the sacristy of Santa Maria Novella. Of the earliest of these four—the Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi—John Ruskin wrote to his father in 1845, it “is as near as heaven as human hand or mind will ever or can ever go”. The Gardner’s work, arguably, is even more ethereal.

The catalog section of this beautifully produced book consists of 12 entries, mostly by Nathaniel Silver. These treat 11 paintings by Angelico—including the Paradise lent by the Ufizi; the National Gallery of Art’s Entombment; a panel from around 1450-52, the Armadio degli Argenti formerly in the church of Santissima Annunziata—and two drawings. A notable feature of such writing is their thoroughness and their real affinity to the niceties of religious iconography.

Of the nine essays, particular praise should be given to Silver’s clear and informative introductory one, Carl Strehlke’s on the painter and Santa Maria Novella, in which Angelico’s works are brilliantly discussed in relation to their historical and iconographic context, the archival discoveries announced in Chiara Pidatella’s contribution, and a welcome history of the Museo di San Marco by its current director, Marilena Tamassia. William Hood’s essay is a supplement to his pioneering 1993 monograph, Fra Angelico at San Marco. Finally, a masterly contribution to the burgeoning field of the history of collecting is Jeremy Howard’s account of the Gardner panel’s 19th-century history, as it passed from the collection of the Reverend John Sanford to that of his descendants at Corsham Court, until sold to Colnaghi’s in 1899. The volume includes an excellent bibliography.
By Nathaniel Silver, Associate Curator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Published by Paul Holberton, 2018
Available in hardcover or paperback
250 pages, 125 color illustrations
11.5 x 1 x 10 inches