Tag: Renaissance artists

An Angel Among Us

“Yet within our reach is joy.”

Fra Angelico

Encountering an angel in the museum was the last thing I expected to happen that Friday night. Earlier in the evening, my drawing classes had met for a docent-led tour but now it had ended and the students had dispersed. Before heading home myself I wanted to take advantage of the museum’s extended evening hours for a little research about framing elements used on Medieval and early Renaissance paintings.

So under the watchful eyes of amused gallery guards, my iPhone on camera mode, I purposefully marched from one painting to another. Here was one of the Madonna and Child, in a gold gilded frame. Click. Jesus with the crown of thorns, more gilding and carved framing. Click. Over there was a series of religious paintings, with (again) the requisite Madonna, saints, episodic depictions from the life of Christ. Click. I photographed one after another, frames that were carved, embellished, painted and gilded, with lots of gold that seem to spill inward from the frames onto the artworks themselves.

Dashing from one painting to another, click, click, click, I focused on the frames, hardly noticing the artwork. Suddenly, I was brought face to face with one of the most transcendent beings I have ever seen. There, in a gallery that I must have hurried through so many times in the past, was the Angel Gabriel.


“Annunciatory Angel”, Fra Angelico, c. 1432 (source: WikiArt.org)

Okay, it wasn’t really the Angel Gabriel. Rather it was a painting, small in size (at almost 13 x 11 inches, just a bit larger than a sheet of copy paper), by the 13th century Italian friar and artist Guido di Pietro (c. 1387-1455), now known as Fra Angelico. Yes, an angel painted by Brother Angel. And what a heavenly being he created. Hazel-eyed, with a cap of curls the color of marigolds, wearing a rose gown embellished at the collar, cuffs and sleeves with real gold leaf, Gabriel is pink-cheeked and luminous. His face is in profile, a gold halo encircles his head. With his right arm angled up, he points heavenwards with his index finger. Any real space he may occupy is hidden, for around him the very air is infused with a golden atmosphere.

Ethereal and celestial, Gabriel nonetheless seems so solid that it is easy to imagine grabbing him by the upper arm and inviting him to stay for drinks and dinner. But he is the Annunciatory Angel, with gold tipped wings, sent to deliver a divine message, and there is no time to waste on mere frivolities. Who is the intended recipient of his message and where can we find her?

“Virgin Annunciate”, Fra Angelico, c. 1432 (source: WikiArt.org)

There she is, the Virgin Annunciate, depicted in the companion painting hanging on the wall a few inches to Gabriel’s right. She is Mary, the Madonna, soon to be the Mother of Jesus. “Ave Maria” says the Angel Gabriel, “gratia plena!” Fra Angelico shows her at this moment, head bowed and with her eyes lowered, so as better to hear the messenger. She is indeed full of grace, and the grace has infused the surrounding space with the same golden light that surrounds Gabriel.

I am struck at that moment, while standing in the empty gallery, by the power of art. At the basic level, these paintings are made with pigment and egg yolk, painted on wooden panels, enhanced with gold leaf. Yet they are transformative, and their small size is not really small, but expansive. They grow, traveling through time from the mid 1400s to 2016, filling the gallery with their presence; arriving from a convent in Fiesoli, Italy through a circuitous route to a museum in Detroit; from a monk-artist, to a fellow artist; from Fra Angelico’s paintbrush directly into my heart.


A Christmas Addendum

Several years ago, when I would first hand-letter a Christmas quote and then take it to the local printer to be turned into our holiday card, I used this  “Letter to a Friend”, which was supposedly written by Fra Angelico in 1513. I share it with you this year as a missive of hope and courage.

“There is nothing I can give you which you have not already, but there is much, very much, which though I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this precious little instant. Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach is joy. There is radiance and courage in the darkness could we but see; and to see, we have only to look.

Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their coverings, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, and wisdom, and power. Welcome it, greet it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there, the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing Presence. Our joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts. . .

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, not quite as the world sends greeting, but with profound esteem now and forever. The day breaks and the shadows flee away.”

Well, Aren’t You Just Like Michelangelo!

“I live and love in God’s peculiar light.”


When my son, the Heir Apparent, was a youngster he asked me who I liked best: Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo or Leonardo?  What a clever boy! (Indeed, I wondered how to casually let slip to the other moms what a genius my son was.) Yet a small niggling thought made me hesitate. I couldn’t recall sharing a single story, children’s book, or television program about these particular artists with Andrew. So I asked the precocious tyke where he learned about these giants of art. In the way that only our children can humble us, he sighed deeply, rolled his eyes and said, “Mom, they’re not artists, they’re Ninja Turtles!”

Well, there went my bragging rights on the playground.

I often retell that story and from time to time, I wonder how to answer the “who do you like best” question. All these years later I still answer “Michelangelo”.


Jacopo del Conte's Portrait of Michelangelo
Jacopo del Conte’s Portrait of Michelangelo:

I think it’s because I relate to Michelangelo Buonarroti in ways that I can’t with the other big guys. Based on what I’ve read about Michelangelo, he had shortcomings that were beyond my understanding. By most accounts, his personal habits were slovenly enough to cause comment (and this was at a time when everyone’s hygiene, was shall we say, a wee bit on the stanky side.) He was antisocial, paranoid and had such a quick temper that one of his nicknames was Il Terrible. (His other well earned moniker was Il Divino.) He was a complicated individual living in a complex, volatile society. Still, here are five reasons how most of us artists, not just me, can relate to Michelangelo:

  1. Family

We hold family dear but let’s be honest, sometimes when you are trying to accomplish something artistic, doesn’t their wants and needs get on your nerves a tiny bit? Although he never married, Michelangelo understood trying to balance work and family obligations. After receiving a letter from his father asking once again for assistance, Michelangelo complained that he didn’t have the time to take away from work to deal with family issues. Inspite of his annoyance, Michelangelo continued to lend considerable help when needed, just like we find ourselves doing.

2. Dealing with the Boss 

Adam_na_restauratieWe’ve all had to navigate the expectations of a boss or client. Imagine dealing with the demands of a Pope, at a time when Papal authority was absolute, literally, “do or die”, and then multiply that by nine! Yep, from 1505 on, Michelangelo worked under nine consecutive popes. One, Julius II, had the temperament and ambitions that matched the artist, earning Julius a similar nickname, Il Papa Terrible. One can only image that their encounters were like the Clash of the Titans! Think about that the next time you are asked to modify a piece, or change direction on a job. After all, it is likely no one recently told you knock off the tomb idea and go slap some paint on a chapel ceiling.

3. Find Success Where Others See Failure

Michelangelo's_DavidOkay, who hasn’t been told at least once that an idea or process won’t work; admit it, you bowed to the naysayers. Imagine if Michelangelo had listened when everyone said that a certain piece of Carrara marble was too flawed to carve. In fact, two other sculptors had tried, both abandoning the marble due to imperfections and leaving it exposed for over 25 years to the elements. Michelangelo saw the possibilities in the stone, and with a firm belief in his own skills, he undertook the commission from Opera del Duomo, and produced one of the world’s most recognizable sculptures, the much beloved David.

If Michelangelo could turn an unusable block of marble into something magnificent can’t you and I find success when we are confronted by small challenges in our artistic practice? Darn right, we can! Now hand me a chisel!

4. A Bad Beginning Doesn’t Mean a Bad End

We all have moments that we are less than proud of, particularly if we had an impetuous youth or fell under the influence of someone who had something other than our best interest at heart. Did you know Michelangelo began his career as a forger, carving and then passing off a sleeping cupid as an ancient Roman sculpture? Some suggest that Lorenzo de Medici was behind the scam in selling the work to Cardinal Riario, and that Michelangelo was equally duped, while others believe Michelangelo was complicit in the arrangement. Either way, the fraud was uncovered; but like a really good fairy tale, Cardinal Riario ended up being so impressed by Michelangelo’s talents that the rest, as they say, is history.

No way am I suggesting that committing a misdemeanor is the way to jump start a career, but learning from past mistakes seems a worthy lesson. Speaking of learning, this takes us to one of Michelangelo’s most endearing virtues:


5. Keep Learning Until the End

Michelangelo,_pietà_rondanini,_1552-1564,_05It’s unlikely that “Ancora Imparo”,  a quote attributed to the 83 year old Michelangelo, was actually ever uttered by him. He may not have said the words, “I am still learning”,  but he lived them. He considered himself a sculptor but he learned to master painting. At age 74 he was called upon to supervise the ongoing work at St. Peter’s Basilica, a project he continued to work on for the next 14 years, right up to his death at age 88. Two days before he died, he was still working on his final piece, the Rondanini Pietà. If the great Michelangelo could keep learning, who are we to assume that all we need to know, we know?

So now’s is your turn. Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo or Leonardo? Turtles or artists, you decide!

Note: all Michelangelo images from commons.wikimedia.org

This Week in the Studio 

IMG_2099 2Took a break from studio work to tie up the flotsam and jetsam of the winter semester and prep for summer teaching. But not all was work, as we managed a couple of days away for some R and R. Of course, every adventure has to include art! Here is a photo from a visit to the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s exhibit on Maurice Sendak’s classic masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are, because inside every artist is a little bit of a wild thing!