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BOOK REVIEW / With a brush and a prayer: Bruce Boucher on the lost spiritual world captured in the paintings of Fra Angelico: Fra Angelico at San Marco - William Hood: Yale University Press, pounds 45

WHEN Henry James visited Florence in 1873, one of his first calls was to the old Dominican convent of San Marco. The monks had departed, banished by a law suppressing religious foundations in the new kingdom of Italy, and the convent had become a museum honouring its sometime painter-in-residence, Fra Angelico. James was especially taken with one fresco, the large mystical crucifixion in the former chapterhouse where, he noted, 'the painter's design . . . has been simply to offer an immense representation of Pity, and all with such concentrated truth that his colours here seem dissolved in tears that drop and drop, however softly, through all time. Of this single yearning consciousness the figures are admirably expressive. No later painter learned to render with deeper force than Fra Angelico the one state of the spirit he could conceive - a passionate pious tenderness'.

Few would dissent from James's observation, and it coincided with the image handed down by Fra Angelico's contemporaries and later codified by Vasari: the painter as a divinely inspired artist, one who never took a brush without uttering a prayer, who painted crucifixions with tears streaming down his cheeks. Indeed, Fra Angelico's surviving frescoes and altarpieces confirm this impression. Even his changes of name suggest a special state of grace, from his baptismal name of Guido di Pietro to the name of Fra Giovanni, adopted when he assumed the Dominican habit, to Fra Angelico, the sobriquet bestowed by posterity shortly after his death in 1455. The sacred qualities of his work eventually led to the title Beato Angelico, in use long before its official confirmation by the Catholic Church in 1984.

The myth of Fra Angelico is so palpable that it is difficult to fathom the artist behind it. A contemporary of Masaccio, his early years and training are obscure, but he seems to have had no famous teacher nor patron nor any of the advantages that would have propelled him automatically towards a successful career. After assuming a religious vocation, he spent most of his career at the strict or Observant Dominican convent of San Domenico, on the hill between Florence and Fiesole, with forays to other Dominican houses in central Italy. But if he was a resident of the cloister, he was not immured there. His patrons included Cosimo de' Medici, then the wealthiest man in Europe; for much of his career, too, the Dominican order was at the centre of the Catholic Church with Pope Eugenius IV's residence in Florence from 1434-43.

In effect, the world came to Fra Angelico and he participated in the unfolding of Renaissance art from a privileged position. He enjoyed an astonishing career that led from obscure illuminator to the creator of monumental frescoes for the papal palace in Rome, and his example proved crucial for the development of younger artists like Domenico Veneziano and Piero della Francesca.

Acceptance of Fra Angelico's centrality to Renaissance art may now be unquestioned, but it is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. After Vasari's cursory biography, the painter dropped from critical discussion until the latter half of the 19th century. In the 1840s, Ruskin could lament the British public's ignorance of Fra Angelico and the absence of his works from the recently opened National Gallery. While some of his altarpieces were on display in Florence, the core of Fra Angelico's achievement, the frescoes in San Marco, were inaccessible to all but the religious until the convent became a museum after 1866. The paintings of its cloister, chapterhouse, and cells now constitute the largest group of related works by any Renaissance artist, and no monastic fresco cycle from any period can rival the extent and complexity of the San Marco programme.

The power and engagement which Fra Angelico brought to his task raises the frescoes of San Marco above the level of all but a handful of rivals, and with the famous Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, situated at the top of the stairs to the north dormitory of the convent, the artist created the definitive Renaissance image of the mystery of the incarnation. But the question still arises: how does one explain the peculiar force of these works which combine rarefied beauty with an iconic power?

In his magisterial study of the San Marco frescoes, William Hood eschews the standard monographic treatment of his subject in favour of an analysis of the visual culture of the Dominican order from the 13th through the 15th century. This leads him into essays on the history of the order, its liturgy and constitution, as well as surveys of Dominican altarpieces and earlier frescoed cloisters. At times, this treatment of Fra Angelico's art appears ringed by scholastic reasoning, but it is handsomely justified by the final chapters in which the friar's great altarpiece for the church of San Marco and his frescoes for the convent are analysed. Here the author's sure sense of Dominican lore and of artistic currents prevalent in 15th-century Tuscany illuminate Fra Angelico's work as no book has done before.

Hood is particularly informative about the conventions of Dominican altarpieces and shows that it was Sienese rather than Florentine artists who created the touchstones for Fra Angelico's works. He also argues that Fra Angelico had a deeply rooted predisposition for the ethereal qualities of Sienese paining, which complemented his own approach to the splendour of sacred art better than the more naturalistic works of Masaccio or Filippo Lippi.

For Hood, form and content are inseparable aspects of Fra Angelico's work, and his chromatic transcription of the visible world created a compelling metaphor for the spiritual one articulated in the liturgy and conventions of monastic prayer. Fra Angelico was not a 'progressive' artist if judged by Vasarian criteria, but his return to the art of earlier periods can be understood as the response of a sensitive mind to the problem of representing the supernatural in pictorial terms. William Hood's richly layered study defines the matrix of Fra Angelico's vision, but it also catches the vibrations of a lost spiritual world.

(Photograph omitted)