At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, not far from Fenway Park, the sun shines on Fra Angelico’s Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin, which the Dominican friar painted around 1432 as one of four reliquaries for Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The four works were displayed publicly together for the first time in 2018, the centerpiece of a stunning exhibit at the Gardner Museum called “Heaven on Earth.”
It recalls this liturgical passage, taken from First Vespers for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
O Virgin most prudent, whither goest thou,
bright as the morn?
All beautiful and sweet art thou,
O Daughter of Zion,
fair as the moon, elect as the sun.
Inside the Early Italian Room on the Gardner Museum’s second floor, one finds Fra Angelico‘s painting nestled back in a corner, a relatively small 62 x 38 centimeters, crafted in meticulous detail with tempera, oil glazes and gold. The painting’s discreet placement may have helped it elude the thieves who ransacked the museum in 1990 and stole works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, and others that remain missing to this day.
Fra Angelico’s genius draws the viewer’s eyes from the bottom to the top of the painting – from Earth to Heaven. At the bottom, Mary lies on a bier, surrounded by the Apostles. At the top, she proceeds gloriously into Heaven, greeted by a crowd of angels, and headed into the arms of her waiting Son. As Nathaniel Silver writes in the Gardner Museum’s catalog for “Heaven on Earth,” the painting’s vertical arrangement was inspired by Orcagna’a fourteenth-century sculpture of the same scene at Orsanmichele in Florence.
The scene depicts one of the most ancient traditions in Christendom. Saint Maximus the Confessor’s The Life of the Virgin, which was written in Greek in the seventh century, and discovered in an Old Georgian translation more than a thousand years later, tells a story that long preceded its author:
The holy apostles encircled the bed on which lay the Holy Theotokos’ [i.e., The God-bearer’s] body. . . .They honored it with hymns and praise. . . .Then the apostles called on blessed Peter to deliver a funeral prayer. . . .He prayed, and immediately they wrapped in a holy shroud and anointed with myrrh the body that contained the uncontainable, the king and creator of all things visible and invisible, and they laid it on a bed.
Small details in the bottom scene, drawn from the ancient tradition, attract particular attention: the pallium around St. Peter, the psalter from which he reads the prayers for the dead, and the palm frond held by St. John the Evangelist.
Standing in the center of his Apostles is Jesus (“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them”), holding Mary’s soul in his arms as if it were a baby.
Then, the painting draws the eyes upward, and its true magnificence is revealed: “Mary is taken up to heaven; a chorus of angels exults.”
The light through the second-floor window at the Gardner Museum transfigures Mary, who is clothed in blue, white, and gold. Standing in front of the painting on a sunny day, one cannot tell where Fra Angelico’s colors stop, and where God’s begin. One gazes at the luminous Virgin with wonder, while the mix of the tempera and the sunlight recalls the first description of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Nican Mopohua from the sixteenth century: “her perfect grandeur exceeded all imagination; her clothing was shining like the sun, as if it were sending out waves of light.”
It was Isabella Stewart Gardner’s idea to put Fra Angelico’s painting next to the window. In his 1997 biography of Gardner, The Art of Scandal, Douglas Shand-Tucci described the vision she tried to convey, with the art she accumulated with her late father’s fortune and the Venetian palazzo she built to house it:
she was trying to create an effect whose origins in her mind’s eye did not always correspond with her resources. . . .She was confronted, of course, with the harsh New England light. . . .She could never have the glorious light of Italy, she knew, in Boston, but still, New England light might nonetheless be persuaded to gentler effect: major pictures, for instance, are placed beside a window and at right angles to it: thus, the Giotto, the Masaccio, the Fra Angelico, the Vermeer and, of course, Europa and Christ Bearing the Cross are beautifully lighted.
In his devotional book, The Way, Saint Josemaría Escrivá writes: “When you were asked which picture of our Lady aroused your devotion the most, and you answered – with the air of long experience – ‘all of them’, I realized that you were a good son: that is why you are equally moved – ‘they make me fall in love,’ you said – by all the pictures of your Mother.”
Still, a good son or daughter might have special affection for the Fra Angelico that hangs across from the window at the Gardner Museum. The painting gives a luminous vision of the Blessed Virgin, faithfully presents a venerable tradition, and offers a small foretaste of Heaven on Earth. It makes you fall in love.
*Image: The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, c. 1424-34 [Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. MA]