Reconstructing the Renaissance: Paintings from an Altarpiece by Fra Angelico

Reconstructing the Renaissance: Paintings from an Altarpiece by Fra Angelico

November 25, 2008 to February 15, 2009

In this focus exhibition, shown only at the Kimbell, we reunited the Museum’s great Fra Angelico painting with the ensemble to which it originally belonged. The other four paintings in the group came to us from collections in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Florence.

Fra Angelico was a central figure in the development of painting in Renaissance Italy and remains among the most beloved artists of all time. He was a pioneer of the new representational style championed in Florence in the early 15th century by Brunelleschi, Masaccio, and Donatello, and one of the great artistic minds of his age. When the Kimbell acquired his Saint James Freeing the Magician Hermogenes in 1986, it became one of the most important early Italian paintings in the United States.

The occasion for the exhibition was the Kimbell’s publication of Laurence Kanter’s book Reconstructing the Renaissance: Saint James Freeing Hermogenes by Fra Angelico. Kanter brought the five altarpiece panels together for the first time in living memory in a Fra Angelico exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2005. In his book he synthesizes all past attempts at reconstructing the altarpiece, including his own, and uses new technical studies and archival research to refine and correct them. His discussion of the original context, physical and artistic, of the Kimbell’s Fra Angelico painting provided an excellent opportunity to reunite the five panels again in a way that reflected new ideas he developed about the order in which they were originally placed.

The panels constituted a predella, which stood at the base of an altarpiece as a sort of decorated pedestal or step on which the entire structure rested. A great many altarpieces created in the 15th century (perhaps the majority) have been broken up—whether through modernization or ecclesiastical rededications in the 16th and 17th centuries or through the suppression of church property in the 18th and 19th centuries.  They were dispersed all at once rather than piecemeal, so that the likelihood of surviving fragments being associated in some fashion with other surviving fragments is relatively high. Proposals for reconstruction are predicated on the belief that most altarpieces were painted by a single artist, or at least within a single artist’s workshop, and that they were completed within a comparatively circumscribed period of time, so that bits and pieces related stylistically to each other are likely candidates for association within a single structure of origin.

A predella comprised of five scenes from different saintly legends almost invariably belonged to an altarpiece incorporating full-length (or sometimes half-length) images of the saints or holy figures involved. Accordingly, the Kimbell panel and its companions may be presumed to have stood below an altarpiece representing, from left to right, Saint James, Saint John the Baptist, the Virgin (undoubtedly a Virgin and Child Enthroned), either Saint Francis or Saint Dominic, and Saint Lucy. At some point, the individual panels were presumably separated from their altarpiece and dispersed, but too little is known to determine how and when the predella, with or without the rest of the altarpiece, might have been removed from its original location.

Laurence Kanter’s Reconstructing the Renaissance is the second volume in the Kimbell Masterpiece Series. These beautifully illustrated books by leading experts focus on major paintings, sculptures, and objects from the Museum’s collection, presenting the latest advances in scholarship and new insights that will be of interest both to specialists and to the wider public. The series is distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Caption: Fra Angelico, Saint James Freeing the Magician Hermogenes (detail), c. 1426–29, tempera and gold on panel. Kimbell Art Museum