Fra Angelico, a friar of the Dominican order, painter of the Early Renaissance, and patron saint of Catholic artists, embodied an essential shift in the history of Western painting, mastering perspective and creating more humanistic portrayals of holy scenes. His work has only gone to auction twice in the past century, with his panel Saint Dominic and the Stigmatization of Saint Francis selling at a Christie’s auction last year for $4.7 million. This summer, another work of Fra Angelico will be offered by the auction house during an Old Master’s evening sale on July 7th.
The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John the Baptist and the Magdalen at the Foot of the Cross is an early work of Fra Angelico’s, thought to be painted sometime between 1419 and 1424 by the six scholars who have analyzed the work. It is the middle panel in a commissioned work for an unknown patron.
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“It was a thrilling moment when I realized I was in the presence of an early masterpiece by Fra Angelico,” said Francis Russell, Christie’s UK Deputy Chairman, in a press release. “This panel exemplifies his deep religious conviction. Intensely personal, it also expresses his understanding of the revolutionary achievement of the great Florentine sculptors of his time.”
Russell refers to Fra Angelico’s use of perspective in his depiction of Christ on the cross. Previously, depictions of this scene with a straight on point of view often included a view of the right hand side of the post, which, if rendered correctly, should not be visible. This false perspective was common even among the masters of that time, including Cimabue, Ugolino di Nerio, and Giotto. Fra Angelico’s correct modeling of perspective is said to be the result of his studying the works of Tuscan sculptors like Ghiberti and Brunelleschi who had advanced the art’s understanding of 3D figures, from perspective to the rendering of folds in cloth.
The work is also an example of Fra Angelico’s use of color. In some aspects, Fra Angelico was limited by convention, the Virgin Mary’s dress must be blue and Mary Magdalene’s dress pink, but he found other ways to impose his own sense of color composition, such as painting the blood of Christ in the same tones as the pelican’s pierced breast and Magdalene’s robe.
“With Fra Angelico nothing was accidental,” concluded Russell.