In a remarkable turn of events, a pioneering early work by Fra Angelico, the renowned master of the early Florentine Renaissance, has been discovered and will be auctioned at Christie’s Old Masters Part I Sale in London on 6 July.
Titled “The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John the Baptist and the Magdalen at the Foot of the Cross,” this extraordinary panel represents a significant evolution in Fra Angelico’s painted perspective and is expected to fetch an estimated £4 million to £6 million. The discovery of this artwork, made by Francis Russell, Christie’s UK Deputy Chairman, and published in the Burlington Magazine in May 1996, has generated immense interest among scholars and art enthusiasts alike.
Unveiling a Masterpiece
Fra Angelico, revered as one of the greatest and most influential painters of the early Florentine Renaissance, was among the first artists to incorporate contemporary sculpture techniques into his work. “The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John the Baptist and the Magdalen at the Foot of the Cross” beautifully showcases his mastery of perspective.
Unlike the prevalent practice of that era, Fra Angelico depicted the cross straight on, with a correct and logical perspective, without adding the false depth of the right cross-post. This groundbreaking approach demonstrates the artist’s deep understanding of contemporary sculptural principles and highlights his significant artistic evolution.
Emotional Expression and Exemplary Original Condition
The emotional expression and poignancy conveyed by this work are further amplified by the exceptional original condition of the figures. Remarkably, they have not undergone recent cleaning, providing 21st-century viewers with an unparalleled opportunity to experience Fra Angelico’s remarkable sense of colour.
The artwork is believed to have been acquired by the 2nd Lord Ashburton, who passed away in 1864 and has since been passed down through generations. Such exceptional artworks of this calibre rarely emerge in the market, making this a truly exceptional opportunity for art connoisseurs and collectors.
Exhibition and Pre-sale Events
Before the auction, the panel will be on public display in New York from 10 to 14 June, allowing art enthusiasts from around the world to appreciate its splendour. Subsequently, it will return to London for the Classic Week pre-sale exhibition, where it will be available for viewing from 1 to 6 July. These events offer a unique chance to witness the exquisite craftsmanship of Fra Angelico and the profound impact he made on the Florentine Renaissance.
The Enigmatic Fra Angelico
Born Guido di Piero in the small town of Fiesole, just outside Florence, the artist adopted the name Fra Giovanni da Fiesole upon entering the Dominican friarhood. Fra Angelico’s talent as a painter was unparalleled, with Giorgio Vasari describing him as possessing a “rare and perfect talent.”
His contributions to Renaissance Florentine painting and the broader history of art cannot be overstated. Renowned for his piety and modesty, he was posthumously bestowed with the name “Fra Angelico” or “Beato Angelico” (Blessed Angelic One). In 1982, Pope John Paul II officially recognized Fra Angelico’s dedication to God during his lifetime by proclaiming his beatification.
The Significance of the Panel
Originally commissioned as the central piece of a devotional triptych, the exact date of this panel remains unknown. However, six scholars who have extensively written about it have placed it within the period of approximately 1419 to 1424. This artwork holds immense importance in the development of Florentine quattrocento painting.
Although it is uncertain whether the patron who commissioned the work was fully aware of its pioneering design, Fra Angelico’s forward-thinking treatment of perspective—depicting the cross directly facing the viewer without false depth—reflects his profound knowledge of the revolutionary Tuscan sculptors of the early Quattrocento, such as Ghiberti and Brunelleschi.
Masterful Use of Colour
Fra Angelico’s panel employs the strategic use of colour for compositional purposes. The figures’ attires, adorned with shades of pink, deep blue, greens, and red, create a captivating symphony of colours that harmoniously bind the panel with the wings of the triptych.
Despite the passage of time, the remarkable condition of the figures allows contemporary viewers to fully appreciate Fra Angelico’s exceptional chromatic sense. The artist’s personal taste shines through in the timbre of the colours, while the conventions of the era determined the hues of the Virgin’s robes and the Magdalen’s dress.
The discovery and forthcoming auction of Fra Angelico’s “The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John the Baptist and the Magdalen at the Foot of the Cross” mark a momentous occasion in the art world. This pioneering early work encapsulates the artist’s significant contributions to the evolution of painted perspective and exemplifies his unrivalled talent.
With its emotional depth, impeccable condition, and masterful use of colour, this panel truly represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for art collectors and enthusiasts. Make sure to mark your calendars and immerse yourself in the mesmerizing world of Fra Angelico during the Classic Week London, where this extraordinary masterpiece will captivate the hearts and minds of all who behold it.
Images: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2023