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Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi: The Magi

ArtWay Visual Meditation December 2, 2018

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Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi: The Adoration of the Magi

The Shape of Adoration

by James Romaine

This beautiful painting of The Adoration of the Magi, from the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., was begun by Fra Angelico and principally painted by Fra Filippo Lippi. Although scholars have not conclusively identified which of these artists is responsible for each figure within the painting, we can recognize a distinction of visual language in comparing the Virgin Mary and her husband Joseph. Mary’s face has a serene, almost otherworldly, continence that we find in other depictions of the Virgin by Fra Angelico. But Joseph has the particular features of an individual, this reflects a method developed by Fra Lippi.

One of the immediately striking aspects of this depiction of the arrival of the magi to worship the infant Christ is the painting’s shape. This type of circular painting is called a tondo. The tondo format became particularly popular in 15th-century Florentine art. Working in the tondo format challenges the artist to adapt their composition into a circular shape. However, Fra Angelico and Fra Lippi have turned this problem to their own advantage. They have masterfully employed the tondo shape to propel the viewer’s eye around the circumference of their composition, thus following the journey of the magi.

As the tondo shape of this painting causes the viewer’s eye to travel around the image, this work takes the viewer on a visual journey. By the time that this movement of the viewer’s eye, which is directed by the relationship created between the tondo shape and the compositional design, arrives at the figures of the magi worshiping Christ, the viewer has developed a sense of being spiritually unified with the magi. Having been made to identify with the magi, it is then a natural step for the viewer to join them in worshiping Christ.

The adoration of the magi was a very popular subject in 15th-century Florentine art. As one of the most frequently depicted biblical motifs in early renaissance art, the magi could have had several potential social and spiritual meanings. However, this painting’s shape might indicate how and for what purpose a 15th-century Florentine viewer might have looked at it. The tondo format was often employed in paintings made for devotional use. This tondo might have encouraged the viewer to contemplate the Adoration of the Magi as a devotional subject. Furthermore, the infant Christ’s eternal majesty is symbolically visualized by the circle’s perfect form.

As kings who have traveled a great distance to worship the infant Jesus, the magi are spiritual pilgrims in search of the perfect king. The worship of the infant Jesus by royalty from exotic kingdoms could have symbolized the recognition of Christ’s divinity by the whole world. However, Fra Lippi’s Adoration of the Magi is not only a depiction of figures in the act of worship. This beautiful painting is not intended, simply, for passive enjoyment. The magi are role models of Christian devotion. The painting’s tondo form could have encouraged a Florentine viewer to actively join the magi in devotion. This tondo image of the magi worshiping the infant Christ was designed to inspire the viewer’s own spiritual imagination. It unifies iconography, shape, and purpose.

If Fra Lippi depicted magi as spiritual pilgrims in search of their perfect king, the tondo format further reinforced the faith of Christ as incarnate deity. Since antiquity artists have employed the circle as an ideal form that represents eternity. In a painting that depicts earthly kings bowing down before the infant Jesus, this form, which has no point of beginning or ending, fittingly visualizes this child as the eternal king. As a material visualization of perfection it is an ideal shape for a work of art that celebrates Christ as God incarnate in human form.

This brilliant tondo hangs like a halo in the gallery. It demonstrates how the shape of a painting can inform our interpretation of the subject depicted. This circular image depicts the magi as models of spiritual devotion and envisions Christ as the eternal focus of their adoration.

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Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi: The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460, tempera on poplar panel, diameter 137.3 cm. National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., USA.

Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455) was one of the principal painters of the Early Renaissance in Florence. He is first recorded as a painter in 1417, and at about the same time became a novice at the Friary of San Domenico at Fiesole near Florence, where he mainly lived, eventually becoming Prior. Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven is the predella from an altarpiece made for the Friary. By about 1430 Fra Angelico had been influenced by the work of early pioneers of the Renaissance in Florence, particularly the sculpture of Ghiberti. He used new realism and impression of volume to define figures, as well as linear perspective to define space in his own more contemplative art. Fra Angelico is most famous for the frescoes he painted after 1436 in the Dominican friary of San Marco in Florence, whose rebuilding was supported by Cosimo de Medici. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/fra-angelico

Fra Filippo Lippi (c. 1406-1469) ‘was gracious and ornate and exceedingly skillful; he was very good at compositions and at variety, at colouring, relief, and in ornaments of every kind,’ wrote Cristoforo Landino in 1480; his comment remains a valid assessment of Fra Filippo's style. Fra Filippo's pictures were popular in Florence and he was actively supported by the Medici family, who commissioned the pictures of The Annunciation and The Seven Saints. As an orphan Filippo was sent to the Carmelite friary in Florence. But he was not temperamentally suited to be a friar. His life is a tale of lawsuits, complaints, broken promises and scandal. Fra Filippo's fame as a painter spread beyond his native Florence and he spent long periods painting fresco cycles in Prato and Spoleto, where he died. In 1456 he abducted a nun, Lucrezia Buti, from the convent in Prato where he was chaplain. He was finally permitted to marry her. Their son Filippino was later taught in Lippi's workshop, as was Botticelli. Lippi's early style is based on that of Masaccio but he later moved towards more richly decorative and lyrical effects. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/filippino-lippi

James Romaine is an Associate Professor of Art History at Lander University. He is the co-founder of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA). His books include Art as Spiritual Perception: Essays in Honor of E. John Walford (Crossway) and Behold: Christ and Christianity in African American Art (Penn State University Press).

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Art For Advent 2018 features works from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., USA:
December 2nd—Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom by Victoria Emily Jones
December 9th—Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation by James Romaine
December 16th—Rembrandt van Rijn, The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds by James Romaine
December 23rd—Fra Angelico/Fra Filippo Lippi, Adoration of the Magi by James Romaine

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