- Lex Amoris: La legge dell'amore nell'interpretazione di Fra Angelico
Over a career of more than five decades, Creighton Gilbert has proved to be one of the most insightful and productive scholars in America. From his dissertation on Girolamo Savoldo, submitted in 1955, to his recent monograph, How Fra Angelico and Signorelli Saw the End of the World (2003), Gilbert has turned his laserlike attention to subjects ranging from contemporary art (especially during his early curatorial career in Louisville and Sarasota) to Italian Renaissance and Baroque art. Personal favorites of mine are essays such as "What did Renaissance [End Page 504] Patrons Buy?" (1998), "The Archbishop on the Painters of Florence, 1450" (1959), and his volume in the Sources and Documents Series, Italian Art 1400–1500, first published in 1980, still in print, and still useful. Lex Amoris: La legge dell'amore nell'interpretazione di Fra Angelico shows all the trademark qualities of Gilbert's scholarly work: meticulous examination of the written sources, careful review of previous scholarly literature, probing analysis of style and imagery, and deep familiarity with the intellectual milieu in which works of art were produced.
The book is a reexamination of what was probably the last major work of Fra Angelico's career, the thirty-five painted scenes from the New Testament (three of which are universally acknowledged to have been painted by Alessio Baldovinetti) for the silver chest in the Florentine church of the SS. Annunziata, now housed in the Museo di San Marco. The panels originally formed the doors of the armadio, or cupboard, originally located in the oratory next to the chapel of the miraculous image. The silver chest was commissioned, perhaps by Piero de' Medici, the patron of the sumptuous tabernacle and oratory that he rebuilt between 1448 and 1451, to house the most precious of gifts and ex-votos donated in homage to the Annunciate Virgin.
Gilbert's text is composed of two major parts, the first, an analysis of the imagery of the thirty-five surviving panels, and the second, a new proposal for the reconstruction of the chest. Concerns about dating and attribution of the individual panels to either Angelico or his workshop, the primary issues of previous discussions, are treated succinctly: Gilbert dates the panels to from the spring of 1450 until the first half of 1452 — that is, the period when Angelico was prior of the convent of S. Domenico in Fiesole. While almost all scholars recognize Angelico's role in the design of some or all of the scenes, Gilbert also attributes their execution to him.
In the first part, Gilbert introduces what he identifies as the source for Angelico's imagery, a North Italian manuscript, probably from Brescia, Rota in Medio Rotae (Wheel inside a Wheel), datable to the early fifteenth century and now preserved in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. The manuscript, illustrated with pen drawings, presents a typological biblical interpretation, dating from early Christianity and widespread in the Middle Ages, that the words of the Old Testament contain and prefigure the truths of the New Testament. On its frontispiece verses from the first chapter of Ezekiel — in which he describes his vision of creatures contained in a wheel inside a wheel — are accompanied by an inscription from Gregory the Great's commentary on Ezekiel, in which the idea of typology is expressed. Hence the outer circle is inscribed with the authors of the Old Testament, and the inner with the authors of the New. Angelico's first panel presents Ezekiel's vision in a format analogous to that of the manuscript; cast, however, into the crystalline illusionism of his mature style: the wheel with its "creatures" is set into an expansive landscape with the river Kebar, site of the prophet's vision, flanked by figures of Ezekiel and Gregory.
In each of the following ten pages of the manuscript four episodes from the New Testament and Old Testament are paired, starting with the Annunciation [End Page 505...