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Friday, March 25, 2016

500-year art for Good Friday

A few years back, I was startled by a face looking out of the marvelous Fra Angelico show at the Met. It is a common enough compliment to say that images are arresting, even when they are not. I can say from experience that this one is.  ‪It's right for the day, right for a week that reminds us of murdered innocence and grief for the world.

The image also reminds me of painter Makoto Fujimura's essay, "Fra Angelico and the Five Hundred Year Question."
I entered the halls and the golden aura of a diminutive Virgin Mary painting greeted me, with her azurite robe, and the Christ child’s supple body, reflecting her humanity -- a simple work full of weighty colors. Then I had to close my eyes, after a few seconds of pondering the saturated surface. I realized this was too much to behold, all at once. As I staggered about looking for a blank wall to stare at, almost feeling ashamed to be in the presence of such greatness, I had a “500 year” question pop up in my mind.

What is the five hundred year question? Well, it’s a historical look at the reality of our cultures, and asking what ideas, what art, what vision affects humanity for over five hundred years. It’s the opposite of the Warholian “15 seconds of fame.”
It was, you see, inspired by his visit to the Fra Angelico show.


  1. Beautiful image and essay from Fujimura, thanks. Hope... we all need it. Happy Easter, Marly.

    1. And to you, when it comes...

      Fra Angelico is often so ravishing and beautiful, but this one stopped me cold and made me stare.

  2. Marly, thank you for sharing this.
    BTW, today is Flannery O'Connor's birthday, and I very much struck by its coincidental occurrence this year on Good Friday. I've had something to say about MFO at TWA:
    I wish you a blessings-filled Easter weekend.

    1. Shall pop by and see what you say above your beloved O'Connor--thanks and the same to you in return.

  3. You risk yourself as a hostage to fortune (a rather complicated concept I've always thought) when you dwell on the word "arresting" and then have the moxy to publish an image which you believe meets the requirements of that adjective. Not that I ever imagined you'd end up with egg on your face, of course.

    I have difficulty responding to ancient Christian art as simply painting, since so much has to be taken into consideration. So much is coded and the aims are often blurred. Not here though. Astonishing how riveting detail can be used in the service of an abstraction: sorrow, suffering, grief, what you will. The painting disturbs me and - dammit! - I realise that's its intention.

    Occasionally PBS recycles BBC programmes and/or series. Or did back in the late sixties. Presently Andrew Graham-Dixon, a regular art pundit, is doing Scandinavian art. Name after name I've never heard of. And yet that can be an advantage: one arrives without preconceptions. Remoteness, self-sufficiency, unfashionability as a virtue (and no doubt other abstractions) emerge and you're in a different and entirely admirable world. But there I go, being patronising.

    1. I'm fascinated by how he was said to never alter a painting, believing that the first impulse was God's will. How startling that thought is, after seeing so much of his work.

      I expect that any of us who write poetry (or fiction, for that matter) are quite willing to tolerate being seen with egg on our faces... Time often tells us a piece of news about a work we once thought solid and strong.

      I look at Fra Angelico with a kind of relief, knowing that he would never, ever believe in "a senseless act of beauty," that beauty for him is always meaningful. So different from our own day. He's always so direct and clear and devoted to the art. Like George Herbert, he could have been much in a worldly sense but turned away from those chances. I admire that sort of understanding, one that sees so clearly what is important in life and what is not. And there we are veering closer to what you call "unfashionability as a virtue."


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.