ANGELICOS, LOST AND FOUND
Last night and the night before were the lecture given by Michael Liversidge of Bristol University on two Fra Angelico paintings he has found.
They had actually been owned by my paleography teacher, Professor Jean Preston, who had acquired them in California where she was Curator of the Ellesmere Chaucer Manuscript at the Huntington Library, then brought to Princeton by her, where she was Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts and where I first saw them, then finally brought to Oxford where she retired.
Jean was never concerned about monetary value, loving her many fine possessions for their beauty, their meaning, sharing them with her friends. Among them were the Kelmscott Chaucer, books by Eric Gill, a Pre-Raphaelite painting.
When I first saw the Fra Angelicos I thought they were real, while she thought they were nineteenth-century fakes, believing instead her fake ivories, made in the nineteenth-century, were medieval. All jumbled together in a small comfortable house with no concern about security, whatsoever.
I consulted with Jean on the Julian edition and it was she who identified the hand of one of the Julian manuscripts as that of a Syon Abbey nun. Her knowledge of paleography was superb, particularly of English hands.
Somehow there is a sadness that in having identified these two small panels as from the Pala of San Marco they are now in the world of commerce and wealth. Once they were for the people, and as part of the Canon of the Mass, two Dominican saints, hallowing Florence. Even the central panel shows Saints Cosmos and Damian, St Cosmos turning towards the Medici with a look of reproach. Fra Angelico painted these in Cortona in answer to the Cosimo de' Medici commission. It is in Rome he paints the most beautiful San Lorenzo giving the wealth of the Church to the poor, it is in outlying churches to Florence that he paints the most sacred Annunciations, it is in his own Priory of which he was Prior, at San Domenico, nestled beneath Fiesole, that he paints the dead Christ on the Cross, hidden for centuries under white wash, its present Prior giving me this for you.