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Fra Angelica


By Robert Coles | November 1996

At the dawn of history, men and women affirmed their humanity by making pictures — scratches in obscure caves, for instance, which remind us, today, that we are not only doers and talkers, but creatures who see, hence our need for seers, visionaries. Indeed, every night in our dreams we construct pictures which may or may not be accompanied by sound (words). Once I heard Anna Freud talk about dreams in a way that has stayed with me when I listen to patients, but also, when I go visit a museum or look at a book that offers the work of a particular artist: “Dreams are pictures. We literally ‘see things’ at night — and often without words. When we wake up, if we remember what we dreamed — saw — it is then that we resort to words, to explain what we observed. Yes, some of us have conversations in our dreams (or arguments!), but often the dream is a ‘silent movie,’ rather than one with a soundtrack and in any case, it is a series of pictures, which our analysands then explain to us, later, with language. I notice that when I ask a patient what he saw, what she was picturing [in a dream], I’m often greeted by surprise, confusion. If I ask to be told about a dream — that is what is expected. Words are the arbiter, you see, of that middle-of-the-night movie our brain offers all of us quite regularly!”

An experienced psychoanalyst was, in her own way, remarking upon the cultural subordination of pictures to words, no matter the biological universality of the visual, and no matter its narrative possibilities, which we vastly underestimate, all too often, in favor of talk, and more talk, and not only in the clinical settings Miss Freud had in mind. At another point actually, Miss Freud allowed herself to go further, speculate in this manner: “Today we see so much — the movies and television keep our eyes quite busy — but I’m not sure people are finding, that way, what they’re looking for.” I hastened, immediately, to ask for an amplification, but she was always made uncomfortable by social or ethical commentary, even when prompted by her own ironic and reflective nature. She told me that she didn’t want to “overgeneralize,” but she did think that people want to be “entertained” visually, true, but also hoped for (looked for) something else: “I think our ancestors used their eyes to find clues for survival — and now, that we live so much more safely than they could ever even imagine, I wonder whether our eyes still don’t try to help us figure out how to survive.”

I so wanted her to elaborate, but nothing doing. Her eyes twinkled, but her voice was now unforthcoming. I wondered aloud about “moral survival” — our need to figure out visually what is ugly and what is beautiful, what is dangerous and what is useful, helpful, necessary, and, too, who seems friendly, welcoming, and who appears sullen, mean, withholding. She concurred, but we were sidetracked by our need to discuss a particular psychoanalytic concept about which the two of us were to write — talk about the ascendancy of the verbal over the visual!

I thought of that conversation of 20 years ago as I looked, recently, at the work of the 15th-century painter (and Dominican monk) known as Fra Angelico — I remembered learning of him, learning from him, back in college, and later, from my wife, Jane, who loved his work. In college, alas, this extraordinarily able and accomplished painter was given relatively little notice — we had others to attend, who came after him by a generation or two (but who shared a city, a part of a century with him): Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who also graced the 15th century and the city of Florence. They were part of the Renaissance; they anticipated “us” in so many ways. Leonardo’s scientific curiosity mattered, not to mention his wide-ranging intellectual interests, his subtle psychological awareness (earning him the anointment, eventually, of a major essay by Freud) — in short, his modernity, no matter the 500 years that separates him from this century. Michelangelo’s splendid, brilliant, knowing humanism also mattered — his genius as an artist and sculptor, a man in the tradition of Plato and Dante (he revered them both), who tried hard and long to render beauty, to reveal the possibilities within us, the splendor of our unique creaturely existence as the apple (so to speak) of God’s eye, despite our all too evident and relentless “down” side. For us not especially humble students in a highfalutin seminar offered in a big-shot secular college, Fra Angelico was a gentle soul of obvious religious purity, who had to give way fast to those two giants and others (Raphael, for instance, another Italian painter who was born in the 15th century and spent time in Florence). Indeed, Raphael’s religious work, as with that of Michelangelo, was held up high in that classroom and others as exemplary, as worth our considered and considerable attention: again, the fabled and important Renaissance, its wondrously gifted artists a reminder of — well, ourselves, all that we are or might be, given enough time, education, encouragement. Put differently, in art history classes we were learning about religious humanism in its variousness, its enormous distinction — not a subject matter that includes, say, Fra Angelico’s fresco paintings at the Dominican priory of San Marco in Florence.

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