PAINTING DURING THE EARLY RENAISSANCE (1400-1495). THE TUSCAN PAINTERS. Fra Angelico

Other artistic prodigy, notable for portraying mystic love and beauty, though without leaving the thematic repertoire established by Giotto, was Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John of Fiesole), or Fra Angelico (“Angelic Friar”, ca. 1395 – February 18, 1455). The works by this Florentine of the Quattrocento demonstrate how much the predilection for old subjects as well as painting techniques  was preserved at the time, and that beautiful results could still be achieved by using them. In fact, in his style, Fra Angelico merged the late Gothic Italian style with the new language of the Renaissance. Fra Angelico’s panel paintings display such a high degree of technique, that they are still preserved with the same freshness and bright colors they should have had when they were first painted. Without searching for excessive perfection that made him look for new painting techniques, Fra Angelico’s frescoes and panels appear as new today as they were the day he finished them. His themes were always religious. He was a very virtuous and humanistic man, as Vasari said, “sober and chaste”, often quoted saying that in order to cultivate art one needs quietness and that “the painter of Christ should always be with Christ”. It is curious to note the detail remembered by Vasari, that Fra Angelico never retouched his paintings believing they had been inspired by God’s will.

The Crucifixion, tempera and gold on wood panel, by Fra Angelico, ca. 1420–1423, 63.8 x 48.3 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). This early painting by Fra Angelico probably was the center part of a triptych or a wing of a diptych. The circular composition was inspired by the bronze doors created by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistry of Florence. Here, the artist accentuates the drama of the Crucifixion by showing the Virgin collapsed in grief accompanied by the lamenting Maries and emphasizing the varied attitudes of the Roman soldiers and their horses.

Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro ca. 1395 in the town of Rupecanina (now Vicchio) in the historic Tuscan area of Mugello near Fiesole (now a town and comune of the metropolitan city of Florence). He entered the Dominican Order (a mendicant order) in Fiesole when he was very young, and between 1408 – 1418 he spent his novitiate in the Dominican Friary of Cortona where he painted frescoes that are now mostly destroyed. Between 1418 and 1436 he was at the convent of Fiesole, where he also executed some other frescoes for the church, and the Fiesole Altarpiece (1423–1424, Convent of San Domenico, Fiesole) including its predella. From this period at Fiesole came some of Fra Angelico masterpieces: The Madonna of Humility (1433–1435, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona), an Annunciation (ca. 1426, Museo del Prado, Madrid), the Madonna of the Pomegranate (ca. 1426, Museo del Prado, Madrid), the Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece (ca. 1434-1435, Musée du Louvre, Paris) and the Madonna of the Star (ca. 1424, Basilica di San Marco, Florence). Later, the Dominican friars of Fiesole were exiled, and with them Fra Angelico went to Foligno, near Assisi, where he was able to study Giotto’s frescoes. From this placid region of Umbria, Fra Angelico learned its landscapes filled with small trees and low hills, all golden by the light of a clear sky, with the glow of Lake Trasimeno in the distance. According to Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists“, Fra Angelico initially received training as an illuminator. In the former Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence (now a state museum) there are several manuscripts that are thought to be entirely or partly illuminated by Fra Angelico’s hand. In these illuminated manuscripts the influence of the Sienese school is evident.

Annunciation (also known as Cortona Altarpiece), tempera on wood panel, by Fra Angelico, 1433-1434, 175 x 180 cm (Museo Diocesano, Cortona, Tuscany, Italy). In this altarpiece, Fra Angelico placed the scene in a loggia of columns and arches where the angel appears to Mary. Shown in profile, his richly painted wings extending out through the colonnade. He declaims to the Virgin (in gold letters) “the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee”. The Virgin, with a dove hovering above her head inside a burst of golden light, inclines towards him and responds “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word”. Behind them the space extends into the Virgin’s chamber and a hidden space is hinted at by the red bed curtain. Outside the loggia, to the left, is a delicately painted garden, enclosed by a palisade, symbolic of Mary’s virginity. Carved in a roundel above the central column is an effigy of Isaiah, who had prophesied the birth of a child to a virgin. In the top left corner, Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise. This Annunciation formed a prototype for other Annunciations that the artist later painted (see pictures below): other two Annunciations in wood panel (in the Prado Museum and in the Museo della Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie, in San Giovanni Valdarno), and two others in fresco (both in the convent of San Marco, Florence). Though the main panel of this altarpiece is the work of Fra Angelico, his collaborators assisted him in the paintings of the predella, which includes scenes from the Life of the Virgin. This Annunciation was originally housed in the Church of Gesù of Cortona.
Fiesole Altarpiece (also known as San Domenico Altarpiece), tempera on wood panel, by Fra Angelico (the background repainted by Lorenzo di Credi in 1501), 1423-1424, 212 x 237 cm (Convent of San Domenico, Fiesole, Italy). This altarpiece was originally commissioned for the high altar in the convent’s church, but was later moved to a side altar where it is now. The original background painted by Fra Angelico was probably all gilded. The painting represents a Maestà (Madonna enthroned). The central group with the figures of the Madonna and Child is surrounded by eight angels depicted in smaller size. The saints Thomas Aquinas and Barnabas (to the left) and Sts. Dominic and Peter of Verona (to the right) frame the sides. The Child is grasping two flowers: a white rose, symbol of purity, and a red one, a representation of his future passion. The general composition resembles that painted by Masaccio on his San Giovenale Triptych (1422).
Predella of the Fiesole Altarpiece, tempera and gold on wood panel, by Fra Angelico, 1423-1424, 32 x 244 cm (National Gallery, London). For this predella, Fra Angelico painted the detailed figures of nearly 300 miniature angels, Old Testament prophets, New Testament saints and Dominicans, all identified by their distinctive features, attributes and garments as well as by inscriptions. The figures turn toward the central panel, where the resurrected Christ ascends to the heavens among throngs of angels acclaiming his majesty with music and prayer.
Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven, central painting of the predella of the Fiesole Altarpiece, by Fra Angelico (see picture above).
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, right innermost painting of the predella of the Fiesole Altarpiece, by Fra Angelico (see pictures above).
Madonna of Humility, tempera on wood panel, by Fra Angelico, 1433–1435, 147 × 91 cm (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona). Fra Angelico represented the Virgin seated on a cushion placed directly on the ground with the Child standing on her lap, while she holds a vase in her left hand with roses and a lily, both symbols of motherhood and purity. The Child, also holding a lily, rests his forehead on his mother’s cheek and his left arm against her neck. The background is represented by a cloth of honor in the form of a gold and black embroidered brocade held by three angels, while two more are seated on the ground playing an organ and a lute.
Annunciation, tempera on wood panel, by Fra Angelico, ca. 1426, 194 × 194 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). This altarpiece was painted for the monastery of Santo Domenico in Fiesole, near Florence, where Fra Angelico was a friar. As in other panel Annunciations by the artist (see his “Annunciation of Cortona” and the fresco with the same theme at the head of the stairs to the dormitory of the monastery of San Marco in Florence), the central panel shows the Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary under a portico. On the left, Adam and Eve are being expelled from the Garden of Paradise. The small paintings of the predella represent scenes of the life of the Virgin, from left to right: Mary’s Birth, Her Wedding with Saint Joseph, Mary’s Visit to her cousin Saint Elisabeth, the Birth of Christ, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and the Dormition of the Virgin with Christ receiving her soul. Unlike the “Annunciation of Cortona”, here the vanishing point is inside Mary’s room and not outside, focusing the viewer’s attention on the Annunciation. Fra Angelico was a master in the depiction of light, who here (particularly in the predella paintings) creates a pure and crystal illumination which models volumes, enhances the chromatic harmony and unifies the scenes.
Madonna of the Pomegranate, tempera on panel, by Fra Angelico, ca. 1426, 87 x 59 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). This work was also executed for the convent of Fiesole and probably painted immediately after the Annunciation at Prado (see picture before). This painting shows Fra Angelico´s knowledge of Masaccio´s Sant’Anna Metterza altarpiece. The pomegranate held by the Virgin prefigures Christ´s sacrifice and resurrection.
Madonna of the Star, tempera and gold on panel, by Fra Angelico, ca. 1424, 84 x 51 cm (Museo Nazionale di San Marco, Florence). The image of the standing Virgin and Child resembles the marble statue by Nino Pisano in the Santa Maria Novella church. In this ornate wooden panel filled with color and detail, Fra Angelico surrounded the central figures of the Madonna and Child by a series of patterned circles. The outer rim is decorated with eight angels in a variety of poses plus God the Almighty who symbolically sits at the top of the composition, looking down upon everyone else.
A folio of an illuminated manuscript, possibly illustrated by Fra Angelico (Museo Nazionale di San Marco, Florence).

Fra Angelico’s art soon became famous and garnered him an extraordinary reputation. His fame spread throughout Italy, and he even was requested by the Pope to work in Rome and by the Orvieto’s Town Hall through the then richest communities of Tuscany. He painted many panels destined for the altars of monastic churches; for example, the beautiful altarpiece of the Annunciation (Prado Museum, Madrid) and the Fiesole Altarpiece, both mentioned before from his period at the convent of Fiesole. Generally, Fra Angelico designed for his altarpieces a single central composition with several figures, all wisely drawn, down to the smallest detail, paying attention to each character’s individual physiognomy, their gestures and even the color of their garments to symbolically summarize the legend of their pious lives; but despite such meticulousness, the multi-colored range was always resolved in a heavenly profusion of light. The backgrounds are also lighter in color; the space is golden or blue, crossed by some radiant clouds forming a very vivid realistic contrast. The altarpieces by Blessed Angelico (as he was officially beatified in 1982) offer their most beautiful pieces in the predella or band of compositions in miniature, which serve as a graceful pedestal for the main image of the religious icon. There, free from the need to arrange the painting for the best effect of the main altar, Fra Angelico illustrated the evangelical passages or the scenes from the saints’ lives with extremely detailed backgrounds which represent idyllic panoramas of Umbria and Tuscany, with small houses and estates delightfully dotted with trees, all resplendent, like bathed in a shower of color that has left a luminous glaze over them. However, in those manicured landscapes we are very far from the powerful realism of the works by Masaccio. This darker earthly world was, for Fra Angelico, a pale reflection of another superior world, the Empyrean, populated by celestial beings, which he pictured in his various altars and altarpieces as extreme celestial visions in which objects appear wrapped in a luminous atmosphere like the one it was believed covered the kingdom of the blessed.

Deposition of Christ, tempera on panel, by Fra Angelico, 1432–1434, 176 × 185 cm (Museo Nazionale di San Marco, Florence). This work was originally commissioned for the sacristy of the church of Santa Trinità in Florence. In this work, Fra Angelico demonstrated his painting abilities making skillful use of the three Gothic arches to provide a scene of stunning beauty, set in an expansive Tuscan landscape. Although the work is painted on one panel, the three arches of the frame “frame” the figures in three groups. The central arch is largely blocked off by the wooden framework of the cross and two ladders. With no scene behind but the sky and the lattice work of timber, the eye is drawn to the body of Christ which is at the very center of the painting. Angelico challenges the tendency of the other two arches to define a constrained space by placing a strong vertical, in the form of a tower or a tree, in the corners of each. The pilasters on either side of the frame contain 12 panels with full length portraits of saints, and eight medallions with portrait busts. The full-length figures are shown standing on columns which are each painted with careful attention to the view-point of the spectator. As typical of Fra Angelico’s representations of the Crucifixion, Christ’s blood runs down the cross to the rock at the base, that here becomes a stylized representation of Golgotha. In the distance at the top left is Jerusalem, shown by Fra Angelico as a Tuscan hill town. Outside the city gates lies a landscape of ploughed fields, farmhouses, and hedgerows. In the sky, a storm cloud is gathering covering over half of the city. A row of tree, to the right, screens the landscape, emphasizing its distance. In the central scene, Mary Magdalen kneels before Christ, taking his feet in her hands while kissing them. The Virgin kneels, her hands clasped, head to one side in reflection. She is partly screened from the viewer by the winding sheet held before her. The other holy women stand in positions of contemplation or prayer; one wipes a tear from her eye. Kneeling in the foreground to the right of the painting is a Beato dressed in bright red garments. He echoes the Magdalen in his position, pose and red gown. A foreshortened arm extends out towards the viewer, drawing us into the scene before us. Behind him are five men, standing. Like the women each is contemplative, reticent and mournful. One displays to the others some of the instruments of crucifixion: three gruesomely large nails with heavy drips of blood on them, and the neatly woven crown of thorns. This Deposition demonstrates not only Fra Angelico’s skillful treatment of landscapes, but also of his figures, to which he often gave specific and presumably identifiable features. Giorgio Vasari defined this painting as if it was “painted by a saint or an angel”.
Coronation of the Virgin, tempera on wood panel, by Fra Angelico, ca. 1432, 112 × 114 cm (Uffizi Gallery, Florence). Fra Angelico executed other paintings with the same subject-matter (“Coronation of the Virgin” in the Louvre-Paris, Museo Nazionale di San Marco-Florence, and this in the Uffizi-Florence). This particular painting came from the church of Sant’Egidio of Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Its setting is special in that it presents the scene in the sky in an engraved and gilded background, floating on clouds, thus placing Jesus and Mary and their surrounding entourage in an interesting perspective. Spatial relations are illustrated by the use of size differences, the skillful way in which the light-rays are represented, and the color scheme. The angelic choir greets the Queen of Heavens with music and dance. In the right foreground, with his back to the viewer, an angel dressed in blue plays the organ, while his companion to the left plays a stringed instrument. The inner ring is composed of six tall, dancing angels; their flowing robes and the position of their hands indicate the direction of their movement. On the left side are male saints, in the foreground, is St. Egidius, titular of the church which originally housed the work, followed by Zenobius of Florence, St. Francis and St. Dominic. On the right side are female saints, including a kneeling Mary Magdalene.
Coronation of the Virgin, tempera on panel, by Fra Angelico, ca. 1434–1435 or ca. 1450, 213 × 211 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This altarpiece was executed for the church of San Domenico in Fiesole and its colors appear as vibrant as when it was first painted. On the predella, Fra Angelico developed the story of San Domenico, and in the middle, the Resurrection of Christ. Unlike his “Coronation” at the Uffizi (see picture before), the scene here unfolds on terra firma instead of the sky. The sky is painted in blue and not gold. The assembled saints and angels are placed in a series of tiers without obscuring one another. In the foreground, kneeling, Mary Magdalen, in bright red, holds out her jar of oil. The Virgin is crowned under a rich ciborium with Gothic triple mullions, supported by a series of polychrome marble steps. Like in the Uffizi Coronation, the angels and the saints form the audience at the sides of the central scene. The painting was brought to France as a result of the pillages of the Napoleonic Wars. Like several other artworks, it was not given back with the excuse of its large size. This painting was executed with the help of assistants. Like in other Fra Angelico’s altarpieces (see pictures before), the predella scenes show an extensive use of geometrical perspective.
The Last Judgement, tempera on wood panel, by Fra Angelico, 1425–1430, (Museo Nazionale di San Marco, Florence). The painting was commissioned by the Camaldolese Order for the newly elected abbot, the humanist scholar Ambrogio Traversari, and was originally placed in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. In the top center, Christ sits in judgement on a white mandorla of light surrounded by angels, Mary, John, and the saints. Christ, as usual in this type of compositions, is shown as judge of the living and dead, his left hand pointing down to Hell, his right up to Heaven. To the right of Christ is paradise, with angels leading the saved through a beautiful garden into a shining city. In the middle, Fra Angelico represented the broken tombs in a long row leading to the distant horizon, bisecting the valley and creating depth. The risen dead come out of their graves to be finally judged. On Christ’s left demons drive the damned into Hell, where the wicked are tormented. At the very bottom Satan chews on three of the damned, and grasps two others. In Hell, the torments that await the damned are portrayed within flaming circles. Beyond them on each side are two tiers of seated apostles and saints flanking Christ.

By 1436, Fra Angelico and other friars moved to the newly built convent or friary of San Marco in Florence. This constituted a keystone in his artistic career since, thanks to his talent, he was placed under the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici, whom had one of the convent’s cells reserved for himself. Cosimo asked Fra Angelico to decorate the convent and is precisely this group of works (between 1436-1445) that constitutes Fra Angelico’s most beautiful and important pieces: the frescoes he painted for this convent. The return of Cosimo de’ Medici to Florence in 1434 enabled the Dominicans, of whom he had long been a patron, to secure for themselves the ruined convent of San Marco. Its rebuilding, paid by Cosimo, began in 1437. The San Marco frescoes were intended as aids to contemplation and meditation. The brother who inhabited each cell was to have constantly before his eyes a vivid yet chaste reminder of one of the events in the life of Christ. Painted between 1438 and 1443, the works for San Marco comprised the most extensive surviving program of decoration for a religious community. This works by Fra Angelico include the high altarpiece, nearly 50 monumental frescoes for the cloister, Chapter House and dormitory cells, as well as illuminated choir books for the celebration of Mass. These frescoes by Fra Angelico were painted with deep humility, without being framed by moldings of any kind, but rather framed on the white wall with a simple border of neutral color. Each monk’s cell, today empty, has a prodigious fresco depicting a scene from the Gospel or a modest mystical theme, in which a Dominican saint often appears as if to warn the friar who inhabited the room that he too must constantly participate in the contemplation of Christ’s life. Some of Fra Angelico’s masterpieces included in San Marco are the magnificent Crucifixion fresco of the Chapter House, the worldwide famous and often-reproduced Annunciation at the top of the stairs leading to the cells, the Maestà (or Coronation of the Virgin) with Saints in cell 9, and the many other devotional frescoes of smaller format that adorn the walls of each cell.

View of the corridor of the North Dormitory of the Convento di San Marco (Florence) with frescoes by Fra Angelico.
San Marco Altarpiece, tempera on wood, by Fra Angelico, 1438–1443, 220 × 227 cm (Museo Nazionale di San Marco, Florence). This altarpiece was executed for the main altar of the church of the Convent of San Marco and it was dedicated to the two medical saints, Cosmas and Damian.  As customary, the main panel represents the Virgin and Child enthroned with Angels and Saints. The kneeling Sts. Cosmas (looking at the viewer) and Damian are in front of the Virgin’s throne; it is believed that the face of St. Cosmas is actually a portrait of Cosimo de’Medici who funded the reconstruction works of the convent of San Marco. In the lower center there is a Crucifixion with a golden background. The nine predella panels narrate the legend of the patron saints, Saints Cosmas and Damian. Only the main panel and two predella panels are kept in the Convent of San Marco. The San Marco Altarpiece is known as one of the best early Renaissance paintings for its employment of metaphor and perspective, trompe l’oeil, and the intertwining of Dominican religious themes and symbols with contemporary, political messages. During the renovation works in the convent of San Marco, Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned Fra Angelico to paint this new altarpiece, as well as additional frescoes in the cells, corridors, and cloister of the rebuilt monastery.
Crucifixion and Saints, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1441-1442, 550 x 950 cm (Convento di San Marco, Florence).  This giant fresco occupies the entire wall opposite to the entrance of the Chapter House. The saints depicted are, from the left: Cosmas and Damian, Lawrence, Mark the Evangelist, John the Baptist, the Virgin and the pious women; to the right of the Crucifixion kneeling Dominic, Jerome, Francis, Bernard, John Gualberto and Peter the Martyr, standing Zanobi (or perhaps Ambrose), Augustin, Benedict, Romuald and Thomas Aquinas. Around the fresco, on the border, are the busts of the Prophets and Sibyls in ten hexagons; in the center, above the Crucifixion is the pelican, symbol of the redemption. Below, in the lower frieze there are 17 medallions with portraits of the most illustrious members of the Dominican Order.
The Annunciation, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1442-1443, 230 x 321 cm (Convento di San Marco, Florence). This famous and constantly reproduced fresco is situated on the wall of the northern corridor on the upper floor in front of the staircase. In the arcaded loggia under the arches drawn by a colonnade between the Composite order columns are the figures of the Madonna and of the Archangel Gabriel in devout conversation. In the background, on the left, there’s a lush forest with Tuscan cypresses. Gabriel is portrayed in pink and gold garments with multi-colored wings that stretch out like a rainbow. Mary is depicted as sweet and innocent. Her innocence and virginity is represented by the “Hortus Conclusus‘” seen through the fence and the window in the background of the cell. Mary wears her typical blue mantle indicating her royal status and purity. Running across the loggia at the bottom of the fresco there is an inscription that instructs the viewer: “Virginis Intacte Cvm Veneris Ante Figvram Preterevndo Cave Ne Sileatvr Ave“, meaning “when you come before the image of the Ever-Virgin take care that you do not neglect to say an Ave”. This was a daily reminder for the monks to pray.
View of a monk’s cell in the Convento di San Marco with the Annunciation fresco by Fra Angelico.
Coronation of the Virgin, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1440-1442, 171 x 151 cm (Convento di San Marco, Florence). This fresco is located on the wall of Cell 9. Six kneeling saints acclaim the glory of the Virgin Mary being crowned by Jesus in heaven. These saints are (from left to right): St. Thomas, St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St. Francis, St. Peter the Martyr and St. Mark. This is probably one of the first frescoes executed in the Convent by Fra Angelico. Even though they are witnesses of the sacred scene, the saints hold their hands out in adoration and gaze heavenwards, but none directly to Jesus and the Virgin. The Virgin, with her arms folded over her chest, leans forward to receive the crown from Christ, in accordance with the traditional composition for this subject.
Adoration of the Magi and Man of Sorrows, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1441-1442, 1175 x 357 cm (Convento di San Marco, Florence). This fresco is located on the wall of Cell 39. This larger cell (cells 38 and 39 combined through a small staircase) located at the end of the corridor for lay brothers was intended for the personal use of Cosimo de’ Medici, who was a patron of the religious community. This was the most elaborately decorated cell in the Convent. The Adoration of the Magi and the image of Christ as Man of Sorrows in the recessed tabernacle below met Cosimo’s gaze once he ascended the stairs from Cell 38 to Cell 39. In this fresco, Fra Angelico was assisted by Benozzo Gozzoli and other assistant.
Transfiguration, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1440-1442, 181 x 152 cm (Convento di San Marco, Florence). This fresco is located on the wall of Cell 6. In this fresco Christ stands on a rock, suggesting his rising from the tomb. His arms are outstretched also prefiguring his own crucifixion. He appears voluminous like a sculpture, wrapped in his glowing white robe. Encircling Him is a radiant white mandorla. At the base of the rock three of the Apostles crouch in awed positions. At the edge of the fresco, on either side, stand the Virgin and St. Dominic in prayer, stern and unresponsive to the miraculous event being unfolded around them. The heads of Moses and Elias appear below the hands of Christ; they are introduced as detached symbols to aid meditation.
Noli Me Tangere, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1440-1442, 166 x 125 cm (Convento di San Marco, Florence). This fresco is located on the wall of Cell 1. The figure of Christ radiates a bright light, while he appears floating rather than walking over a lush and naturalistic garden. In this fresco, Christ appears to Mary Magdalene. She has been weeping after discovering that his tomb is empty. At first she mistakes him for a gardener as he is carrying a hoe. As she realizes who it is, she goes to embrace him, but he moves away, telling her not to touch him (“Noli Me Tangere*“).
Resurrection of Christ and Women at the Tomb, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1440-1442, 181 x 151 cm (Convento di San Marco, Florence). This fresco is located on the wall of Cell 8. On the left, St. Dominic kneels in meditation. An angel sits on the empty tomb explaining the holy women what jus happened. The resurrected Christ hovers over all within a mandorla of light and clouds. He holds a flag with his left hand, while on his right he holds a palm leaf as a symbol of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life. The three holy women on the right were painted by Benozzo Gozzoli who at the time was Fra Angelico’s apprentice.
Christ in Limbo, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1441-1442, 183 x 166 cm (Convento di San Marco, Florence). This fresco is located on the wall of Cell 31. In contrast to most frescoes in the cells of the friars and novices, those for the lay men were illustrative narratives that closely follow the Gospel of Matthew. Fra Angelico painted most of these scenes happening in mountainous landscapes or detailed architectural settings. In this fresco, scaly demons hide in the rocky fissures of Purgatory (left) while the faithful escape the darkness of Limbo to rush toward the resurrected Christ who extends his right arm towards them.
Mocking of Christ, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1440-1442, 181 x 151 cm (Convento di San Marco, Florence). This fresco is located on the wall of Cell 7. Rather than paint Christ’s humiliations in their full violence in a complex narrative work, Fra Angelico chose to reduced them to a series of iconographic symbols. In a plain-walled room Christ sits on a dais* in a luminous white robe and tunic. The great slab of white marble beneath Him adds to the air of radiant whiteness that surrounds Him. He is blindfolded, with a crown of thorns on his head. Behind Him hanging from a plain frieze is a screen on which are painted the emblems of his indignities: the head of the spitting soldier, the hands of the buffeters, the hand and stick forcing the thorns down on his head. On a lower step at the front of the painting sit the Virgin and St. Dominic. They sit with their backs turned towards him in poses of intense meditation. In this fresco, Fra Angelico was assisted by Benozzo Gozzoli.
St. Peter Martyr, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1441-1442 (Convento di San Marco, Florence). This fresco is located in the lunette above the entrance to the church of the Convent. Its intention was to remind the friars of the Order of the virtue of silence.

Also in the cloister of the convent of San Marco, Fra Angelico painted above the doors some frescoes portraying the main saints of the Dominican Order, who appear teaching Christian virtues by their example. With these simple themes Fra Angelico managed to create a series of wonderful figures. There is, for example, a lunette with such an expressive character that it has become popular: that of Saint Peter Martyr (in a lunette above the entrance to the Convent’s church), who, placing his finger on his lips, reminds his brothers in the Order of the virtue of silence. Above another door there is other group with two friars who receive the Christ, who’s represented as a pilgrim, with a radiant beauty, blond hair and beard, gently extending his peaceful arms towards his guests. In the chapter house Angelico painted, with masterful technique, the Crucifixion, with all the saints of the Dominican Order who attend the Calvary scene together with other patriarchs and saints, all in a joint gathering at the foot of the three crosses. In these images Fra Angelico wanted to make evident that the Crucifixion is not only a historical main event, but it also represents an expiatory act to which all Christendom must constantly attend. In this scene, even the landscape painted by Fra Angelico has this same universal value: it is a barren plain of death watered by the blood that runs down from the Cross. Below this scene, Angelico painted a series of portraits of leaders of the Order, some of them, such as Saint Antoninus of Florence, was a contemporary of the painter. The San Marco Altarpiece (1438-1443), one of Fra Angelico’s most famous works, was unusual for its time because of the non heaven-like setting in which the scene takes place, but rather in a familiar Earthly space, in which the saints stand grouped in a natural way as if they were in an intimate conversation about the shared experience of witnessing the Virgin in glory, a theme in art that is known as a Sacred Conversation (Sacra Conversazione).

Frescoes of the ceiling of the Capella di San Brizio in the Duomo of Orvieto, fresco, by Fra Angelico in collaboration with Benozzo Gozzoli, 1447 (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Italy). Two of the frescoes of this ceiling are attributed to Fra Angelico: Christ in Glory (pictured here at the bottom) and The Prophets (right). In the summer of 1447 Fra Angelico, assisted by Benozzo Gozzoli and several other minor artists, painted these frescoes on the triangular ceiling vaults of the Chapel of San Brizio in the Orvieto Cathedral. The remaining sections of the ceiling were painted by Luca Signorelli between 1499-1502. In the “Prophets” fresco, Fra Angelico portrayed Old Testament prophets whose writings, it was believed, foretold the coming of Christ. They are painted against a golden background and suspended on clouds. Angelico varied their ages, appearance and attributes, conveying the personality of each man, from the introspective King David, fingering his harp as he composes his psalms, to Moses, his face and azure mantle glowing with the light of God. The tablets held by Moses are inscribed with the first of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. In the fresco of “Christ the Judge”, Christ holds the globe of the universe as he raises his right hand to summon the dead from their graves. Seated upon banks of clouds against a golden background, he radiates a gilded aureole of light, while the seraphim surround him.

In 1445, under the orders of Pope Eugene IV, Fra Angelico went to Rome to paint the frescoes of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St. Peter’s Basilica, which were later demolished by Pope Paul III. Two years later, in 1447, Fra Angelico went to Orvieto with his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli, to execute some works for the Cathedral. Between 1447 to 1449 Fra Angelico was back in Rome were he designed the frescoes for the Niccoline Chapel, the private chapel of the humanist Pope Nicholas V. From the frescoes in this chapel, the scenes depicting the lives of the two martyred deacons of the Early Christian Church, St. Stephen and St. Lawrence may have been executed wholly or in part by Fra Angelico’s assistants. The frescoes of this chapel by Fra Angelico remain intact. Enclosed between later constructions, it’s still an isolated corner of the quattrocento, next to the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms. A soft light penetrates through a high window; the chapel is small, giving the impression of a jewel box thanks to its brightly frescoed walls and gold leaf decorations, and at a glance one can see the whole of Fra Angelico’s frescoes, which fill the ceiling and the four walls. The subject matter are scenes from the life of Saint Stephen and Saint Lawrence, the two martyred deacons, examples of priestly life, as if indicating that the Pope was also the priest, the deacon par excellence, the first sacrificed; superior in hierarchy, but not in quality, to the other priests of the Church. In the scene of Saint Lawrence distributing alms to the poor, these are true direct portraits of townspeople, full of the religious spirit of benevolent, simple souls. Also in the fresco that represents the Pope entrusting the treasures of the Church to Saint Lawrence, the figures of the pontiff’s acolytes seem like portraits of Roman monsignori of the time. From 1449 until 1452, Fra Angelico returned to his old convent of Fiesole, where he was the Prior.

View of the Niccoline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. The name of the chapel derives from its patron, Pope Nicholas V, who ordered its construction for use as his private chapel. The walls and ceiling were decorated in its entirety with frescoes by Fra Angelico depicting episodes of the lives of two of the earliest Christian martyrs; the upper level has Episodes from the Life of St. Stephen, and the lower one Scenes from the life of St. Lawrence. The vault is painted blue, decorated with stars, and features figures of the Four Evangelists. The pilasters are decorated with images of the eight Doctors of the Church.
St. Stephen Being Led to his Martyrdom and the Stoning of St. Stephen, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1447-1449 (Cappella Niccolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). This fresco is located on the lunette of the east wall of the Cappella Niccolina. It represents two narrative scenes side by side: to the left St. Stephen is being led to his martyrdom, and to the right after passing the walls, we see him being stoned to death, one of his executioners raises one stone high, about to strike again, and holds more in his robe. The monumental city wall serves as a divider for the two scenes. The soft hills with scattered towers and houses are typical of Fra Angelico’s landscape style.
St. Lawrence Distributing Alms to the Poor, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1447-1449, 271 x 205 cm (Cappella Niccolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). This fresco is located on the north wall of the Cappella Niccolina. Here, Saint Lawrence is shown beneath the apse of a grandiose Roman basilica. The naturalistic portrayals of the poor, blind, and maimed in this fresco directly recall Masaccio’s painting of Saint Peter Healing with His Shadow. St. Lawrence scarlet vestment is scattered with golden flames and hints at his future death by burning on a grill.
St. Lawrence Receives the Treasures of the Church (detail), fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1447-1450 (Cappella Niccolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). This fresco is located on the north wall. This scene is right to the left of the fresco with “St. Lawrence Distributing Alms to the Poor” (see picture before). Here, St. Sixtus entrusts the church treasures to Lawrence. St. Lawrence was a third-century Roman who, like St. Stephen, suffered a violent death for his faith, and was venerated as one of the most famous martyrs of the city of Rome. The architecture employed by Fra Angelico as backdrop for both scenes is typically Roman in its monumentality and dignity. St. Lawrence kneels to receive the treasures of the Church from Pope St. Sixtus II, who is given the features of Angelico’s patron, Pope Nicholas V, who commissioned the frescoes.
The four Evangelists, fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1447-1449, (vault of the Cappella Niccolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City). The four evangelists are suspended on clouds against a starry dark blue sky. They are all shown writing the Gospels of Christ’s life. Each Evangelist was represented with his traditional attributes: Mathew with the angel, Mark the winged lion, Luke the winged ox, and John the eagle.

Fra Angelico died in Rome in 1455 while staying at a Dominican convent, perhaps awaiting another of Pope Nicholas V’s commissions. He was buried in the Eternal City in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The humanist Pope Nicholas V composed his epitaph:

When singing my praise, don’t liken my talents to those of Apelles.

Say, rather, that, in the name of Christ, I gave all I had to the poor.

The deeds that count on Earth are not the ones that count in Heaven.

I, Giovanni, am the flower of Tuscany“.

“Fra Angelico died,” said Vasari, “at the age of 59, in 1455, leaving Benozzo Gozzoli among his disciples, who always imitated his style.” Gozzoli, who had helped Angelico as his apprentice in Orvieto and Rome, was his truly successor, but without showing in his works that pious spirit that filled the work of the great Dominican. Benozzo Gozzoli learned from Fra Angelico the naïve grace of his compositions, his meticulous care in the embellishing of the figures with precious details, the clear and brilliant colors, the fine observation of the types; but he lacked that divine touch that permeated throughout Fra Angelico’s paintings with wonderful spirituality and mysticism.

In 1982 Pope John Paul II beatified Fra Angelico, and in 1984 declared him patron of Catholic artists.

Tomb of Fra Angelico in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.

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Dais: A raised platform at the front of a room or hall, usually for one or more speakers or honored guests. Historically, the dais was a part of the floor at the end of a medieval hall, raised a step above the rest of the room. The dais area often had its own doorway for admission from the master’s chambers, whereas most of the guests entered through a doorway leading into the main area of the hall.

 

Noli me tangere:  (Meaning “Touch me not’). The Latin version of a phrase spoken, according to John 20:17, by Jesus to Mary Magdalene when she recognized him after his resurrection. in asking Mary Magdalene not to touch him, Jesus indicates that once the resurrection is accomplished, the link between human beings and his person must no longer be physical, but must be a bond of heart to heart and spirit. This biblical scene gave birth to a long series of depictions in Christian art from Late Antiquity to the present.

 

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