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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.