Friday, May 17, 2013

Fra Angelico in Florence (1438-1445)

Guido di Pietro, later known as Fra Angelico (Angelic Brother), was born around 1400 in the town of Fiesole near Florence. By 1423 he had joined the Dominican Order there and had taken the name of Fra Giovanni. After his death he came to be called Fra Angelico in affirmation of both his saintly character and reverential paintings.

In 1438 Fra Angelico moved to the Dominican Monastery of San Marco in Florence. It had just been almost wholly rebuilt through the generosity of Cosimo de’ Medici. For the next seven years, Cosimo also provided the financial support that Fra Angelico needed to decorate its interior with his best paintings. Unlike other patrons, Cosimo allowed Fra Angelico complete artistic freedom.

Fra Angelico’s significant paintings in the monastery and elsewhere in Florence include The Annunciation, The Massacre of the Holy Innocents, The Transfiguration, The Crucifixion, The Deposition, and Madonna and Saints (San Marco Altarpiece).

The Annunciation portrays the announcement by the angel Gabriel to Mary that God has chosen her to be the mother of Jesus. This painting is in the corridor of the North Dormitory of San Marco at the top of a staircase. The architectural details of the porch where Gabriel finds Mary—the Corinthian columns, round arches, and classical proportions—come from San Marco itself. The linear perspective of the painting tells us that, though Christian in subject, this painting is not medieval but Renaissance in style. The painting is a large one and the two figures in it are life-sized. Words painted at the bottom of the painting praise Mary and encourage the monks to do so as well as they walk by her image.

The Massacre of the Holy Innocents was originally painted by Fra Angelico for a church in Florence. Today it hangs in the Monastery of San Marco which now serves as a museum. The painting is based on a story from the Gospel according to Matthew. Fearing any possible threat to his power, Herod the king wants the newborn Jesus killed and has ordered the murder of all infants in Bethlehem just to make sure he is. Fra Angelico chose to paint Herod’s agents of death in black armor and to have them pouring through a narrow archway bearing lethal black daggers. Bethlehem’s horrified mothers do what they can to stem the slaughter but fail. A smug Herod looks on with satisfaction even though, unknown to him, Mary and Joseph have already escaped with Jesus. History is filled with such bitter ironies.

Thirty years later another ruler did succeed in murdering Jesus. In The Crucifixion of San Marco, Fra Angelico portrays a host of saints present with Jesus and mourning his tragic yet victorious death.

Let us pause and appreciate those he includes in this painting because of their significance to him, his religious order, and his culture: Dominic (1170-1221), Jerome (c. 347-420), Augustine (354-430), Francis (1181-1226), Benedict (480-547), Bernard (1090-1153), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and Lawrence (225-258). Looking at the people standing or kneeling to the right of Jesus, we have Dominic kneeling with outstretched arms, Jerome kneeling and praying, Augustine standing behind Jerome and holding a book and bishop’s staff, Francis kneeling and wearing his burlap bag and rope belt, Benedict holding a rod symbolizing his famous set of rules, Bernard kneeling behind Francis, and Thomas Aquinas standing at the far right. Lawrence stands at the far left with hands clasped.

The Deposition, or removal of the body of Jesus from the cross, was also originally painted for a church in Florence but is now displayed in San Marco. This too is a medieval subject presented in a Renaissance style: the people are all three-dimensional, they are present in many different postures exhibiting a variety of emotions, and the background is both fully developed and skillfully laid out in linear perspective.

Other important paintings created by Fra Angelico during his years in Florence include The Transfiguration  and Madonna and Saints (or San Marco Altarpiece).

Fra Angelico died on February 18, 1455 in Rome and was buried there.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.