The Life of Fra Angelico
Il Beato Fra Giovanni Angelico da Fiesole ("the Beatified Friar John the Angelic of Fiesole"), better known in the English-speaking world as Fra Angelico ("the Angelic Friar"), or in Continental Europe as Beato Angelico ("the Blessed Angelic One") was a far-famed painter-friar of the Florentine state in the 15th century, the representative, beyond all other men, of pietistic painting. He is often, but not accurately, termed simply " Fiesole," which is merely the name of the town where he first took the vows. His life was described in Giorgio Vasari's "Vite". He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1984.
He was born Guido di Pietro, at Vicchio, in the Tuscan province of Mugello, near Florence towards the end of the 14th century, of unknown but seemingly well-to-do parentage, and was baptized Guido or Guidolino (friars use to change their name when entering the orders). Still a young boy he asked for admittance at the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, where Dominican friars were known for their rigid rules (and were called "the Observers"). He completed his novitiate in Cortona in 1408 and became a real Dominican monk in Fiesole about 1418 with the name of "Fra Giovanni da Fiesole"; "The Angelic" is a laudatory term which was assigned to him at an early date,—we find it in use within thirty years after his death; and, at some period which is not defined in our authorities, he was beatified by due ecclesiastical process.
Whether he had previously been a painter by profession is not certain, but may be pronounced probable. The painter named Lorenzo Monaco may have contributed to his art-training, and the influence of the Sienese school is discernible in his work.
He had several important charges in the convents he lived in, but this didn't limit his art, that very soon became famous.
He had the patronage of Cosimo de' Medici.
According to Vasari, the first paintings of this artist were in the Certosa of Florence; none such exist there now.
Among his early works, the Annunciation of Cortona, the Incoronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (in the convent of Fiesole); the Deposition of Christ executed for the church of the Holy Trinity in Florence, paintings that Vasari indicated as "painted by a saint or an angel".
His earliest extant performances, in considerable number, are at Cortona, whither he was sent during his novitiate, and here apparently he spent all the opening years of his monastic life. His first works executed in fresco were probably those, now destroyed, which he painted in the convent of S. Domenico in this city; as a fresco-painter, he may have worked under, or as a follower of, Gherardo Starnina. From 1418 to 1436 he was back at Fiesole; in 1436 he was transferred to the Dominican convent of S. Marco in Florence.
In the convent of San Marco, in the years 1438-1445, Fra Giovanni lived with St. Antoninus Pierozzi. Here he decorated the cells, the hall of the Chapter, the corridors, the colonnade, the church altarpiece; he may have studied about this time the renowned frescoes in the Brancacci chapel in the Florentine church of the Carmine and also the paintings of Orcagna.
In 1445, after the success of these works he was invited by the pope to Rome. The pope who reigned from 1431 to 1447 was Eugenius IV., and he it was who in 1445 appointed another Dominican friar, a colleague of Angelico, to be archbishop of Florence. If the story (first told by Vasari) is true—that this appointment was made at the suggestion of Angelico only after the archbishopric had been offered to himself, and by him declined on the ground of his inaptitude for so elevated and responsible a station—Eugenius, and not (as stated by Vasari) his successor Nicholas V., must have been the pope who sent the invitation and made the offer to Fra Giovanni, for Nicholas only succeeded in 1447. The whole statement lacks authentication, though in itself credible enough. Certain it is that Angelico was staying in Rome in the first half of 1447; and he painted in the Vatican the Cappella del Sacramento, which was afterwards demolished by Paul III. In June 1447 he proceeded to Orvieto, to paint in the Cappella Nuova of the cathedral, with the co-operation of his pupil Benozzo Gozzoli. In 1450, Fra Angelico became Prior of the convent of San Marco and later Archbishop of Florence. He afterwards returned to Rome to paint the chapel of Nicholas V. In this capital he died in 1455, and he lies buried in the church of the Minerva.
He decorated many of the rooms of the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence, including many of the individual cells.
He used to say "He who does Christ's work must stay with Christ always". This motto granted the epithet "Blessed Angelico", "because of the perfect integrity of his life and the almost divine beauty of the images he painted, to a superlative extent those of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Pope John Paul II, 1982)".
According to all the accounts which have reached us, few men on whom the distinction of beatification has been conferred could have deserved it more nobly than Fra Giovanni. He led a holy and self-denying life, shunning all advancement, and was a brother to the poor; no man ever saw him angered. He painted with unceasing diligence, treating none but sacred subjects; he never retouched or altered his work, probably with a religious feeling that such as divine providence allowed the thing to come, such it should remain. He was wont to say that he who illustrates the acts of Christ should be with Christ. It is averred that he never handled a brush without fervent prayer and he wept when he painted a Crucifixion. The Last Judgment and the Annunciation were two of the subjects he most frequently treated.
Bearing in mind the details already given as to the dates of Fra Giovanni's sojournings in various localities, the reader will be able to trace approximately the sequence of the works which we now proceed to name as among his most important productions.
In Florence, in the convent of S. Marco (now converted into a national museum), a series of frescoes, beginning towards 1443; in the first cloister is the Crucifixion with St. Dominic kneeling; and the same treatment recurs on a wall near the dormitory; in the chapterhouse is a third Crucifixion, with the Virgin swooning, a composition of twenty life-sized figures—the red background, which has a strange and harsh effect, is the misdoing of some restorer; an "Annunciation," the figures of about three-fourths of life-size, in a dormitory; in the adjoining passage, the "Virgin enthroned," with four saints; on the wall of a cell, the "Coronation of the Virgin," with Saints Paul, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Dominic, Francis and Peter Martyr; two Dominicans welcoming Jesus, habited as a pilgrim; an "Adoration of the Magi"; the "Marys at the Sepulchre."
All these works are later than the altarpiece which Angelico painted (as before mentioned) for the choir connected with this convent, and which is now in the academy of Florence; it represents the Virgin with Saints Cosmas and Damian (the patrons of the Medici family), Dominic, Peter, Francis, Mark, John Evangelist and Stephen; the pediment illustrated the lives of Cosmas and Damian, but it has long been severed from the main subject.
In the Uffizi gallery, an altarpiece, the Virgin (life-sized) enthroned, with the Infant and twelve angels. In S. Domenico, Fiesole, a few frescoes, less fine than those in S. Marco; also an altarpiece in tempera of the Virgin and Child between Saints Peter, Thomas Aquinas, Dominic and Peter Martyr, now much destroyed. The subject which originally formed the predella of this picture has, since 1860, been in the National Gallery, London, and worthily represents there the hand of the saintly painter. The subject is a Glory, Christ with the banner of the Resurrection, and a multitude of saints, including, at the extremities, the saints or beati of the Dominican order; here are no fewer than 266 figures or portions of figures, many of them having names inscribed.
This predella was highly lauded by Vasari; still more highly another picture which used to form an altarpiece in Fiesole, and which now obtains world-wide celebrity in the Louvre—the "Coronation of the Virgin," with eight predella subjects of the miracles of St. Dominic. For the church of Santa Trinita, Florence, Angelico executed a "Deposition from the Cross," and for the church of the Angeli, a "Last Judgment," both now in the Florentine academy; for S. Maria Novella, a "Coronation of the Virgin," with a predella in three sections, now in the Uffizi,—this again is one of his masterpieces.
In Orvieto cathedral he painted three triangular divisions of the ceiling, portraying respectively Christ in a glory of angels, sixteen saints and prophets, and the virgin and apostles: all these are now much repainted and damaged.
In Rome, in the Chapel of Nicholas V., the acts of Saints Stephen and Lawrence; also various figures of saints, and on the ceiling the four evangelists. These works of the painter's advanced age, which have suffered somewhat from restorations, show vigour superior to that of his youth, along with a more adequate treatment of the architectural perspectives. Naturally, there are a number of works currently attributed to Angelico, but not really his; for instance, a "St Thomas with the Madonna's girdle," in the Lateran museum, and a "Virgin enthroned," in the church of S. Girolamo, Fiesole. It has often been said that he commenced and frequently practised as an illuminator; this is dubious and a presumption arises that illuminations executed by Giovanni's brother, Benedetto, also a Dominican, who died in 1448, have been ascribed to the more famous artist. Benedetto may perhaps have assisted Giovanni in the frescoes at S. Marco, but nothing of the kind is distinctly traceable. A folio series of engravings from these paintings was published in Florence, in 1852. Along with Gozzoli already mentioned, Zanobi Strozzi and Gentile da Fabriano are named as pupils of the Beato.
We have spoken of Angelico's art as "pietistic"; this is in fact its predominant character. His visages have an air of rapt suavity, devotional fervency and beaming esoteric consciousness, which is intensely attractive to some minds and realizes beyond rivalry a particular ideal—that of ecclesiastical saintliness and detachment from secular fret and turmoil. It should not be denied that he did not always escape the pitfalls of such a method of treatment, the faces becoming sleek and prim, with a smirk of sexless religiosity which hardly eludes the artificial or even the hypocritical; on other minds, therefore, and these some of the most masculine and resolute, he produces little genuine impression. After allowing for this, Angelico should nevertheless be accepted beyond cavil as an exalted typical painter according to his own range of conceptions, consonant with his monastic calling, unsullied purity of life and exceeding devoutness. Exquisite as he is in his special mode of execution, he undoubtedly falls far short, not only of his great naturalist contemporaries such as Masaccio and Lippo Lippi, but even of so distant a precursor as Giotto, in all that pertains to bold or life-like invention of a subject or the realization of ordinary appearances, expressions and actions—the facts of nature, as distinguished from the aspirations or contemplations of the spirit. Technically speaking, he had much finish and harmony of composition and colour, without corresponding mastery of light and shade, and his knowledge of the human frame was restricted. The brilliancy and fair light scale of his tints is constantly remarkable, combined with a free use of gilding; this conduces materially to that celestial character which so pre-eminently distinguishes his pictured visions of the divine persons, the hierarchy of heaven and the glory of the redeemed.