Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro; c. 1395 – 1455) was an Early Italian Renaissance painter described by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists as having “a rare and perfect talent”. He was known to contemporaries as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John of Fiesole) and Fra Giovanni Angelico (Angelic Brother John). In modern Italian he is called il Beato Angelico (Blessed Angelic One); the common English name Fra Angelico means “Angelic Brother.”
Vasari wrote of Fra Angelico:
But it is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.
Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro at Rupecanina in the Tuscan area of Mugello near Fiesole towards the end of the 14th century. Nothing is known of his parents. He was baptized Guido or Guidolino. The earliest recorded document concerning Fra Angelico dates from October 17, 1417 when he joined a religious confraternity at the Carmine Church, still under the name of Guido di Pietro. This record also reveals that he was already a painter, a fact that is subsequently confirmed by two records of payment to Guido di Pietro in January and February 1418 for work done in the church of Santo Stefano del Ponte. The first record of Angelico as a friar dates from 1423, when he is first referred to as Fra Giovanni, following the custom of those entering a religious order of taking a new name. According to Vasari, Fra Angelico initially received training as an illuminator, possibly working with his older brother Benedetto who was also a Dominican and an illuminator. San Marco in Florence holds several manuscripts that are thought to be entirely or partly by his hand. The painter 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 did not limit his art, which very soon became famous. According to Vasari, the first paintings of this artist were an altarpiece and a painted screen for the Carthusian Monastery of Florence; none such exist there now.
From 1408 to 1418 Fra Angelico was at the Dominican friary of Cortona where he painted frescoes, now destroyed, in the Dominican Church and may have been assistant to or follower of Gherardo Starnina. Between 1418 and 1436 he was at the convent of Fiesole where he also executed a number of frescoes for the church, and the Altarpiece, deteriorated but restored. A predella of the Altarpiece remains intact in the National Gallery, London which is a superb example of Fra Angelico’s ability. It shows Christ in Glory, surrounded by more than 250 figures, including beatified Dominicans.
In 1436 Fra Angelico was one of a number of the friars from Fiesole who moved to the newly-built Friary of San Marco in Florence. This was an important move which put him in the centre of artistic activity of the region and brought about the patronage of one of the wealthiest and most powerful members of the city’s Signoria, Cosimo de’ Medici, who had a large cell (later occupied by Savonarola) reserved for himself at the friary in order that he might retreat from the world. It was, according to Vasari, at Cosimo’s urging that Fra Angelico set about the task of decorating the monastery, including the magnificent Chapter House fresco, the often-reproduced Annunciation at the top of the stairs to the cells, the Maesta with Saints and the many smaller devotional frescoes depicting aspects of the Life of Christ that adorn the walls of each cell.
In 1439 he completed one of his most famous works, the Altarpiece for St. Marco’s, Florence. The result was unusual for its times. Images of the enthroned Madonna and Child surrounded by saints were common, but they usually depicted a setting that was clearly heavenlike, in which saints and angels hovered about as divine presences rather than people. But in this instance, the saints stand squarely within the space, grouped in a natural way as if they were able to converse about the shared experience of witnessing the Virgin in glory. Paintings such as this, known as Sacred Conversations, were to become the major commissions of Giovanni Bellini, Perugino and Raphael.
In 1445 Pope Eugenius IV summoned him to Rome to paint the frescoes of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St Peter’s, later demolished by Pope Paul III. Vasari claims that at this time Fra Angelico was offered by Pope Nicholas V the Archbishopric of Florence, and that he refused it, recommending another friar for the position. While the story seems possible and even likely, if Vasari’s date is correct, then the pope must have been Eugenius and not Nicholas. In 1447 Fra Angelico was in Orvieto with his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli, executing works for the Cathedral. Among his other pupils were Zanobi Strozzi.
From 1447 to 1449 he was back at the Vatican, designing the frescoes for the Niccoline Chapel for Nicholas V. The scenes from 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 assistants. The small chapel, with its brightly frescoed walls and gold leaf decorations gives the impression of a jewel box. From 1449 until 1452, Fra Angelico was back at his old convent of Fiesole, where he was the Prior.
In 1455 Fra Angelico died while staying at a Dominican Convent in Rome, perhaps in order to work on Pope Nicholas’ Chapel. He was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
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.
So let’s see some of his most important works:
Through Fra Angelico’s pupil Benozzo Gozzoli’s careful portraiture and technical expertise in the art of fresco we see a link to Domenico Ghirlandaio, who in turn painted extensive schemes for the wealthy patrons of Florence, and through Ghirlandaio to his pupil Michelangelo and the High Renaissance.
Apart from the lineal connection, superficially there may seem little to link the humble priest with his sweetly pretty Madonnas and timeless Crucifixions to the dynamic expressions of Michelangelo’s larger-than-life creations. But both these artists received their most important commissions from the wealthiest and most powerful of all patrons, the Vatican.
When Michelangelo took up the Sistine Chapel commission, he was working within a space that had already been extensively decorated by other artists. Around the walls the Life of Christ and Life of Moses were depicted by a range of artists including his teacher Ghirlandaio, Raphael’s teacher Perugino and Botticelli. They were works of large scale and exactly the sort of lavish treatment to be expected in a Vatican commission, vying with each other in complexity of design, number of figures, elaboration of detail and skilful use of gold leaf. Above these works stood a row of painted Popes in brilliant brocades and gold tiaras. None of these splendours have any place in the work which Michelangelo created. Michelangelo, when asked by Pope Julius II to ornament the robes of the Apostles in the usual way, responded that they were very poor men.
Within the cells of San’Marco, Fra Angelico had demonstrated that painterly skill and the artist’s personal interpretation were sufficient to create memorable works of art, without the expensive trappings of blue and gold. In the use of the unadorned fresco technique, the clear bright pastel colours, the careful arrangement of a few significant figures and the skilful use of expression, motion and gesture, Michelangelo showed himself to be the artistic descendant of Fra Angelico. Frederick Hartt describes Fra Angelico as “prophetic of the mysticism” of painters such as Rembrandt, El Greco and Zurbarán.
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