Fra Angelico, by George Charles Williamson

cover of the ebook 'Fra Angelico', by George Charles Williamson

Chronological Table

1387. Birth of Fra Angelico.

1407. He sought admission to the Order of Dominicans, and was sent to Cortona.

1408. He returned to Fiesole.

1409. He probably again left Fiesole and went to Cortona or Foligno.

1418. He was again at Fiesole.

1435. He left Fiesole and took up his quarters in Florence, first at San Giorgio, and then at San Marco.

1447. He went to Rome to work for Pope Eugenius IV.

1447. He went to Orvieto for a short time and then returned to Rome.

1450. He re-visited Cortona.

1450. He returned to Rome and continued his work for Pope Nicholas V.

1452. He was invited to paint the choir and chapel at Prato, but was unable to accept the invitation.

1455. He died in Rome and was buried in the Church of Santa Maria-sopra-Minerva.

His Life

detail of the painting 'Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist' by Luca Signorelli, c.1500; the detail shows Fra Angelico; the original is in the Cappella di San Brizio in Orvieto, Italy; the image was swiped from Wikimedia CommonsFra Angelico, the Dominican Friar, was born in the year 1387 at Vicchio, near to Florence.

His name was Guido, and he was originally known as Guido da Vicchio. Of his early life, save for three facts, we know nothing. His home, the date of his birth, and the name of his father, Pietro, complete the entire history that we possess of the early days of the artist, and from the date of his birth to our next detached fact, that of his postulancy at Fiesole, there is a gap of twenty years.

It has been surmised that his early inclinations were towards the life of an artist, and that had he been intended for a religious life he would have taken the vows at an earlier age than that of twenty. Other surmises have dwelt upon the possible name of his master, and have debated into whose studio he could have found his way, and whose is the influence which is to be seen in his works, but all such surmisings are vain, although they may be interesting, and we have no facts whatever to guide us until we see the youthful Guido presenting himself at the portals of the Dominican house in Fiesole in the year 1407.

We do not know under whose influence this step was taken, but there is great probability that it was the result of the preaching of one Giovanni Dominici, a great Dominican preacher, who was himself an artist of no mean ability, and who had founded in 1400 the convent whither Guido bent his steps.

We learn now that he had a brother, Benedetto, who accompanied Guido to the convent, and that both were admitted within its walls; and we are also told that this brother retained his own name in the new religious life, but that the ordinary name of Guido gave place to the more religious one of Giovanni, and that the youthful postulant was thenceforward known as Fra Giovanni.

The novitiate of the Order was not, however, in Fiesole but at Cortona, and thither were the two postulants sent at once. With them probably went another postulant destined to be the future Archbishop of Florence, Prior of San Marco, and a Saint, one Antonino, who always remained a great friend of the youthful artist.

The times were tempestuous, as there were rival Popes, and the Republic of Florence was extremely anxious that the terrible schism should be brought to an end. With that view the great preacher Giovanni Dominici had been sent to Rome to delay the election of the successor to Innocent VII, but he arrived too late, and Gregory XII had been selected. It was then proposed that each Pontiff should suspend his functions, and a Council was summoned at Pisa to consider this very grave matter, but in the end the confusion grew greater, and each of the Popes was deposed, and a third, Alexander V, was elected instead. The city of Florence at once espoused the cause of this latest Pope, while the Dominicans of Fiesole were content to take their rule from Gregory XII, and as the difficulty was an acute one, the friars had to fly from Florence to escape harm at the hands of the Florentines, and in 1409 they went to Foligno.

Between this town and the hill town of Cortona the friars passed their time till 1418, when the schism in the Church was healed by the Council of Constance, and the friars were able to return home to their beloved Fiesole.

Here Fra Giovanni remained till 1435, full of artistic work both for his own convent and for outside patrons in the form of other religious houses, churches, or great guilds, and at the same time constant in his attendance upon his religious duties. During this time, as has been pointed out by his latest chronicler, Professor Douglas, his work as an artist underwent a great change: the last three years of his residence at Fiesole marking a vast improvement in his style and technique.

It was in the summer of 1485 that the long residence at Fiesole came to an end, and the friars moved nearer the city, and then, in the following year, they made a solemn entrance into Florence, and took possession of their new home in San Marco.

The Friars of San Sylvestro had previously been in possession of this church and convent, but the laxity of their rule had caused some scandal in the city, and Cosimo de’ Medici, who was at that time in full and undisputed sway in Florence, petitioned the Pope, Eugenius IV, to transfer the buildings to the Dominicans.

The Pope, who was deeply anxious to reform the religious houses, and was much attracted by the life of the Dominicans at Fiesole, granted the request, and the Monastery of San Marco was given to the friars under the most solemn conditions, and was taken possession of by its new owners with very elaborate ceremonial.

It was not, however, a comfortable home for them, and they suffered much inconvenience in it, and many of them died by reason of the severity of the weather and the want of proper accommodation and comfort. Cosimo at length came to their rescue, in response, it is said, to the appeal of the Pope, and he set his favourite architect Michelozzo to work, to erect a new and convenient building for the friars.

This was done at the cost of Cosimo, and the ruler also gave to the convent a great collection of manuscripts which he had gathered together, and undertook to provide all the Psalters and Graduals and other service books that might be needed in the choir.

The building when completed was a very large and commodious one, comprising not only the cells needful for a monastery, but also well appointed chapter-house, refectory and library, with its presses of cypress wood for the manuscripts, and also an important entrance quadrangle with its cloister walk, and all the buildings that were needed for the lay brothers and the offices of the convent.

Fra Angelico seems to have undertaken the decoration of the interior, and very much of it he carried out by his own unaided hand, whilst his brother, who was also a skillful artist, was set to work upon the illumination of the service books.

This Monastery of San Marco is so completely a treasure-house of the work of Fra Angelico that it is needful to devote a separate chapter to it.

Eugenius IV had, as is well known, been compelled by the families of the Colonna, the relations of Martin V, and the Orsini, to flee from Rome, and had visited Florence, and whilst there had stayed within the walls of the convent. It was during that visit that he appointed one of the friars, the brother Antonino already named, to be Archbishop of Florence. Later on he left the city and settled at Bologna, but when the antipope who had been elected by the Council of Basle as Felix V was dethroned through the aid of AEneas Piccolomini, afterwards Pius II, Eugenius was able to return to his city and resume his position on his throne. He then remembered the time which he had spent at San Marco, and, determining to carry out some important decoration in the Vatican, he sent for the clever friar who had interested him in Florence, desiring him to journey to Rome with all speed and decorate his chapel. Fra Angelico set out on his journey, but he arrived too late to see the Pontiff. The triumph that had come to Eugenius IV by reason of the allegiance of the German powers had come too late. After his long exile and at the end of his prolonged controversy with the Councils of Florence and Ferrara, he was certainly able to return to Rome, but it was only to die; and by the time the artist reached the Eternal city a new Pontiff sat upon the throne.

The scheme planned by his predecessor was, however, carried out by Nicholas V, and the small chapel in the Vatican remains to enshrine the finest and most matured of the works of Fra Angelico.

It is probable, however, that these charming frescoes were not the first works done by the artist in Rome.

Professor Douglas considers that the earlier paintings which he did were those in a chapel of Saint Peter’s which lay between the Vatican and the Cathedral, and which was destroyed a hundred years afterwards to make room for the erection of a great staircase.

Here he painted those portraits of contemporary persons which Vasari states afterwards became the property of his friend Paulus Jovius.

When they heard that he was in Rome, the ecclesiastical authorities of Orvieto desired to have some of his work in their famous cathedral; and as Fra Angelico found the heat of Rome in the summer too great for him he entered into a contract with the Orvietans to carry out the decoration of the roof of their chapel of San Brizio during the time when he could not remain in Rome.

He appears to have commenced the work, which was to depict the Last Judgment, and to have continued in Orvieto till the end of September, when he returned to Rome, but for some unknown reason he never completed the decoration of the chapel.

An old chronicler tells a story that one of the friar’s chief assistants was killed by a fall from the scaffolding soon after the work was commenced, and that other accidents occurred in rapid succession, so that the friar was fain to consider that it was not intended that he should do this work, and, therefore, when the time came in which he might safely journey to Rome, he left it and never returned. Be that as it may, it is clear that there is but a small part of the work at Orvieto that can be given to Fra Angelico.

Much of the rest was done by his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli, but the chapel was not completed till fifty years had passed. Perugino was asked to complete it, and arranged to do so, but he was unable by reason of the work he had in Rome to do it, and it was left for Luca Signorelli to finish and bring to perfection this most wonderful chapel which had passed under the hands of so many great masters.

Back came the old friar to Rome, and then followed the unrivalled series of frescoes that adorn the study or chapel of Nicholas V, a chapel which, after having been closed and forgotten for over one hundred years, is now one of the greatest attractions in a visit to the Vatican Palace.

Whether all the final years of the life of Fra Angelico were passed at Rome is not quite clear, nor is it known how long a time was expended upon these frescoes in the Vatican. We hear of him at Florence in 1451, and again in his much-loved Fiesole in 1452, and in that year it is known that he declined an invitation that reached him from the authorities of Prato, in which he was asked to decorate the choir of their cathedral.

He resided, however, a great part of the time in the Eternal City, dwelling with his order in their convent of Santa Maria-sopra-Minerva, and there he died in 1455 at the age of sixty-eight, and was buried in the church of the convent to the left of the sanctuary.

The Pope himself is said to have composed the Latin epitaph which adorns the tomb, and which records the virtues, the modesty, and the talents of the artist.

The Works of Fra Angelico

The works of the artist may be divided into certain sections. There are his altar-pieces, which belong mainly to the early part of his career, his small miniature-like panel pictures, which belong to the central part of his life, and his frescoes, which form complete series of works in San Marco and in the Vatican, and which also adorn other detached buildings.

The decoration in fresco of the great convent of San Marco at Florence can well be considered as one complete work, all the rest for the purposes of this small treatise being grouped into this one chapter.

The altarpieces are many of them notable works. At Cortona is the only one of all Fra Angelico’s altarpieces which remains in the place for which it was originally painted. Another at Cortona depicts the Annunciation. The angel is a vision of beauty, and full of wondrous sweetness, the Virgin is depicted with lowly humility bending before this glowing messenger. The composition is, however, stiff, and there is not yet to be seen the pathos and deep feeling that characterized later works.

Another well-known early work is the Last Judgment which is now in the Accademia in Florence, and which contains the marvellous group of angels solemnly dancing in a ring before the Christ, a scene full of charming incident, sweetly painted, and with much love of natural beauty and exquisite grace.

The chief of the earlier works are, however, the four Madonna altarpieces, one painted for the Guild of Flax-workers, called the Linajuoli, the Madonna of Annalena, the Madonna of Cortona, and the Madonna of Perugia.

the Madonna dei Linajuoli by Fra AngelicoThe Madonna dei Linajuoli is the best known picture by Fra Angelico in Europe, and it is rather unfortunate that it is so.

There are twelve angels on the frame of it, surrounding the central panel, which are represented as playing on musical instruments, and these have caught the public fancy in a way that no other works of the artist have done. They are pleasant in colour, graceful in form, and certainly charming to look at, but they are quite unworthy of being considered representative of the work of an artist who was capable of painting the frescoes at San Marco, and it is unfair to judge Fra Angelico by these pictures. As a recent writer has said, “What great painter before or since has ever been judged by his picture frames?” and these angels are nothing more than the flat decoration of the frame of the altarpiece painted in soft colours on the gold ground.

The two side panels of this altarpiece are really more characteristic than is the centre, as the Saint John and Saint Mark which they contain are boldly conceived and dignified figures. The Madonna in the central panel is weak in feature, and the similar altarpiece at Perugia, which forms one of our illustrations, will be found to have more reality and life about it than this better known Madonna dei Linajuoli.

The Madonna of Perugia, by Fra AngelicoAnother well-known work is the Madonna d’Annalena, which is now in the Accademia at Florence, and in which are represented Saint Matthew, Saint Laurence, Saint Francis, Saint Dominic, Saint Cosmo, and Saint Damian.

A remarkable series of small panels is to be found in the Accademia at Florence, which originally adorned the silver press of the Church of the Annunciation in that city. These panels were painted, it is said, to the order of Piero de’ Medici, who was at that time the holder of the patronage of the church, and was spending vast sums in adorning it. They represent scenes from the life of Our Lord, and are delightfully wrought.

Of the panel pictures for the reliquaries, which are painted with the most delicate and miniature-like detail, in exquisite colouring on a gold ground, three can be seen in San Marco, and one is in England. The frescoes at San Marco are separately described in the next chapter.

The ceiling decoration that the friar executed at Orvieto consists of a scene representing Christ as The Judge, and the figures of some prophets and saints, and then finally there are the frescoes at Rome.

These are in two series, the upper scenes from the life of Saint Stephen, and the lower from the life of San Lorenzo.

In the upper tier there are –

1. The ordination of Saint Stephen.

2. His distribution of alms.

3. His preaching.

4. His appearance before the Council at Jerusalem.

5. His being dragged to martyrdom.

6. The stoning of the saint.

In the lower tier the pictures are –

1. The ordination of the saint by Pope Sixtus II, who is represented under the likeness of the reigning Pope, Nicholas V.

2. The Pope delivering to him the treasures of the Church, while he himself was confined under the care of two gaolers.

3. The distribution of these treasures by San Lorenzo amongst the poor.

4. The saint carried before the Emperor Decius.

5. His martyrdom.

Upon the pilasters of the Chapel are Saint Athanasius, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Jerome (not Saint Bonaventura as inscribed) and Saint Chrysostom.

On the vaulting are Saint Leo, Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine and Saint Gregory, and on the ceiling are the four Evangelists.

The panels depicting San Lorenzo are the finest works that Fra Angelico ever did, and represent the fullest achievement of his genius.

San Marco

To understand the art of Fra Angelico it is absolutely necessary that a visit be paid to this convent now termed “Museo di San Marco,” as within its walls remain most of the great fresco works done by the artist, and on them he lavished his best skill.

The building is a shrine of the work of the artist, and being a religious house, he was able to give to its decoration all the fervour and emotion that characterised his finest efforts.

Immediately the visitor enters, his eye is caught by the Christ on the cross, with Saint Dominic, which is at the end of the cloister, opposite the main entrance, a wonderfully dignified conception with a most pathetic expression on the face of the saint.

Over the doors are five exquisite lunettes, one of which has been selected amongst our illustrations. Over the Sacristy door is Saint Peter Martyr, indicating the rule of silence peculiar to the Order by placing his finger on his lip in most expressive manner. Over the door of the Chapter-House is Saint Dominic, armed with a scourge, indicating the discipline of the Order. Over the Refectory is Christ with the wound prints, a head and face of wondrous beauty, while the lunette of Christ as a pilgrim appears over the door to the Foresteria or guest-house, and Saint Thomas Aquinas over an adjacent portal.

The Chapter-House contains the great Crucifixion that is fully described elsewhere in this book.

At the head of the staircase is the Annunciation, somewhat simpler than the similar picture at Cortona, and a most fascinating fresco.

The Madonna is seated on one of the ordinary monastic stools, such as those that are seen in the fresco of the Last Supper, and is within a simple vaulted loggia with an open colonnade. Her hands are meekly folded on her breast and she bends forward to receive the message of the angel. The Messenger is a superb archangel with wings of glowing colour, and clad in a white robe. He also bends before the handmaid of the Most High, and his face and that of the Madonna are wonderfully sweet and serene. Outside is a charming garden full of flowers and enclosed by a palisade, and beyond it is a mass of splendid trees. Nothing could be simpler or more refined. The light is that of evening, and there is a holy calm that pervades the picture, while the faces are lit with that heavenly sweetness which is so marked in the work of the artist at that period.

The inscription on this fresco may be translated: “When thou shalt have come before the image of the spotless Virgin, beware lest by negligence the Ave be silent.”

Close by is the Crucifixion, with the figure of Saint Dominic kneeling at the foot of the Cross, and to the left are the cells that contain the best works of the artist. The frescoes are on the wall, over the places where the beds of the friars would have been, and Fra Angelico is said to have remarked that as the window near by gave the friar his sight of the world, so would he place before him another window by which he might gaze into the unseen world, “a window into Heaven.”

The following are the scenes that the friar himself painted –

Cell 1. Noli me tangere.

2. The Entombment.

3. The Annunciation, another lovely representation of the scene that the artist loved so well.

4. The Crucifixion.

5. The Madonna and Saint Joseph adoring the Divine Child.

6. The Transfiguration.

7. The buffeting of Christ. The hands are represented without bodies, as also are the mouths which spit upon Him, producing a very curious effect. No doubt the words were in the mind of the artist that were addressed to the Saviour, “Prophesy unto us, O Christ, who is he that struck thee?”

8. The Resurrection. The portrait of the artist is said to be in the left-hand corner of this picture.

9. The Coronation of the Virgin. This is a very lovely work. The Christ, clothed in dazzling white, is seated upon a cloud also of snowy whiteness, and is placing the crown upon the head of the white-robed Virgin. A rainbow encircles the lower part of the group, and below are six kneeling adoring saints, conspicuous amongst whom is to be seen Saint Dominic. The others are probably Saint Francis, Saint Benedict, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Peter Martyr, and Saint Paul the Hermit.

10. The Presentation in the Temple, another fine composition.

11. The Madonna and Child with Saint Francis and Saint Dominic.

31. (Opposite to the stairs.) This was the cell of Saint Antonino, who became Archbishop of Florence, and it contains some relics of the good man. The fresco depicts the Descent of Christ into Limbo, one of the most impressive of all the frescoes. Ruskin speaks of the “intense fixed statue-like silence of ineffable adoration upon the spirits in prison at the feet of Christ.”

32 and 33. In these two cells it is believed that Fra Angelico was assisted by a pupil, as the work does not seem to be wholly that of the artist himself. The frescoes represent the Sermon on the Mount and the Betrayal.

The same cell also contains two of the reliquary panels done by Fra Angelico in the early part of his career, those known as the Madonna della Stella and the Coronation of the Virgin. The former is an especially lovely one, very pure in colour, most refined in idea and in execution, and exquisite in its miniature-like detail, and in the beauty of the faces.

34. The next cell contains the third of these panels, the remaining one being in England. This one represents the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi in two separate tiny panels one over the other. The fresco is the Agony in the Garden, and there are two beautiful figures introduced by a piece of symbolism as witnesses of the dread event, Mary and Martha, the former being the Blessed Virgin herself. They are seated side by side upon the ground.

35. This cell contains the Last Supper, or more properly the institution of the Sacrament of the Altar.

36. The Nailing to the Cross. This is a very remarkable work, as the scene is not, as is the habit of Fra Angelico, represented in traditional fashion, but with quite an original treatment. Our Lord is depicted submitting to the terrible pain of the nailing when already upon the Cross, stretching out his hands quite willingly for the suffering. The modelling of the nude figure is most wonderful, and the attendants are drawn with the utmost skill and refinement. Professor Douglas states that the artist obtained the idea for this fresco from a legendary life of Saint Mary Magdalen, which was one of the books just at that time in use in the convent.

37. The Crucifixion. This, Professor Douglas states, is the only representation of the Crucifixion at San Marco, with the exception of the great picture in the Chapter House, in which the two thieves appear, but the most striking figure in it is that of Saint Dominic, who stands with arms outstretched gazing upward in rapt adoration. Near him are Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Madonna, and Saint John the Divine. This is the cell that tradition assigns afterwards to Fra Bartolommeo.

39. The Adoration of the Magi. This is in the double cell which was occupied by Pope Eugenius IV when he stayed in the convent; and here the founder of the house, Cosimo de’ Medici, also lived for a time when Sant’ Antonino was in the convent.

The Pope occupied the cell on the Feast of the Epiphany, and probably for that reason Fra Angelico selected the subject of this fresco after the Pontiff had left.

The influence of the visit of the Orientalists from the great Council at Ferrara, whence they accompanied the Emperor Palaeologus to Florence can be seen, as Professor Douglas has pointed out, in this most satisfying and delightful work.

42. Another Crucifixion adorns this cell.

The Madonna and Saints which is placed upon the wall of the south corridor should not be overlooked. It is a work much resembling in its composition the altarpiece that Fra Angelico painted for the adjacent Church. The Child is very lovely, the Madonna dignified and compassionate, while the eight saints – Saint Mark, Saint Cosmo, Saint Damian, and Saint Dominic on the right, and Saint John, Saint Thomas Aquinas, San Lorenzo, and Saint Peter Martyr on the left, are models of serenity and composure.

This fresco was painted, it is quite evident, with especial reference to the founder of the house, as Saint Cosmo, Saint Damian, and San Lorenzo occupy important positions in it.

The altarpiece that the friar painted for the adjacent church of San Marco is now in the Accademia, and is an exquisite work, full of beauty. The panels which were below it are now scattered – three being in Munich, two in Florence in the same gallery as the larger picture, one in Paris, and one in Dublin.

The same saints appear in it as in the last-named work, and in the predella panels is told the story of Saint Cosmo and Saint Damian in very energetic and even dramatic fashion.

The Art of Fra Angelico

In examining the work of this great artist we have to take into adequate consideration the two rival capabilities that distinguished his life.

The friar was a profound believer in the fact that no more honourable role could be assigned to art than that of “consecrating man’s highest and noblest endowments to the service of the Divine Giver of all good gifts.”

With an intense love of art, he yet believed that to make it the handmaid of religion, and to use it as the means of imparting religious instruction, was to give to it its greatest dignity, and was to employ the talents that God had given him to their best advantage.

He knew that to be a saint was more in the eyes of God than to be an artist, and with this dictum all right-minded men would agree, but he never allowed his religious fervour to degenerate into mere pietism of a sentimental kind.

He was a man of deep fervour, of overwhelming belief in the facts of the Gospel story, of true devotion, of perfect and most ready obedience to the teaching of the Church; but at the same time he was a real student of art, one who worked hard at his profession, spared no pains to make himself perfect, and used every aid that came to his hand to make his pictures truthful, both as stories of the times and as symbols of what he desired them to teach.

The unity between these two phases of character is not an impossible one, as some persons have thought. There were in the same body, as Professor Douglas has said, “two temperaments which are usually supposed to have but little in common, and which indeed are not often found inhabiting the same frame – the artistic and the saintly.” In Fra Angelico they existed, side by side, and were both of them of exalted importance. Fra Angelico well deserved his popular title of “Beato Angelico.” He was a true saint, a very holy man, who consecrated his work to the service of God, who engaged in prayer before he painted his pictures, and who was deeply attached, as Vasari tells us, to the religion of Christ, but at the same time, and with an equal inspiration, he was an artist “to his very finger-tips,” keenly “alive to the progress in technical matters which was going on around him, and sympathetically open to contemporary influences of various kinds.”

It is the essential unity between these differing qualities of the artist’s character that must be borne in mind when any careful study of his work is made, and unless their intimate connection is understood, and their power of acting and reacting upon each other is grasped, the knowledge of the work of Fra Angelico that is gained will be an inadequate one.

The traditional story, as given by Vasari, was entirely on the one side, that of the saint, and was derived from the companions and followers of Fra Angelico. The view that some later writers have taken of Fra Angelico is too much on the other side, as while valuing his work at its highest importance, they have intentionally overlooked the religious aspect of his life, or at least have implied that it was of small moment beside the artistic.

Both were wrong, and it is in the proper understanding of the inadequacy of either aspect to give the full character of the man that wisdom dwells.

No theological or anti-theological views should be allowed to prejudice the judgment that is formed of the work of this artist, and difficult as is the position, the knowledge of both his religious life and his artistic development have to be remembered by the student. For these reasons it is important that a mind as free as possible from prejudice should be brought to bear upon this consideration.

Errors about the Artist

Mrs. Jameson in her delightful books made many errors in treating of this artist, which have been perpetuated by those who have followed her. She said that Fra Angelico regarded the exhibition of the nude form as a sin. She did not expect to find accurate drawing of the human form in the works of the artist, and consequently she did not find it. She spoke of him as one who did not observe nature and paid no attention to the things of daily life that were transpiring around him, and as so wrapt in religious contemplation as to be indifferent to all such events. She also, with other writers, has said that Fra Angelico was never vigorous or dramatic, wanting in truth and majesty, and monotonous in his types; and all these statements, and many more that she and others have made, are completely inaccurate.

A similar misstatement is to the effect that Fra Angelico owed nothing to classic art or classic lore, and that he spurned all pagan tradition as dangerous to morals. The very reverse of this is the case.

A more careful examination of the great Crucifixion at San Marco, of the other similar scenes in the cells, of the Child figure of Christ in the arms of His Mother, and of some of the figures in the various predella panels, would have convinced the writers that Fra Angelico could not only represent the nude figure, but did it often, and with consummate accuracy and truth.

His forms are, as Professor Douglas points out, generally attenuated and ascetic, but no doubt his models were that type of man, and he drew them with great directness, and modelled them with brilliant discernment. His great Crucifixion just named is the finest and most pathetic scene that the period of Italian art produced, and is presented with rare delicacy and yet with great strength.

His observance of what went on around him is proved in very many ways. There is no space in these pages to enter into consideration of the argument, founded on architecture, which Professor Douglas has so luminously presented in his book; but his use of Eastern costume, especially strange headdresses, in his pictures painted just at the time of the visit to Florence from Ferrara of the Council which was considering the union between the Latin and Greek Churches, and which was accompanied by the Patriarch of Constantinople and his gaily apparelled suite, is clear evidence that the friar had time and opportunity to mark these curious visitors, and to make use of their costumes in his works.

Then in armour, in weapons, in medallions on walls, in columns, in windows, and even in furniture, Fra Angelico made large use of models from antique art, and was not at all unwilling to adopt classical decoration where he thought it was suitable for his purpose. His desire clearly was to obtain local colour, to be true to the learning that was popular at his time, and which was influencing all life, and to adopt everything that he, as a true artist, could see was likely to make his pictures more beautiful, and enable them the better to tell their story and produce the impression that he desired they should make.

We sure also told that he etherealized every face, and that he never presented a real portrait. Here again is a fiction invented by those who have considered the artist from one standpoint only. The same class of critics tell us that he did not study nature, and that his introduction of flowers, plants and trees, is purely the result of imagination, inventive capacity, and was made with a view of increasing the artistic merit only of the work.

All of this is the purest fiction on the part of those who have studied Fra Angelico as a saint who painted, rather than as a great artist who was also a great saint.

Love of Nature

The roses which are introduced in the Madonna of Perugia, and which were painted during the Cortona period, are the flowers that abound in the city of Cortona, and for which it was famous. They are carried in baskets such as are sold to this day in the market-place of the hill-town. The flowers of the field on which the angels in the Last Judgment are dancing, are those of his own beloved Fiesole, and are painted just as they appear in the flower-decked meadows. The plants, which are to be seen in the large pots on the walls in the frescoes in Rome, are familiar in every way, can be recognised, and the truth of their representation can be proved. The trees which he painted were real ones, the very trees which grew close to where he was at work; even the very buildings, in some cases, which he depicted, can be recognised, and in the Cenacolo in San Marco, and in other of the frescoes in that convent, he so accurately painted the walls of the convent itself that to this day the very scene which can be realised, will be found painted with absolute truth in the frescoes before our eyes. For his dramatic powers we have only to look at some of his predella panels, which will be found full of movement, excitement and energy.

Fra Angelico was a man of intense religion, of great sweetness of mind, of exceeding fervour. His aim was to paint the scenes of the Gospel story with all his heart and with all his mind, but he never forgot that they were to be done also with all his skill. He was intensely moved by them, felt the truth of all their story, and wished to carry the thoughts of those who looked at his works up to a higher level, and to cause them to see things spiritual; but withal he was so thoroughly an artist that his eyes were wide open upon the world, and he was able to absorb its colour, its scenes of pageantry, its life, its movement and its accessories, and to use all in his pictures.

Towards the close of his career he became more and more a master of form and figure. In his frescoes in the Chapel of Nicholas V we see him at the zenith of his power. The figures are solid and round. They have all the tactile value that is so needful. They stand out in bold expression, grouped with perfect arrangement, and forming wonderful panels which seem like windows into an actual scene. The “San Lorenzo giving alms” is such a one, and the artist’s ability in painting actual portraits is also shown in this same series of frescoes, as the portrait of the reigning Pope appears more than once in them.

Spirituality

The quality of etherealization, of spirituality, upon which so many writers have laid all their stress must equally not be overlooked, as it is a very real quality of distinction. In many of the “windows into Heaven,” as the frescoes in the cells at San Marco have well been styled, there is a wondrous sense of spiritual exaltation. Fra Angelico grasped, as but few artists have ever grasped, the quality of “vision.” He steps back from the ordinary mundane things, and takes us right into the world of spiritual beings. He understands that the true artist has to create a world for those whom he teaches.

Light and Form

He is a master of light, and sheds it around his visions with a lustrous white glow that is very marvellous.

His effects are produced in the simplest fashion, the colours are pure and clear; there are but few figures in each scene, and these are very simply grouped, and there is an entire absence in these spiritual visions of any accessories that would distract attention or spoil the desired effect.

There is hardly any symbolism, hardly any adjuncts to the story, but just the barest elements of the pictures presented with an intense and overwhelming directness.

Even in his panel pictures, as, for example, the four that were painted for a reliquary and which have all the detail of miniature painting, there is combined with the exuberance of richness, inseparable from the trains of bright angels that are introduced, a simplicity about the central scene that is very convincing; but it is in the San Marco frescoes that this power has its fullest expression.

Significance

Fra Angelico had an intimate appreciation of the spiritual significance of the picture that he was painting. He desired that those who gazed upon it should have a similar knowledge, that they should be imbued with the reverence that was part of his nature, and should see the heavenly meaning to the story that was so clear to him. Heaven was to him very real, and the virtues of patience, humility, compassion, and joy that he learned from the heavenly scenes upon which he gazed, were true virtues that were capable of expression in daily life. The angels were to him real beings, glorified, wondrous creatures, but none the less real, and he presented them with all the wealth of beauty with which he endowed them, and in such convincing manner as to bring these spiritual beings with all their grace, dignity, and glory before our view.

“Windows into Heaven” were indeed opened to the artist saint, and by them we can still look into the realms which he saw, and have presented to us by his immortal pencil the heavenly beings with whom he held converse when he painted in the quiet of his own cell.

When we come to the frescoes painted in Rome at the latter part of his career, we find no falling off of the devotional spirit, but with it a great increase in the artistic element.

The utmost care is taken with the grouping, the composition of each fresco received the most careful attention; the figures are rounded, firm, and solid; there is more pure love of decoration, greater elaboration of detail, more attention to accessories; but all is the result of steady growth out of what has preceded these frescoes in the artist’s life, and there are the same exquisite faces which invariably distinguish his work.

Colour

In colour, Fra Angelico is noted for his love of the pure elemental tints of clear, sharp blue, of an exquisite rose, of a vivid green, of gold, and of pure brilliant white; but all are so cunningly combined as to produce a harmony that is always delightful. He loved the radiance of glowing white, and was able, by the most subtle shading, to intensify its brightness. He was a master of the methods of combining true fresco with what is called fresco secco, or painting on a dry, hard ground, and he used both methods in the same work so as to give the fullest value to his colours. A gold background is his favourite for the miniature-like work that marked his earlier productions, but, as he grew older, he relinquished this very fine treatment and drew with a larger and fuller brush in strong, powerful fashion. The problems of lighting received the closest consideration at his hands, and he was able to shed around many of his works an unearthly brilliance of white, glowing light. His draperies are often stiff and conventional, and more must not be expected of him in that respect than he was able to perform. We must not read into his works greater excellencies than they possessed, or greater skill. He was, be it remembered, a Quatrocento painter, a man of ripe intelligence certainly, but bound by the knowledge of his time; but he was a great artist, a man of profound intelligence, a devout religious enthusiast, a humble, earnest worker, and withal an artist who loved his work, gloried in the skill that had been given him, and, while placing it all as a tribute of faith before God, yet strove that the gift should be his very best, and should lack nothing for want of care, of perseverance, or of painstaking anxiety to be proficient.

Our Illustrations

Three of our illustrations are taken from the early works of the artist, four from his frescoes in San Marco, and one from the famous series of frescoes in the Chapel of Nicholas V at Rome, which represent the completion of his life’s work.

For the early part of his career we have selected the Annunciation in the Oratorio del Gesu at Cortona, which was originally painted for the Church of San Domenico in that city; a scene from the Last Judgment which is now in the Accademia in Florence, and the Madonna of Perugia which was painted for the Church of San Domenico in Perugia, and is now in the Picture Gallery of that place.

* * *

The Annunciation by Fra AngelicoIn the Annunciation we find the simplest of scenes. The Archangel, clad in a robe of sparkling colour and having a glorious halo of gems and gold around his head of sunny curls, enters through a colonnade to the Madonna, who is seated. He has passed over a garden covered with flowers, his great wings are glowing with effulgent light and his countenance is transfigured with beauty as he has but recently left the Courts of the Most High. His fingers are raised as if to emphasize the importance of the words that flow from his lips, and he bends before the lowly maiden who is the recipient of the wonderful message. The Madonna is seated under the colonnade, which is open, that the scene may be realized in all its beauty, and with hands clasped upon her breast, she offers herself as the handmaiden of the Lord. Her face, although somewhat thin and attenuated and having small features which are rather out of due proportion, is one of great peace and serenity, and as she bends before the messenger of the King, she seems to shrink from the high honour that he comes to announce to her. The room is quite plain and simple; there is nothing to be seen in it save the book which has fallen from the hands of the Virgin and the seat on which she rests. Outside is a lovely garden full of flowers painted with such loving care that, as Professor Douglas points out, there are careful studies in it of some special flowers in more than one stage of their bloom, the pink being, for example, represented in bud, half-opened, and in full flower.

All the flowers are such as the artist would find at Cortona, and which may be plucked to this day, the roses especially being represented, as the city was noted for its roses; while it may be noted that one of the orchids is of a sort that does not grow in Fiesole, but occurs in vast profusion on the hills of the hill-set town of Cortona.

Above, far away in the corner of the picture, is represented in tiny form the driving out of Adam and Eve by the angel from Paradise, and so the truth of the prophesy that the “seed of the woman” shall conquer is brought into notice.

The detail on the wings and raiment of the angel is of great beauty and complexity, but the expression of the picture is centred upon the clearly cut features and exquisite beauty of the two faces, in which can be seen all the spiritual teaching of the work.

In the similar scene which the artist painted in San Marco he further simplified the setting of his picture, and with improved ability was able to give still more expression to the faces and to omit much of the detail which would have been out of place when fresco was used; but in this work we have the beginning of his genius and his power of depicting a Scriptural event with all the religious devotion that it demanded.

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Dance of the Angels, from The Last Judgment, by Fra AngelicoThe Dance of the Angels is one scene only from his picture of the Last Judgment in which he became more mystical. In the complete picture he has painted the Christ seated in the heavens within a great oval mandorla of glory, and surrounded by cherubim and seraphim. There are the trumpet-bearing angels of doom, and many of the saints and apostles, and below are the open graves. On the one side the artist has shown a crowd of the great ones of the world, as well as some religious, being sent down to hell, and near them are seven circles of the Inferno. On the other side are the blessed, a vast throng, who are being led by angels up to Paradise, and then near by is the scene of our picture, in which the angels, for very joy, are represented as dancing on the flower-decked ground in stately mystic beauty, joying in the glory and happiness of those whose guardian spirits they have been for so long. It is the artist’s way of representing the joy of the celestial being, over the crown of success that has been given to those for whom they have cared, and whom they have often shielded from harm and inspired with holy aspirations, and in its naive simplicity it is particularly charming.

The faces of the angels and saints are lovely, their halos and wings are resplendent with gems and colour; their draperies of dazzling whiteness and the perfect joy which is causing some of them to embrace one another for very delight, and others to circle round and round in dainty lightness is specially well presented. It is like a vision into another world, a peep into heaven, and will repay the most careful attention and thought.

Still, even here, Fra Angelico is stiff and formal, but the picture reveals him as not only a mystic, but also as a profound lover and student of nature, for the plants and flowers are painted with striking accuracy and with the utmost pains-taking attention.

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the Madonna of Perugia, by Fra AngelicoIn the Madonna of Perugia we see more genuine understanding of the human form. The Madonna in the Annunciation was a very real person, different from the stiff wooden forms that had been seen earlier than the time of Fra Angelico in Italian art, but in the Child in the arms of its mother, which he painted in the picture before us, can be seen a still greater mark of progress.

The Child is all but nude, and “His attitude as He raises His little hand to bless the people is perfect in every line.” One of the greatest features about this picture, as a recent writer just quoted, has said, is “the indefinable skill with which the artist has made of the Child the principal figure to which that of the Mother is distinctly subordinate.” The face of Christ is that of a child, the eyes are those of a child, wide opened, full of wonder; but at the same time there is a commanding gesture in the hand, a look of decision in the countenance, and a ruling idea in His position, in which His Mother is quite ready to acquiesce and in her look towards Him admiration is mingled with awe.

The angels bearing roses, in the flat Cortona baskets, are stately figures, reverent and graceful. They form a fitting entourage for the central figures in this lovely altarpiece.

* * *

The San Marco frescoes next claim attention.

Christ as a Pilgrim with Two Dominicans, by Fra AngelicoThe one of Christ as a Pilgrim was intended to typify the great virtue of brotherly love, and to teach the importance of it to every friar who gazed upon that scene.

Our Lord comes as a weary, footsore pilgrim, tired and worn by the long journey, and is welcomed as a brother in distress by the two friars who greet him. He extends His hand to them, and one of them does the same to him, and the two hands meet together over the staff which He carries, and form the emblem of the Cross, in whose name and by whose merit the hospitality is to be learned and used.

The tender courtesy and kindliness of the two friars is finely expressed, and the weary look of the Christ is seen to be giving place to a look of joy, as the brothers come forward to practise that love which He had striven to teach them, and which now they are to exercise towards Him, although hidden in the guise of a pilgrim.

It is hardly possible to conceive of a more touching piece of imagery or of a more perfect way of impressing the lesson which the artist desired to set forth.

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The Crucifixion, by Fra AngelicoThe Crucifixion in the Chapter House is much more than an ordinary representation of the dread scene.

It is the largest work which Fra Angelico ever painted, and was never quite completed, as in fact the red background clearly proves. This colour was not intended to remain as it is, but was the ground colour for the blue that was to follow it, and which was usually, by a worker in true fresco (in which this work was mainly done) laid on upon a red ground to give it the needful depth of colour.

The artist in this picture has combined with the representation of the scene a glorification of the stately Order to which he belonged. The picture really represents the Monastic Orders, and that of the Dominicans in particular, in adoration at the Cross.

Nearest to the foot of the Cross is Saint Dominic himself, gazing up with the deepest reverence at the Crucified One. Behind him is Saint Jerome, to whom is ascribed the foundation of the monastic life. His cardinal’s hat is at his feet. A little further back can be seen Saint Francis of Assisi, very different from Saint Dominic, who bears the features that mark calm devotion and meditation, whereas Saint Francis is in a state of ecstatic grief. Near to these three founders are two bishops, Saint Augustine of the Augustinians and Saint Albert of Vercelli the Carmelite, and close behind them is Saint Benedict in black, bearing a bundle of rods in his hand.

The leaders of the Reformed Benedictines are close at hand. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercians, is in white, clasping a book; Saint John Gualberto, founder of the Vallombrosans, is in gray, and is kneeling, while Saint Romuald, founder of the Camaldolese, stands leaning upon his staff, and the eyes of Saint Benedict are directed towards these three saints, who founded off-shoots from his great original rule. At the end come two notable Dominican saints, Saint Peter Martyr and Saint Thomas Aquinas, who represent as has been well said “The Sanctity and Zeal 99 and the “Philosophy and Learning” of the Order.

On the other side of the Cross there is first of all, the wondrous and pitiful group of the Madonna with Saint John, one of the Marys, and Saint Mary Magdalen, and then near by are the saints who were representative of the Convent and the Medici family, to whose generosity the monastery owed its fine buildings.

There is Saint John the Baptist, with the wooden cross, as patron of Florence, and Saint Mark with an open book, the patron of the monastery; Saint Lawrence with the gridiron, as patron of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the heir of the founder of the house and donor of its endowments, and finally Saint Cosmo and Saint Damian, the patron saints not only of the founder himself, Cosimo de’ Medici, but also of the family to which he belonged, and Saint Cosmo is specially depicted turning round fully to gaze upon the cross, and on to the congregation of Dominican saints at its feet.

All around are faces, the prophets above bearing scrolls, and below seventeen of the most illustrious members of the Dominican Order, some of them contemporaries of the artist.

The group is most dexterous, and the faces in this wonderful picture are painted with great feeling and skill. Each is well representative of the saint whom it is intended to depict, while in some of the faces below the picture, which are, it is quite clear, actual portraits, the delineation of character is remarkable and the modelling executed with the greatest genius.

* * *

The Transfiguration, by Fra AngelicoOf the frescoes which adorn the cells we have selected the one representing the Transfiguration for our illustration.

It is a very famous one, and the magnificent proportions and stately dignity of the transfigured Christ are most impressive. The three apostles below are overwhelmed with surprise and awe, and would shield from them that wonderful and startling effulgence of light. They are hardly able to realize the majesty of the occasion when they see their much loved Leader wrapped in celestial luminance, and the way in which the artist has depicted their bewilderment is remarkable. The Christ, a noble impressive figure stands in glorious position against an oval of burning white light, and stretches out His hands to bless the world. Half hidden in the mist on either side are to be seen Moses and Elias, and below them, as spectators of the scene, the Madonna and Saint Dominic, who, either himself or by one of his friars, is introduced on every occasion as a spectator of the scene that the artist has painted.

All the faces in this fresco are of great beauty and full of expression, and the whole picture is so simple and so imposing in its perfection as to form one of the very greatest of that unrivalled series.

* * *

The First Eucharist, by Fra AngelicoIn the fresco of the First Eucharist the scene is set in one of the white walled rooms of the convent itself in which are the same windows as are still in the cells. From them can be seen in the picture the red roof of the opposite cloister and its wall and windows, as can still be seen from the actual window of the cell which contains this fresco. We have here a striking example of that desire to utilize the scenes around him and to paint the buildings exactly as he saw them, which is one of the characteristics of the artist, a characteristic which some of the earlier writers refused to allow that he even possessed.

The arrangement of the picture is mainly the traditional one, but the friar has introduced one happy innovation, in making four of the apostles leave their seats and kneel humbly on the floor waiting for the coming of the Master. The Madonna is also to be seen kneeling at the other end of the table.

Eight of the apostles are seated at the table, and Christ is in the act of communicating Saint John the Divine.

The imagery of the well, seen through the arch to the right is very interesting, and beyond can be seen the garden, full of flowers, which always appealed so strongly to this happy, nature-loving artist.

There is no special symbol introduced into this work to mark Judas, and in fact Fra Angelico dealt very lightly with symbol, hardly using even the commonest symbols at all.

The fittings of the room are of the plainest and simplest kind, and the manner of administering the Eucharist with wafers and chalice and paten is that which would be most familiar to the artist from the procedure in the church. There is an impressive solemnity and silence about the whole scene which at once strikes the observer. A wonderful calm pervades the picture, and every figure in it is reverent and awe-struck by the solemnity of the farewell service of the Saviour, and the inauguration of the Sacrament of the Altar.

* * *

San Lorenzo Distributing Alms, by Fra AngelicoFinally, we come to the frescoes in Rome, from which series that has been selected which represents San Lorenzo distributing Alms, one of the greatest works ever executed by Fra Angelico.

The saint is standing at the door of the Basilica, giving the treasures of the church to the poor. Behind him stretches out into the far distance a long vista of columns – closed by the apse of a church. The rich apparel of the saint, who is clothed in a superb dalmatic, is painted with the loving detail that Fra Angelico gave to such work in his earlier days, and glows with brilliant colour. The eye does not, however, dwell long upon it, as the grand quiet figure of the saint, framed in, as it is, by the architectural background, is less important as a work of art than are the figures that stand around on which the artist has lavished all his latest skill. The blind, the halt and the lame; the poor mother with her baby; the eager, hungry child, with so pathetic a look of entreaty, and the two happier children behind who are engaged in a playful warfare about the piece of money that one of them has received, are all painted with consummate ability. They stand out clear and solid, their countenances are full of expression, and their attitudes all speak of their distress, poverty, and desire for help, and yet there is nothing painful in the scene, and it is lit up by the serenity and joy which pervade all the works of this artist.

The devotion of the saint to what he considered to be the distinct teaching of God without consideration of its consequences to himself, the succour that was so much needed, the contrast between hoarded treasures and gifts given to God’s poor, and the love instinct that was the basis of the whole story are depicted in a striking and unmistakable manner. The teaching of the picture is so clear that every observer must learn the lesson that the artist desired to convey, and the painter of the love of God to man, and the corresponding necessity for love from man to his neighbour, found in this picture one of the fittest of his illustrations.

Suggestions as to the Chronology of the Artists Works

First period, up to 1433

  • Cortona “Annunciation,” about 1424.
  • Madonna at Parma and “Coronation” in the Louvre, about 1425.
  • “Coronation “at the Uffizi, about 1425 or 1426.
  • Three panel pictures at San Marco, and one lately in the possession of Lord Methuen; from 1425 to 1430.
  • “Last Judgment,” Accademia, Florence.
  • “Annunciation,” Madrid, 1430 to 1433.

Second period, 1433 to 1436

  • Madonna dei Linajuoli, in the Uffizi.
  • Madonna of Cortona, at Cortona.
  • Madonna d’Annalena, Accademia, Florence.
  • Madonna of Perugia, at Perugia.
  • Madonna of Fiesole, at Fiesole,and in National Gallery.
  • The Madonna, at Saint Petersburg.
  • The Crucifixion, at the Louvre.
  • The Crucifixion at Fiesole.

Third period, 1436 to 1447

  • The two “Depositions,” in the Accademia.
  • The Madonna of San Marco, in the Accademia, and at Paris, Munich, and Dublin, etc.
  • The Decoration of the Convent of San Marco.

Fourth period, 1447 to death

  • 1447. Decoration of the Chapel of Nicholas V, and also after he returned from Orvieto.
  • 1447. The Decoration in the Cathedral of Orvieto.
  • 1448 and onwards. The Decoration of the Chapel of Nicholas V, already named.

About This EBook

The text of this ebook is taken from the book Fra Angelico, by George Charles Williamson, Litt.D. The edition used was published by George Bell and Sons in London, England in 1901.

The print edition included a chapter on the locations of the chief works of Fra Angelico, but while this was presumably accurate in 1901, more than a century of turbulent European history has passed since then, and the chapter was omitted. It also included a chapter on the best references about Fra Angelico, but more have been published since then, and many of the references are out of print or in periodicals that are no longer published, and that chapter was omitted, as well. The black and white illustrations in the original have been replaced by color images of the same artwork.