Fra Angelico, by I B Supino

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 CommonsTradition shows us Fra Angelico absorbed in his work, and either caressing with his brush one of those graceful angelic figures which have made him immortal, or reverently outlining the sweet image of the Virgin before which he himself would kneel in adoration. Legend pictures him devoutly prostrate in prayer before beginning work, that his soul might be purified, and fitted to understand and render the divine subject. But has tradition any foundation in fact? Why not? Through his numberless works we may easily divine the soul of the artist, and can well understand how the calm and serene atmosphere of the monastic cell, the church perfumed with incense, the cloister vibrating with psalms, would develop the mystic sentiment in such a mind.

Among all the masters who have attempted to imbue the human form with the divine spirit, Fra Angelico is perhaps the only one who succeeded in producing purely celestial figures, and this with such marvelous simplicity of line that they have become the glory of his art. He put into his work the flame of an overpowering passion; under his touch features were beautified and figures animated with a new mystic grace. His forms are often, it is true, conventional, and there is a certain sameness in his heads, with their large oval countenances; his small eyes, outlined around the upper arch of the eyebrow, with black spots for pupils, sometimes lack expression; his mouths are always drawn small, with a thickening of the lips in the center, and the corners strongly accentuated; the color of his faces is either too pink or too yellow; the folds of his robes (often independent of the figure, especially in the lower part) fall straight, and, in the representations of the seated Virgin, expand on the ground as if to form the foot of a chalice. But in his frescos these faults of conventional manner almost entirely disappear, giving place to freer drawing, more lifelike expression, and a character of greater power.

There is no doubt that Fra Angelico felt the beneficent influx of the new style, of which Masaccio was the greatest champion, and that he followed it, abandoning, up to a certain point, the primitive Giottesque forms. There is in his art the great medieval ideal, rejuvenated and reinvigorated by the spirit of newer times. Being in the beginning of his career, as is generally believed, only an illuminator, he continued, with subtle delicacy, and accurate, almost timid design, to illuminate in larger proportions on his panels. But in his later works, while still preserving the simplicity of handling and the innate character of his style, he displays a new tendency, and learns to give life to his figures, not only by the expression of purity and sweet ecstasy, but in finer particularization of form and action.

His clear diaphanous transparency of coloring is not used from lack of technical ability, but to approach more nearly to his ideal of celestial visions – a species of pictorial religious symbolism. In the midst of his calm and serene compositions Fra Angelico gives us figures in which a healthy realism is strongly accentuated; figures drawn with decision, strong chiaroscuro, and robust coloring, which show that he did not deliberately disdain the progress made in art by his contemporaries. Indeed we should err in believing that he was unwilling to recognize the artistic developments going on around him; but he profited by the movement only as far as he deemed possible without losing his own sentiment and character. Perhaps he divined that if he had followed the new current too closely it would have carried him farther than he wished to go; that the new manner would have removed him forever from his ideal – in a word, that too intense study of the real would have diminished or entirely impeded fantasy and feeling, and therefore kept himself constant to his old style, and while perfecting himself in it, still remained what he always had been, and what he felt he should be.