Fra Angelico, by James White

stained glass window of Fra Angelico, Saint Dominic's Church, London, England, artist unknown; swiped with permission from the photostream of Father Lawrence Lew, OPArticle

Fra Giovanni Angelico of the order of Friars Preachers, of Fiesole, is renowned as much for his excellence as a painter as for his high character as a friar. Indeed, it is through the manifestation of his artistic life that his virtue was revealed. However he ranked in heaven, amongst those who understand the art of painting he is looked upon as one of the noblest and sweetest artists ever to be inspired by God. For that reason the true and simple record of his life and creation has been seriously distorted by writers, carried away by the romance of his pictures, who have imagined experiences and interpretations which can never be verified. Less than a hundred years after his death, the historian Vasari wrote about him only in general terms indicating that the man was the artist and that his life was happily and fruitfully occupied in making works to glorify God. Who could hope to better the following description by Vasari?

“Fra Giovanni was a simple and most holy man in his habits, and it is a sign of his goodness that one morning, when Pope Nicholas V wished him to dine with him, he excused himself from eating flesh without the permission of his prior, not thinking of the papal authority. He avoided all worldly intrigues, living in purity and holiness, and was as benign to the poor as I believe Heaven must be to him now. He was always busy with his paintings, but would never do any but holy subjects. He might have become rich, but cared nothing about it, for he used to say that true riches consist in being contented with little. He might have ruled many but would not, saying that there was less trouble and error in obeying others. He could have obtained high rank in his Order and in the world, but he did not esteem it, saying that he wished for no other dignity than to escape hell and win Paradise. In truth, not only the religious, but all men ought to seek that dignity, which is only to be found in good and virtuous living. He was most gentle and temperate, living chastely, removed from the cares of the world. He would often say that whoever practiced art needed a quiet life and freedom from care, and that he who occupies himself with the things of Christ ought always to be with Christ. He was never seen in anger among the Friars, which seems to be an extraordinary thing and almost impossible to believe; his habit was to smile and reprove his friends. To those who wished works of him he would gently say that they must first obtain the consent of the prior, and after that he would not fail. I cannot bestow too much praise on this Holy Father, who was so humble and modest in all his conversation and works, so facile and devout in his painting, the saints by his hand being more like those blessed beings than those of any other. He never retouched or repaired any of his pictures, always leaving them in the condition in which they were first seen, believing, so he said, that this was the will of God. Some say that Fra Giovanni never took his brush without first making a prayer. He never made a Crucifix when the tears did not course down his cheeks, while the goodness of his sincere and great soul in religion may be seen in the faces and attitudes of his figures.”

He was born in the valley of Mugello near Vechio in 1387. His real name was Guido or Guidolino. Van Marle says that it was quite likely that he and his brother Benedetto, a miniature painter, heard the sermons of Fra Giovanni Dominici, the founder of the Dominican monastery at Fiesole, already an old man whom Saint Catherine of Siena visited in his dreams and who preached against the new spirit of humanism, inciting his audiences to a mysticism of quite a medieval character. It is not very surprising then that Fra Angelico and his brother entered the monastery of Fiesole in the year 1407. Owning to the conflict between rival claimants to the papacy and later to an outbreak of plague, the young monks and the community spent the next eleven years in, alternatively, Foligno and Cortona, and it is not until 1418 that they finally returned to the monastery at Fiesole. Whatever Fra Angelico lost in the way of stability by these flights he must have gained in experience and contact with the work of artists in the these districts and his first dated work, the Linauoli Altarpiece (1433), shows him to have been so mature that his holy spirit was clearly communicated in this painting.

In 1436 San Marco was obtained for the Dominicans by Cosimo de Medicit from Pope Eugenius. The reconstruction of this Florentine convent was immediately begun and was placed in the hands of Michelozzo Michelozzi. Fra Angelico had by now reached such a point of eminence as an artist that he was given complete charge of the interior decoration. According to Muratoff his principal work consisted of studying the scheme of composition, of giving fundamental ideas and superintending the execution of the work. At the same time he had to attend to the scaffolding; the preparation of the mural surface, the quality of the paints and other materials, and perhaps also the bookkeeping and cashier duties. Nevertheless in seven years it was finished. Some seventy compositions had been carried out, each one a visual sermon filled with incident. No decorative scheme had been followed but the monastic nature of the cells and larger rooms had dictated to the artist subject which recalled the monks to their vows but which nevertheless provided them with colour and ornament in the jeweled nature of the designs and the necessarily bright range of tones called for by the tempera medium.

In 1445 he was summoned to Rome by the Pope for whom he carried out a number of works. He stayed there until 1447 when he travelled to Orvieto where he rested and commenced an altarpiece which was completed by Bennozo Gozzoli. In 1449 he was recalled to Florence as prior, largely, it has been suggested, because this was the only way in which the Dominican friars could secure him from the patronage of the Holy Father. However, at the end of this three years ministry he was once more sought by the Pope and returned to Rome to complete his cycle of pictures. He died there in 1455. These facts set out practically all that is known of Fra Angelico the man. But from his pictures his character and nature can be gleaned as freshly as if he were still laboring with love on the embellishment of San Marco; na├»ve and simple in his inability to handle or describe the reality of life convincingly; profoundly moving in the depiction of holiness and beauty and exciting in his modernism – ready to adopt the most recent theories and inventions; one of the first artists of his time to introduce the nude figure and to paint landscape which was taken from the countryside in which he lived.

When he came to Fiesole at the age of 20, Fra Angelico had already been trained. According to the record of his entry, “he excelled as a painter and adorned many panels and walls before taking the habit of a cleric.” Before he commenced the interior of San Marco, he must have reached a very advanced stage of development because he was then surrounded with many assistants and pupils. Yet, little knowledge of his original master can be elicited even by the most scientific of historians. These have been variously stated to have been Gherardo Starnina, Lorenzo Monaco, and Spinello, but none can afford to overlook the importance of the influence of the great sculptors, Donatello, Ghiberti, and Luca della Robbia, each of whom was closely associated with Michellozi, the architect of San Marco. The soft and rounded figures of Fra Angelicoc’s compositions suggest not so much anatomically-realized bodies as the bronze bas-relief of Ghiberti’s door or of the flowing planes of Donatello. Reflect also the correspondence of feeling between the gentle Madonnas of Luca della Robbias’ enameled terra-cottas in gleaming blue and white which this sculptor first invented in the year 1443 and the lovely Coronations in the Uffizi, the Louvre and in San Marco. The calm medieval monasticism of these static figures can then be seen to be a blend of the inherited Byzantine spirit and the visual equivalent of Fra Angelico’s contemplation of Heaven. He was able to call the romanticism of his age to this assistance and to introduce gestures of movement and conflict into his subjects as can be seen in our National Gallery version of “The Martydom of Saints Cosmas and Damian,” but he was always separated from the greatest of his contemporaries by his own spirituality. It was his total immersion in love, his inability to conceive the material man on the sensual plane, which gives his works an idyllic sweetness that takes them a little out of the tradition and makes them the epitome of innocence and, let us admit it, utterly desirable.

Truly to grasp the significance of Fra Angelico one must carefully compare him with one whom Bernard Berenson calls the greatest painter since Giotto. Massacio completed his work in the Brancacci Chapel in 1427. He seized on all the remarkable aspects of Giotto’s art and pushed forward the science of painting in the 28 years which was all that was given to him of life. He created a sense of space in which his figures could live and appear to breathe and he made these figures so big and heavy, with yet a brooding and profound dignity, that the citizens of Florence were said to gasp with amazement when first they saw his Crucifixion one the walls of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria Novella. The reality which Massacio painted was that of one of Brunellechi’s new churches containing a figure of Christ which confounded the viewer into mistaking the representation for the very Flesh itself. Fra Angelico had nothing of this quality, neither the overwhelming force of the figures nor the convincing appearance of interior space. Indeed, it is doubtful if the holy friar would have wished to deceive any one’s eye or to make them imagine even for one moment that they were seeing anything other than an idealized conception of the reward of virtue. He was not able even to suggest the horror of hell, although he frequently applied himself to the task. Like that other painter of love and tenderness in Sienna, Simone Martini, he was imbued with a power to make images of God’s saints that man might be moved, by very desire for beauty, into loving God, since beauty is merely a synonym for God.

Those contemplatives, those mystics who succeed in subjecting their bodies to their minds, in order to achieve unity of God, must come in the end almost to forget what a healthy, perfect physique feels and looks like. If, as we believe, Fra Angelico was of such an order of men, he was surely incapable of conceiving the human body in the classic or idealized physical type and of reproducing it as did Massacio and later Michaelangelo. One turns then to Fra Angelico’s art fully realizing that the perfection he achieved was in the direction of simple love and goodness. It dealt with the drama of daily life only in so far as such drama assisted him to demonstrate the New Testament. Consider ‘The Crucifixion’ from San Marco. Here the figures of Christ and the thieves are painted as symbols of the Redemption. We feel the tragedy and the suffering only in a limited way. Turn away from the top half of the picture to the group of Saints below and observe how all of them are connected by expression and direction of countenance with the grief of Our Lady. As far as they are concerned the figures above might be merely statues. Fra Angelico has placed the Crucifix high but the mourners below are, so to speak, in the world with us and we join them in grief, not at what we see above, but at our realization of what it means. Fra Angelico, the preacher, dominates Fra Angelico, the artist.

In the “Coronation of The Virgin” from San Marco, one comes into contact with the master at his greatest. In the Louvre “Coronation” he freely gives expression to a range of colours against a gold background which sets up a chord of emotion in the heart of the viewer to be likened only to the blissful relief of a child re-united with its mother after a nightmare separation. Like a tumultuous song of joy in blues and pinks and gold the range of saints wing out on either side while in the centre a comparatively young King of Heaven crowns His beloved Mother. Note particularly that while the saints are drawn in characteristic poses and shapes, this ageless and pure symbol of Womankind who is Our Lady is described as a simple geometric form practically without bodily description except for the beautifully modeled head and tender hands.

In the San Marco ‘Coronation’, however, a new and probably original shape for the crown is introduced which by its dark and pointed form becomes a symbol for the whole altarpiece of the earlier work in the Louvre. The polygonal altar has been replaced by abstract planes – clouds which separate th six saints from the objects of their adoration. The Holy Virgin is more precisely defined and this time is seated as She gracefully leans forward to receive the crown. However much one admires the complication and dexterity and brilliant colour of the first Coronation it must be seen that the simpler balance of the figures here and the mystery, tenderness and more direct expression of emotion makes this one of the supreme achievements of art. In particular, one cannot help pointing out how the consciousness of the harmony of bodily form here adds to the poetry of religious feeling which permeates the action and thought expressed in the eloquent movements of all the figures.

In the San Marco ‘Transfiguration’, the artist returns once more to his Byzantine origins and releases himself from the necessity of justifying the position of each saint in the picture. He surrounds the figure of Christ with saints in earthly astonishment and with others formally worshipping. Creating with these a spacious plan of design, he allows the superbly modeled figure of Christ to extend over the oval of light and thus to enter our consciousness, in reversal, one might say, of the plan of The Coronation. The Head and Hands of Our Saviour now take on the nature of The Flesh and the aspect is one of kindly benevolence. Here one sees the painter pay tribute to Massacio.

It has been said repeatedly that Fra Angelico was a medieval classic rather than a Renaissance classic. Surely it would have been more truly to say that the spirit of pagan classicism which grew apace with the development of humanism was so far removed from the mind and the heart of our painter that his work remained pure and unsullied by a quality which however enlivening had also the elements of death. Undoubtedly Fra Angelico was unable to consider the problem of death. He perfectly solved problems of symmetry and harmony, of form and colour. In short he was an artist dedicated to Heavenly images and he only understood sin in so far as he could convert sinners. For over 500 years all those sinners who are able to consider his pictures, have come to regard them as poems of love, and by virtue of their quality, find themselves hushed and silent, knowing they are in saintly company.

MLA Citation

  • James White. “Fra Angelico”. The Irish Rosary, July – August 1955. CatholicSaints.Info. 22 December 2020. Web. 20 January 2021. <>