Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, Painter of the Order of Preaching Friars

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 da Fiesole, who was known in the world as Guido, was no less excellent as painter and illuminator than he was upright as churchman, and for both one and the other of these reasons he deserves that most honourable record should be made of him. This man, although he could have lived in the world with the greatest comfort, and could have gained whatever he wished, besides what he possessed, by means of those arts, of which he had a very good knowledge even in his youth, yet resolved, for his own peace and satisfaction, being by nature serious and upright, and above all in order to save his soul, to take the vows of the Order of Preaching Friars; for the reason that, although it is possible to serve God in all walks of life, nevertheless it appears to some men that they can gain salvation in monasteries better than in the world. Now in proportion as this plan succeeds happily for good men, so, on the contrary, it has a truly miserable and unhappy issue for a man who takes the vows with some other end in view.

There are some choral books illuminated by the hand of Fra Giovanni in his Convent of Saint Marco in Florence, so beautiful that words are not able to describe them; and similar to these are some others that he left in Saint Domenico da Fiesole, wrought with incredible diligence. It is true, indeed, that in making these he was assisted by an elder brother, who was likewise an illuminator and well practised in painting.

One of the first works in painting wrought by this good father was a panel in the Certosa of Florence, which was placed in the principal chapel (belonging to Cardinal Acciaiuoli); in which panel is a Madonna with the Child in her arms, and with certain very beautiful angels at her feet, sounding instruments and singing; at the sides are Saint Laurence, Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Zanobi, and Saint Benedict; and in the predella are little stories of these Saints, wrought in little figures with infinite diligence. In the cross of the said chapel are two other panels by the hand of the same man; one containing the Coronation of Our Lady, and the other a Madonna with two saints, wrought with most beautiful ultramarine blues. Afterwards, in the tramezzo of Saint Maria Novella, beside the door opposite to the choir, he painted in fresco Saint Dominic, Saint Catherine of Siena, and Saint Peter Martyr; and some little scenes in the Chapel of the Coronation of Our Lady in the said tramezzo. On canvas, fixed to the doors that closed the old organ, he painted an Annunciation, which is now in the convent, opposite to the door of the lower dormitory, between one cloister and the other.

This father was so greatly beloved for his merits by Cosimo de’ Medici, that, after completing the construction of the Church and Convent of Saint Marco, he caused him to paint the whole Passion of Jesus Christ on a wall in the chapter-house; and on one side all the Saints who have been heads and founders of religious bodies, mourning and weeping at the foot of the Cross, and on the other side Saint Mark the Evangelist beside the Mother of the Son of God, who has swooned at the sight of the Saviour of the world Crucified, while round her are the Maries, all grieving and supporting her, with Saint Cosimo and Saint Damiano. It is said that in the figure of Saint Cosimo Fra Giovanni portrayed from the life Nanni d’ Antonio di Banco, a sculptor and his friend. Below this work, in a frieze above the panelling, he made a tree with Saint Dominic at the foot of it, and, in certain medallions encircled by the branches, all the Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, Saints, and Masters of Theology whom his Order of Preaching Friars had produced up to that time. In this work he made many portraits from nature, being assisted by the friars, who sent for them to various places; and they were the following: Saint Dominic in the middle, grasping the branches of the tree; Pope Innocent V, a Frenchman; the Blessed Ugone, first Cardinal of that Order; the Blessed Paolo, Florentine and Patriarch; Saint Antonino, Archbishop of Florence; the Blessed Giordano, a German, and the second General of that Order; the Blessed Niccolò; the Blessed Remigio, a Florentine; and the martyr Boninsegno, a Florentine; all these are on the right hand. On the left are Benedict II of Treviso; Giandomenico, a Florentine Cardinal; Pietro da Palude, Patriarch of Jerusalem; Alberto Magno, a German; the Blessed Raimondo di Catalonia, third General of the Order; the Blessed Chiaro, a Florentine, and Provincial of Rome; Saint Vincenzio di Valenza; and the Blessed Bernardo, a Florentine. All these heads are truly gracious and very beautiful. Then, over certain lunettes in the first cloister, he made many very beautiful figures in fresco, and a Crucifix with Saint Dominic at the foot, which is much extolled; and in the dormitory, besides many other things throughout the cells and on the surface of the walls, he painted a story from the New Testament, of a beauty beyond the power of words to describe. Particularly beautiful and marvellous is the panel of the high-altar of that church; for, besides the fact that the Madonna rouses all who see her to devotion by her simplicity, and that the Saints that surround her are like her in this, the predella, in which there are stories of the martyrdom of Saint Cosimo, Saint Damiano, and others, is so well painted, that one cannot imagine it possible ever to see a work executed with greater diligence, or little figures more delicate or better conceived than these are.

In Saint Domenico da Fiesole, likewise, he painted the panel of the high-altar, which has been retouched by other masters and injured, perchance because it appeared to be spoiling. But the predella and the Ciborium of the Sacrament have remained in better preservation; and the innumerable little figures that are to be seen there, in a Celestial Glory, are so beautiful, that they appear truly to belong to Paradise, nor can any man who approaches them ever have his fill of gazing on them. In a chapel of the same church is a panel by his hand, containing the Annunciation of Our Lady by the Angel Gabriel, with features in profile, so devout, so delicate, and so well executed, that they appear truly to have been made rather in Paradise than by the hand of man; and in the landscape at the back are Adam and Eve, because of whom the Redeemer was born from the Virgin. In the predella, also, there are some very beautiful little scenes.

But superior to all the other works that Fra Giovanni made, and the one wherein he surpassed himself and gave supreme proof of his talent and of his knowledge of art, was a panel that is beside the door of the same church, on the left hand as one enters, wherein Jesus Christ is crowning Our Lady in the midst of a choir of angels and among an infinite multitude of saints, both male and female, so many in number, so well wrought, and with such variety in the attitudes and in the expressions of the heads, that incredible pleasure and sweetness are felt in gazing at them; nay, one is persuaded that those blessed spirits cannot look otherwise in Heaven, or, to speak more exactly, could not if they had bodies; for not only are all these saints, both male and female, full of life and sweet and delicate in expression, but the whole colouring of that work appears to be by the hand of a saint or an angel like themselves; wherefore it was with very good reason that this excellent monk was ever called Fra Giovanni Angelico. Moreover, the stories of the Madonna and of Saint Dominic in the predella are divine in their own kind; and I, for one, can declare with truth that I never see this work without thinking it something new, and that I never leave it sated.

In the Chapel of the Nunziata in Florence which Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici caused to be built, he painted the doors of the press (in which the silver is kept) with little figures executed with much diligence. This father painted so many pictures, now to be found in the houses of Florentine citizens, “that I sometimes stand marvelling how one single man could execute so much work to such perfection, even in the space of many years. The Very Reverend Don Vincenzio Borghini, Director of the Hospital of the Innocenti, has a very beautiful little Madonna by the hand of this father; and Bartolommeo Gondi, as devoted a lover of these arts as any gentleman that one could think of, has a large picture, a small one, and a Crucifix, all by the same hand. The pictures that are in the arch over the door of Saint Domenico are also by the same man; and in the Sacristy of Saint Trinita there is a panel containing a Deposition from the Cross, into which he put so great diligence, that it can be numbered among the best works that he ever made. In Saint Francesco, without the Porta a Saint Miniato, there is an Annunciation; and in Saint Maria Novella, besides the works already named, he painted with little scenes the Paschal candle and some Reliquaries which are placed on the altar in the most solemn ceremonies.

Over a door of the cloister of the Badia in the same city he painted a Saint Benedict, who is making a sign enjoining silence. For the Linen-manufacturers he painted a panel that is in the Office of their Guild; and in Cortona he painted a little arch over the door of the church of his Order, and likewise the panel of the high-altar. At Orvieto, on a part of the vaulting of the Chapel of the Madonna in the Duomo, he began certain prophets, which were finished afterwards by Luca da Cortona. For the Company of the Temple in Florence he painted a Dead Christ on a panel; and in the Church of the Monks of the Angeli he made a Paradise and a Hell with little figures, wherein he showed fine judgment by making the blessed very beautiful and full of jubilation and celestial gladness, and the damned all ready for the pains of Hell, in various most woeful attitudes, and bearing the stamp of their sins and unworthiness on their faces. The blessed are seen entering the gate of Paradise in celestial dance, and the damned are being dragged by demons to the eternal pains of Hell. This work is in the aforesaid church, on the right hand as one goes towards the high-altar, where the priest sits when Mass is sung. For the Nuns of Saint Piero Martire—who now live in the Monastery of Saint Felice in Piazza, which used to belong to the Order of Camaldoli—he painted a panel with Our Lady, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Dominic, Saint Thomas, and Saint Peter Martyr, and a number of little figures. And in the tramezzo of Saint Maria Nuova there may also be seen a panel by his hand.

These many labours having made the name of Fra Giovanni illustrious throughout all Italy, Pope Nicholas V sent for him and caused him to adorn that chapel of his Palace in Rome wherein the Pope hears Mass with a Deposition from the Cross and some very beautiful stories of Saint Laurence, and also to illuminate some books, which are most beautiful. In the Minerva he painted the panel of the high-altar, and an Annunciation that is now set up against a wall beside the principal chapel. He also painted for the said Pope in the Palace the Chapel of the Sacrament, which was afterwards destroyed by Paul III in the making of a staircase through it. In that work, which was an excellent example of his manner, he had wrought in fresco some scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, and he had made therein many portraits from life of distinguished persons of those times, which would probably now be lost if Giovio had not caused the following among them to be preserved for his museum—namely, Pope Nicholas V; the Emperor Frederick, who came to Italy at that time; Frate Antonino, who was afterwards Archbishop of Florence; Biondo da Forlì; and Ferrante of Arragon. Now Fra Giovanni appeared to the Pope to be, as indeed he was, a person of most holy life, peaceful and modest; and, since the Archbishopric of Florence was at that time vacant, the Pope had judged him worthy of that rank; but the said friar, hearing this, implored His Holiness to find another man, for the reason that he did not feel himself fitted for ruling others, whereas his Order contained a brother most learned and well able to govern, a Godfearing man and a friend of the poor, on whom that dignity would be conferred much more fittingly than on himself. The Pope, hearing this and remembering that what he said was true, granted him the favour willingly; and thus the Archbishopric of Florence was given to Frate Antonino of the Order of Preaching Friars, a man truly very famous both for sanctity and for learning, and of such a character, in short, that he was deservedly canonized in our own day by Adrian VI.

Great excellence was that of Fra Giovanni, and a thing truly very rare, to resign a dignity and honour and charge so important, offered to himself by a Supreme Pontiff, in favour of the man whom he, with his singleness of eye and sincerity of heart, judged to be much more worthy of it than himself. Let the churchmen of our own times learn from this holy man not to take upon themselves charges that they cannot worthily carry out, and to yield them to those who are most worthy of them. Would to God, to return to Fra Giovanni (and may this be said without offence to the upright among them), that all churchmen would spend their time as did this truly angelic father, seeing that he spent every minute of his life in the service of God and in benefiting both the world and his neighbour. And what can or ought to be desired more than to gain the kingdom of Heaven by living a life of holiness, and to win eternal fame in the world by labouring virtuously? And in truth a talent so extraordinary and so supreme as that of Fra Giovanni could not and should not descend on any save a man of most holy life, for the reason that those who work at religious and holy subjects should be religious and holy men; for it is seen, when such works are executed by persons of little faith who have little esteem for religion, that they often arouse in men’s minds evil appetites and licentious desires; whence there comes blame for the evil in their works, with praise for the art and ability that they show. Now I would not have any man deceive himself by considering the rude and inept as holy, and the beautiful and excellent as licentious; as some do, who, seeing figures of women or of youths adorned with loveliness and beauty beyond the ordinary, straightway censure them and judge them licentious, not perceiving that they are very wrong to condemn the good judgment of the painter, who holds the Saints, both male and female, who are celestial, to be as much more beautiful than mortal man as Heaven is superior to earthly beauty and to the works of human hands; and, what is worse, they reveal the unsoundness and corruption of their own minds by drawing evil and impure desires out of works from which, if they were lovers of purity, as they seek by their misguided zeal to prove themselves to be, they would gain a desire to attain to Heaven and to make themselves acceptable to the Creator of all things, in whom, as most perfect and most beautiful, all perfection and beauty have their source. What would such men do if they found themselves, or rather, what are we to believe that they do when they actually find themselves, in places containing living beauty, accompanied by licentious ways, honey-sweet words, movements full of grace, and eyes that ravish all but the stoutest of hearts, if the very image of beauty, nay, its mere shadow, moves them so profoundly? However, I would not have any believe that I approve of those figures that are painted in churches in a state of almost complete nudity, for in these cases it is seen that the painter has not shown the consideration that was due to the place; because, even although a man has to show how much he knows, he should proceed with due regard for circumstances and pay respect to persons, times, and places.

Fra Giovanni was a man of great simplicity, and most holy in his ways; and his goodness may be perceived from this, that, Pope Nicholas V wishing one morning to entertain him at table, he had scruples of conscience about eating meat without leave from his Prior, forgetting about the authority of the Pontiff. He shunned the affairs of the world; and, living a pure and holy life, he was as much the friend of the poor as I believe his soul to be now the friend of Heaven. He was continually labouring at his painting, and he would never paint anything save Saints. He might have been rich, but to this he gave no thought; nay, he used to say that true riches consist only in being content with little. He might have ruled many, but he would not, saying that it was less fatiguing and less misleading to obey others. He had the option of obtaining dignities both among the friars and in the world, but he despised them, declaring that he sought no other dignity save that of seeking to avoid Hell and draw near to Paradise. And what dignity, in truth, can be compared to that which all churchmen, nay, all men, should seek, and which is to be found only in God and in a life of virtue? He was most kindly and temperate; and he lived chastely and withdrew himself from the snares of the world, being wont very often to say that he who pursued such an art had need of quiet and of a life free from cares, and that he whose work is connected with Christ must ever live with Christ. He was never seen in anger among his fellow-friars, which is a very notable thing, and almost impossible, it seems to me, to believe; and it was his custom to admonish his friends with a simple smile. With incredible sweetness, if any sought for works from him, he would say that they had only to gain the consent of the Prior, and that then he would not fail them. In short, this never to be sufficiently extolled father was most humble and modest in all his works and his discourse, and facile and devout in his pictures; and the Saints that he painted have more the air and likeness of Saints than those of any other man. It was his custom never to retouch or improve any of his pictures, but to leave them ever in the state to which he had first brought them; believing, so he used to say, that this was the will of God. Some say that Fra Giovanni would never have taken his brushes in his hand without first offering a prayer. He never painted a Crucifix without the tears streaming down his cheeks; wherefore in the countenances and attitudes of his figures one can recognize the goodness, nobility, and sincerity of his mind towards the Christian religion.

He died in 1455 at the age of sixty-eight, and left disciples in Benozzo, a Florentine, who ever imitated his manner, and Zanobi Strozzi, who painted pictures and panels throughout all Florence for the houses of citizens, and particularly a panel that is now in the tramezzo of Saint Maria Novella, beside that by Fra Giovanni, and one in Saint Benedetto, a monastery of the Monks of Camaldoli without the Porta a Pinti, now in ruins. The latter panel is at present in the little Church of Saint Michele in the Monastery of the Angeli, before one enters the principal church, set up against the wall on the right as one approaches the altar. There is also a panel in the Chapel of the Nasi in Saint Lucia, and another in Saint Romeo; and in the guardaroba of the Duke there is the portrait of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, with that of Bartolommeo Valori, in one and the same picture by the hand of the same man. Another disciple of Fra Giovanni was Gentile da Fabriano, as was also Domenico di Michelino, who painted the panel for the altar of Saint Zanobi in Saint Apollinare at Florence, and many other pictures.

Fra Giovanni was buried by his fellow-friars in the Minerva in Rome, near the lateral door beside the sacristy, in a round tomb of marble, with himself, portrayed from nature, lying thereon. The following epitaph may be read, carved in the marble:


In Saint Maria del Fiore are two very large books illuminated divinely well by the hand of Fra Giovanni, which are held in great veneration and richly adorned, nor are they ever seen save on days of the highest solemnity.

A celebrated and famous illuminator at the same time as Fra Giovanni was one Attavante, a Florentine, of whom I know no other name. This man, among many other works, illuminated a Silius Italicus, which is now in Saint Giovanni e Polo in Venice; of which work I will not withhold certain particulars, both because they are worthy of the attention of craftsmen, and because, to my knowledge, no other work by this master is to be found; nor should I know even of this one, had it not been for the affection borne to these noble arts by the Very Reverend Maestro Cosimo Bartoli, a gentleman of Florence, who gave me information about it, to the end that the talent of Attavante might not remain, as it were, buried out of sight.

In the said book, then, the figure of Silius has on the head a helmet with a crest of gold and a chaplet of laurel; he is wearing a blue cuirass picked out with gold in the ancient manner, while he is holding a book in his right hand, and the left he has on a short sword. Over the cuirass he has a red chlamys, fastened in front with a knot, and fringed with gold, which hangs down from his shoulders. The inside of this chlamys is seen to be of changing colours and embroidered with gold. His buskins are yellow, and he is standing on his right foot in a niche. The next figure in this work represents Scipio Africanus. He is wearing a yellow cuirass, and his sword-belt and sleeves, which are blue in colour, are all embroidered with gold. On his head he has a helmet with two little wings and a fish by way of crest. The young man’s countenance is fair and very beautiful; and he is raising his right arm proudly, holding in that hand a naked sword, while in the left hand he has the scabbard, which is red and embroidered with gold. The hose are green in colour and plain; and the chlamys, which is blue, has a red lining with a fringe of gold all round, and it is fastened at the throat, leaving the front quite open, and falling behind with beautiful grace. This young man, who stands in a niche of mixed green and grey marble, with blue buskins embroidered with gold, is looking with indescribable fierceness at Hannibal, who faces him on the opposite page of the book. This figure of Hannibal is that of a man about thirty-six years of age; he is frowning, with two furrows in his brow expressive of impatience and anger, and he, too, is looking fixedly at Scipio. On his head he has a yellow helmet, with a green and yellow dragon for crest and a serpent for chaplet. He is standing on his left foot and raising his right arm, with which he holds the shaft of an ancient javelin, or rather, of a little partisan. His cuirass is blue, his sword-belt partly blue and partly yellow, his sleeves of changing blue and red, and his buskins yellow. His chlamys, of changing red and yellow, is fastened on the right shoulder and lined with green; and, holding his left hand on his sword, he is standing in a niche of varicoloured marbles, yellow, white, and changing. On another page is Pope Nicholas V, portrayed from the life, with a mantle of changing purple and red and all embroidered with gold. He is without a beard and in full profile, and he is looking towards the beginning of the book, which is opposite to him; and he is pointing to it with his right hand, as though in a marvel. The niche is green, white, and red. Then in the border there are certain little half-length figures in an ornament composed of ovals and circles, and other things of that kind, together with an infinite number of little birds and children, so well wrought that nothing more could be desired. Close to this, in like manner, are Hanno the Carthaginian, Hasdrubal, Laelius, Massinissa, C. Salinator, Nero, Sempronius, M. Marcellus, Q. Fabius, the other Scipio, and Vibius. At the end of the book there is seen a Mars in an antique chariot drawn by two reddish horses. On his head he has a helmet of red and gold, with two little wings; on his left arm he has an antique shield, which he holds before him, and in his right hand a naked sword. He is standing on his left foot only, holding the other in the air. He has a cuirass in the antique manner, all red and gold, as are his hose and his buskins. His chlamys is blue without, and within all green and embroidered with gold. The chariot is covered with red cloth embroidered with gold, with a border of ermine all round; and it stands in a verdant and flowery champaign country, surrounded by cliffs and rocks; while landscapes and cities are seen in the distance, with a sky of a most marvellous blue. On the opposite page is a young Neptune, whose clothing is in the shape of a long shirt, embroidered all round with the colour formed from terretta verde. The flesh-colour is very pale. In his right hand he is holding a little trident, and with his left he is raising his dress. He is standing with both feet on the chariot, which has a covering of red, embroidered with gold and fringed all round with sable. This chariot has four wheels, like that of Mars, but it is drawn by four dolphins, and accompanied by three sea-nymphs, two boys, and a great number of fishes, all wrought with a water-colour similar to the terretta, and very beautiful in expression. After these is seen Carthage in despair, in the form of a woman standing upright with dishevelled hair. Her upper garment is green, and it is open from the waist downwards, being lined with red cloth embroidered in gold; and through this opening there may be seen another garment, delicate and of changing purple and white colour. The sleeves are red and gold, with certain puffs and floating folds made by the upper garment, and she is stretching out her left hand towards Rome, who is opposite to her, as though saying, “What is thy wish? I have my answer ready;” and in her right hand she holds a naked sword, with an air of frenzy. Her buskins are blue, and she is standing on a rock in the middle of the sea, surrounded by a very beautiful sky. Rome is a maiden as beautiful as it is possible for man to imagine, with dishevelled hair and certain tresses wrought with infinite grace. Her clothing is pure red, with only an embroidered border at the foot; the lining of her robe is yellow, and the garment beneath, which is seen through the opening, is of changing purple and white. Her buskins are green; in her right hand she has a sceptre, in her left a globe; and she, too, is standing on a rock, in the midst of a sky that could not be more beautiful than it is. Now, although I have striven to the best of my power to show with what great art these figures were wrought by Attavante, let no one believe that I have said more than a very small part of what might be said about their beauty, seeing that, considering the time, there are no better examples of illumination to be seen, nor any work wrought with more invention, judgment, and design; and the colours, above all, could not be more beautiful or laid in their places more delicately, so perfect is their grace.

MLA Citation

  • Giorgio Vasari. “Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, Painter of the Order of Preaching Friars”. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, 1914. CatholicSaints.Info. 12 October 2021. Web. 19 October 2021. <>