Giovanni da Fiesole, by Langton Douglas

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 CommonsGiovanni da Fiesole
called Fra Angelico
born 1387 : died 1455
Florentine School

(This sketch of the life of Fra Angelico is based upon the recent study of his life and works by Langton Douglas.)

Fra Angelico (pronounced An jel’e ko) was born in the year 1387 at Vicchio, in the broad and fertile valley of the Mugello, Italy, not far from Florence. His father, Pietro, gave the child the name of Guido, and throughout his boyhood he was known as Guido da Vicchio from his birth-place, or Guido di Pietro, the son of Pietro. Beyond the year and place of his birth and his father’s baptismal name we know nothing with certainty of his parentage or his early life. It seems probable that his youth was passed in some artist’s studio or workshop in Florence, for Vasari tells us that while still very young he was perfectly acquainted with the practice of his art; and an earlier biographer, Antonio Billi, relates that when a boy he painted a picture on the great screen of the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence – a work that has since been destroyed. Nothing definite, however, is known concerning the young Guide’s artistic training. Baldinucci and others have affirmed that his first master was the Florentine painter Gherardo Stamina, but there is no documentary evidence to prove this or any other theory, and Vasari is silent on the subject. Impossible though it be to state who his master was, it is evident that the three great centers of artistic life in Florence in the early years of the fifteenth century all left their mark upon his work. First of these important art centers were the studios or workshops of the Giottesques, or followers of the teachings of Giotto; second, the schools of the miniaturists, of which the most prominent was that of the Camaldolese Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where Lorenzo Monaco, to whose works Fra Angelico’s early achievements bear a certain affinity, was a leading member; and last, and most important of all, the group of young sculptors and architects, Jacopo della Quercia, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Donatello, and others, who were destined to produce the most perfect works of art of that century. These were the artistic surroundings of the young Guido, these the influences under which he spent his early years. In later years he was strongly influenced by the architecture of Michelozzo, and by the paintings of Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

It is probable that Guido would have been content to follow the profession of a painter, and that alone, for the rest of his life had it not been for the teachings of the great Dominican preacher and scholar, Giovanni Dominici, who, deploring the excesses of the “humanists,” whose pursuit of classical culture was already beguiling them into a certain tendency to imitate pagan vices, determined to counteract the growing evil by establishing houses of the Dominican Order of monks which should be conducted under more rigid rules than had hitherto prevailed. With this object in view Dominici traveled from one end of Italy to the other, preaching in all the principal towns, and exhorting the people to a more holy life. His eloquence induced many young men to follow in his footsteps; and among those who sought admission to the reformed order were Guido and his brother Benedetto, who, in the year 1407, when Guido had reached the age of twenty, presented themselves as candidates for members.hip at the convent founded by Dominici on the lower slopes of the hill of Fiesole, just outside of Florence.

The two young men were warmly welcomed by the brethren, and at once sent to Cortona, where the novitiate of the order was established. At the end of a year Guido took the irrevocable vows, assumed the black and white habit of the Dominicans, changed the name of Guido for that of Giovanni, and was henceforth known as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (pronounced Fee a’ so ly). It was not until after his death and beatification that he was called “II Beato,” the Blessed, or, still more generally, “Angelico,” the Angelic.

In the year 1409 the monks, forced to leave Fiesole because of their fidelity to Pope Gregory XII, and their refusal to acknowledge Alexander V, who had been irregularly elected pope at the council of Pisa, and whose cause was espoused by the Florentine government, took refuge at Foligno, leaving some of the younger members of the community at Cortona to follow them later to their new home. After spending several years at Foligno, the whole brotherhood, driven from there by a pestilence, settled for a time at Cortona; and when the schism in the Church had been healed, and the attitude of the Florentine government had become more friendly toward them, they returned to their former residence at Fiesole. In all probability Fra Angelico followed the fortunes of the other younger members of the community, and in that case seven or eight years of his early manhood were spent in the hill-set town of Cortona. One of his earliest known works, an ‘Annunciation,’ was painted during this time, and is still to be seen in the Oratorio del Gesu in that city.

From 1418 to 1435 Fra Angelico lived in the convent of his order at Fiesole. The Dominican Order fostered the exercise of both architecture and painting; and while in this peaceful retreat the young monk worked with untiring industry at his art, painting many pictures not only for his own convent, but, with his prior’s consent, for other religious houses and for churches, gilds, and private individuals. Among the most important of his achievements at this time are the great ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ in the Louvre, a picture of the same subject in the Uffizi, the ‘Last Judgment’ in the Florentine Academy, and four great Madonna pictures, of which the ‘Madonna dei Linajuoli,’ with its framing border of angels, is the best known.

In the summer of 1435 the brothers of San Domenico left Fiesole and moved nearer Florence. Early in the following year they made a solemn entrance into that city, and with elaborate ceremonial took up their residence at the Convent of San Marco, which, through the intercession of Cosimo de’ Medici, had been placed at their disposal. Owing to the dilapidated condition of the building, however, their new home was far from comfortable; many fell sick, and some of the brethren died in consequence of the severity of the weather and the lack of proper accommodations. Finally, in response to an appeal from the pope on their behalf, Cosimo de’ Medici came to their assistance, and, having sent for his favorite architect, Michelozzo, caused new and commodious buildings to be erected.

Amidst all the bustle of the busy monks settling themselves in their new home, and before the buildings were fairly completed, Fra Angelico began to decorate the interior walls of the convent, which in time became a perfect treasure-house of his works. Convent life was no idle existence. Each brother was allotted his special task. Apart from the regular business of the community, many, skilled in the art of illuminating choir-books and missals, devoted their lives to this important branch of monkish industry; others again were sent out into the world “to edify the holy and convince the sinner” by argument and exhortation. Not by the power of words, however, but by setting before his brethren scenes from the gospel story did Fra Angelico do his part toward fixing their thoughts upon things heavenly. The great ‘Crucifixion’ which he painted in the chapter-house is the largest and one of the most important of his achievements. He painted smaller frescos of the chief Dominican saints in the cloisters, and decorated the walls of the cells with sacred subjects, principally scenes from the life of Christ, intended to assist the devout meditations of the monks.

Thus occupied, Fra Angelico had spent ten years or more at San Marco when he was summoned to Rome by Pope Eugenius IV to decorate the walls of a chapel adjoining Saint Peter’s. Eugenius had passed many years in Florence, and had shown a special interest in the brothers of San Marco, one of whom, the saintly Antoninus, he had appointed to the archbishopric of that city, and it is probable that the works of their distinguished painter Fra Angehco had attracted his notice.

We first hear of the artist at work in Rome in 1447. Pope Eugenius had died a few weeks before, and Nicholas V had succeeded to the papal chair. Desirous of carrying out his predecessor’s plans, the new pontiff persuaded Fra Angelico to proceed with the work; and at the end of a few months, with the assistance of his pupil Benozzo Gozzoli and four other painters, the friar had completed in fresco the decorations of the chapel, which was destroyed less than a century later to make room for the great staircase of the Vatican Palace.

Soon after his arrival in Rome, Fra Angelico, wishing to escape from the city during the heat of summer, arranged with the directors of the cathedral works at Orvieto to spend the warm months there painting the recently erected Chapel of San Brizio in the cathedral of that town. On the fifteenth of June the friar began his task in Orvieto, and, with the help of Benozzo Gozzoli, painted a portion of a ‘Last Judgment’ upon the ceiling of the chapel. For some unknown reason this great work was left unfinished. Fifty years later it was Completed by Luca Signorelli.

Soon after his return to Rome in the following September, Fra Angelico, now sixty years of age, entered upon what may be regarded as the crowning achievement of his life – the decoration of the little Chapel of Nicholas V in the Vatican, on the walls of which he painted his famous frescos representing scenes from the lives of Saint Laurence and Saint Stephen.

Records show that toward the close of the year 1449 Fra Angelico was again at Fiesole, having been elected prior of the Monastery of San Domenico, and that three years after this he declined an invitation from the authorities of Prato to paint the choir-chapel of their cathedral. It is not known just when he returned to Rome; but in 1455, when he was sixty-eight years old, he died in that city, in the great convent of his order, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, and was buried near the high altar in the convent church.

At the command of Pope Nicholas v. his effigy in marble was carved upon his tomb. Under the figure the following epitaph in Latin, composed, it is said, by the pope himself, records the virtues of the holy monk: