Lives of the Painters – Fra Angelico, by Giorgio Vasari

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 was a man of the utmost simplicity of intention, and was most holy in every act of his life. It is related of him – and it is a good evidence of his simple earnestness of purpose – that being one morning invited to breakfast by Pope Nicholas v., he had scruples of conscience as to eating meat without the permission of his prior, not considering that the authority of the pontiff was superseding that of the prior. He disregarded all earthly advantages, and, living in pure holiness, was as much the friend of the poor in life as I believe his soul now is in heaven. He labored continually at his paintings, but would do nothing that was not connected with things holy. He might have been rich, but of riches he took no care; on the contrary, he was accustomed to say that the only true riches was contentment with little. He might have commanded many, but would not do so, declaring that there was less fatigue and less danger of error in obeying others than in commanding others. It was at his option to hold places of dignity in the brotherhood of his order, and also in the world; but he regarded them not, affirming that he sought no dignity and took no care but that of escaping hell and drawing near to Paradise.

Fra Giovanni was kindly to all, and moderate in all his habits, living temperately, and holding himself entirely apart from the snares of the world. He used frequently to say that he who practised the art of painting had need of quiet, and should live without cares or anxious thoughts; adding that he who would do the work of Christ should perpetually remain with Christ. He was never seen to display anger among the brethren of his order – a thing which appears to me most extraordinary, nay, almost incredible; if he admonished his friends, it was with gentleness and a quiet smile; and to those who sought his works he would reply, with the utmost cordiality, that they had but to obtain the assent of the prior, when he would assuredly not fail to do what they desired. In fine, this never sufficiently to be lauded father was most humble, modest, and excellent in all his words and works; in his painting he gave evidence of piety and devotion as well as of ability, and the saints that he painted have more of the air and expression of sanctity than have those of any other master.

It was the custom of Fra Giovanni to abstain from retouching or improving any painting once finished. He altered nothing, but left all as it was done the first time, believing, as he said, that such was the will of God. It is also affirmed that he would never take the pencil in hand until he had first offered a prayer. He is said never to have painted a Crucifix without tears streaming from his eyes; and in the countenances and attitudes of his figures it is easy to perceive proof of his sincerity, his goodness, and the depth of his devotion to the religion of Christ.

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When we examine the works of Fra Angelico’s first period, we see in him the pupil of the miniaturists. His color is that of the illuminator of missals and choir-books, his ‘Madonna’ of the Uffizi is an enlarged miniature, and the angels which are so greatly admired in his ‘Last Judgment’ and his ‘Paradise’ are celestial dolls, thin as paper, and stuck fast to their gold backgrounds. In this early time the painter’s skill in modeling and drawing is in the inverse ratio to the size of his canvas, another proof that he cannot forget the miniature; but it is only the limitations of his skill in drawing and modeling which require a small surface; his sentiment of composition is large and noble, and some of his panels, now in the Academy in Florence, taken from the doors of a press formerly in the Annunziata, panels which are but a foot square – see notably ‘The Flight into Egypt’ – might be enlarged to colossal size and worthily decorate a church wall. As for the sentiment of beauty, even the paper-doll angels have so much of it that Michelangelo, that lover of muscular construction and heroic nudity, said of them, “Surely the good monk visited Paradise and was allowed to choose his models there.”

In the later life of Fra Angelico we have, in his ‘Crucifixion’ in San Marco, his fresco at Orvieto, and his cycle in the Chapel of Nicholas V in the Vatican, the work of a painter who, without for a moment losing his religious conviction, without feeling his subject any less poignantly, has profited by the realistic study of his contemporaries, and who draws and models with a skill which is a whole lifetime removed from his little angelic musicians or his dancing figures in the ‘Paradise’ of the Florence Academy.

The tenderness of the Gospel, the divine yearning of the ‘Imitation of Christ,’ the naive sweetness of the ‘Fioretti’ of Saint Francis, the childlike simplicity of the ‘Golden Legend,’ found pictorial expression in Angelico’s work. As the study of the nude body was forbidden to a monk, he concentrated all his feeling for physical beauty, all his capacity for dramatic expression, on the faces of his saints and angels, and became a unique exponent of religious sentiment. To the churchman’s love of minute and elaborate ornament appHed to holy things he united the aspirations of the devout soul toward perfection, and added to the achievements of the Giottesques beauty, distinction, and emotion. Though without doubt his chief glory is a fervor of conviction which passes beyond and above all technique, yet in technique also he sets a worthy example; and he owes to his composition, as well as to his conviction, the fact that he charms at once the ignorant, the devotee, the dilettante, and the trained artist. To the art student who is occupied with problems of construction and relief, Angelico’s lack of the latter and indifference to the former are somewhat shocking; but to the matured artist comes a growing consciousness that the simply and admirably composed little scenes from the life of Christ, in the Florentine Academy, with their flat masses of brilliant color, are a never-ending source of delight to the eye, and that he may sooner tire of the great technical achievements of the Renaissance than of these perfectly decorative little panels. Add to the effect of the latter the growth of art-knowledge shown by Fra Angelico in his frescos in the Chapel of Nicholas V in the Vatican (frescos which, in their juxtaposition to the stanze of Raphael are like the full chant of the medieval church beside the chorded melodies of Palestrina); add to these again the fresco of Orvieto; lastly, consider the very early epoch of Fra Angelico, and that he was well known even before Masaccio began the frescos of the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of the Carmine, and it must be admitted that here, in spite of his self-imposed limitations, was one of the greatest masters of the Renaissance.