The Art of Fra Angelico, 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 CommonsVasari’s description of Fra Angelico has impressed itself upon the minds of twelve generations of his readers. As to whence he derived it there can be no reasonable doubt. The Piagnoni (or followers of Savonarola) of San Marco, full of filial piety, cherished all stories relating to that saintly triad, Fra Angelico, Saint Antoninus, and Savonarola. Vasari had intimate friends at the convent; and if the brothers did not actually write the greater part of the account of Fra Angelico, they at least succeeded in making Vasari adopt their own conception, and supplied him with most of the material for his work. Being aware of the source of this biography, doubts as to its accuracy cannot fail to enter into the mind of the historical student who has some acquaintance with the Piagnone literature of the sixteenth century, for he knows well that Savonarola’s followers, enthusiastic, imaginative, and intensely mystical, not only inherited their master’s belief in miracles and portents, but had also developed the myth-making faculty to a remarkable degree.

But in justice to all who helped to make this biography of the friar, it must be admitted that the scientific study of his artistic achievement, and research among such contemporary records as are likely to throw light upon his career, whilst compelling us to reject as fictitious some of its details, confirm on the whole the traditional story – so far as it goes. Its main fault lies not in its inaccuracy, but in its inadequacy. The Dominicans, Fra Giovanni’s contemporaries, who fashioned it in its earliest form, saw and appreciated their brother’s goodness, his humility, his quiet charm of manner; and therefore the account which they gave of him tells us a great deal of Fra Angelico the religious, Fra Angelico the Catholic saint. But the Dominican painter was not merely a saint – a saint with a happy knack of illustration. He was above all else an artist, an artist to his very finger-tips, who carried about in one body two temperaments which are usually supposed to have but little in common, and which indeed are not often found inhabiting the same frame – the artistic and the saintly. But he was primarily an artist, an artist who happened to be a saint.

It is true that in the course of the last two years certain of the younger critics have revolted against the traditional and popular conception of Fra Angelico. But their change of opinion has scarcely influenced at all even those who have some right to be considered connoisseurs; and the leaders of criticism in England and in France, in Germany and in Italy, still maintain, with but one or two exceptions, that the friar was “an isolated and belated master” – that he belonged rather to the fourteenth than to the fifteenth, century. . . .

Fra Angelico as an artist, then, has never received fair and adequate treatment, and it is the Piagnone conception of him, inadequate as it is, which still holds the field. And, unfortunately, the manufacturers of reproductions of the works of the Italian masters would seem to have conspired with popular writers to keep alive a derogatory view of Fra Angelico’s art. Every great artist has his moments of weakness, and the Dominican painter was certainly not without them. But he is perhaps the only master of his own rank of whom it is true that the feeblest of all his productions are those by which he is most widely known. It is not too much to say that, in the case of nine persons out of every ten who have any knowledge of him, the angels playing on musical instruments which adorn the frame of the ‘Madonna dei Linajuoli’ are symbols of his artistic achievement. But these figures, which hold so high a place in popular estimation, are artistically contemptible. They deserve, in fact, all that daring critics have said about them: they are nothing more than “celestial dolls, flat as paper, stuck fast to their gold backgrounds.” To anyone who knows how consummate was Fra Angelico’s power of rendering form when he was at his best, it is surprising that even in a moment of weakness he should have given to the world such inferior stuff as this. Those who love and reverence the artist would like to lose all recollection of them, just as they would wish to bury in oblivion the early, brief indiscretions of one whose subsequent life has been of such a character as to command their affection and admiration. But it is just these figures, in all their inane prettiness, that the public have chosen to regard as Fra Angelico’s most characteristic works – symbols of his artistic virtues. . . .

And, moreover, those who, in contemplating Fra Angelico’s pictures, seek for confirmation of the traditional view of him find it; for, in a measure, it is there. In his effort to give material form to the most sublime mystical visions that have ever filled the minds of men he has succeeded to a degree that many of his admirers are quite incapable of appreciating. Finding in the master’s work, then, what our pride of opinion makes us desire to find, we cannot see anything else. The painter’s artistic personality as a whole remains quite unrevealed to us. Nay! even at the Vatican itself, in that chapel of Pope Nicholas on the walls of which Fra Angelico showed most plainly that he was entirely a child of the early Renaissance, the scales do not fall from our eyes; for here temporary circumstances as a rule conspire with our prejudices to rob us of enlightenment.

Owing, then, to a variety of causes, the Piagnone view of Fra Angelico still holds the field. It is shared by people holding the most diverse opinions. On the one side are those who inwardly despise “this mild, meek, angelic monk, who,” as they say, “bolted his monastery doors, and sprinkled holy water in the face of the antique.” On the other side is a great company of persons, both Catholic and Protestant, who love Fra Angelico because of his saintliness. These are prejudiced in his favor because he was a devout and earnest Christian. Those are prejudiced against him for the same reason. In each case theological or anti-theological prejudices are allowed to modify the judgment formed of his merit as an artist, and no serious attempt is made to see his achievement as a whole “as in itself it really is.” . . .

In tracing the story of Fra Angelico’s artistic development from its commencement to its close, we see him largely influenced at first by the Giottesques and the miniaturists. Gradually he rid himself of the cramping effects of his early training, and became more and more identified with that new movement in art which had begun with the architects and sculptors, and had had for its first pioneer in painting the great Masaccio. Fra Angelico’s development was constant, at one time accelerated a little, at another more gradual, but without backslidings or reactions.

There are certain great artistic qualities which are to be found in abundance in his earliest paintings as in his latest: exquisite grace of line, the charm of bright, harmonious color, and singular beauty of facial expression. But as time went on, and the friar continued to grow in power and knowledge, other great qualities became more manifest in his works, and at the same time we find in them no loss of grace and loveliness. The development of these qualities was due in a measure to Fra Angelico’s ever-increasing love of classical art, to his observation of nature, to his study of the works of his great contemporaries in sculpture, and of the frescos of Masaccio.

He was an eager student of the antique, and keenly interested in the new movement in architecture. The newly revived classical forms – the Ionic capital, the festoons with which Michelozzo adorned his friezes, the medallions copied by Brunelleschi from the temple of Vesta at Tivoli, and many more beside – found a place in his paintings almost simultaneously with their appearance in the sister art. He was always abreast of the movement. He was always closely associated with those humanists and sculptors who were the leaders of the early Renaissance. And as he was the first of the painters systematically to make pictorial use of classical forms, so there are more representations of them to be found in his works than in all the other pictures of the first half of the fifteenth century taken together. He was, moreover, the first Italian artist of the Renaissance to represent from nature a landscape that can be identified, as he was also the first to attempt to solve certain problems of aerial perspective. He shows a feeling for space unrivaled in his own day, and surpassed indeed by but few of the Florentines who came after him. . . .

To say, as some do, that Fra Angelico was sometimes more interested in the matter of his theme than in its representation is only to say what is true of every great Florentine painter of the Renaissance. In Venice there was a love of painting for its own sake. It was not so in Florence. The great Florentines, as has been so often remarked, were, each and all, so much more than painters! They were sculptors ; they were poets. Nay, more, they were men of science, theologians, archaeologists, and humanists; and at times in every one of them the desire to record mere facts of the natural world, or to teach some theological or philosophical dogma, predominated over all purely artistic impulses. Unfortunately, in the best of them there is a tendency to illustration.

This tendency, therefore, would not of itself disqualify Fra Angelico from taking rank amongst the great leaders of the Florentine Renaissance. But in reality he is very little guilty of any such failing. The artist and the saint in him worked in such perfect harmony that we are rarely conscious of any effort on the part of the latter to dominate the former. And it is in this fact that one of the greatest secrets of his success lies. He painted the kind of subjects that he liked best to paint. Pictures with religious subjects were required of him, and religious subjects were just those that he was longing to paint. And so innate, so essential a part of him were his artistic qualities that the fervor of his religious emotion scarcely ever marred the decorative character of his work. In him, as I have said, the artist and the saint, the devout Catholic and the man of the Renaissance, were in perfect harmony. Living in that wonderful age of the early Renaissance, he was one of its most characteristic products.