The Works of Fra Angelico – The Crucifixion

The Crucifixion, by Fra AngelicoThis great fresco, the largest of Fra Angelico’s works, was painted probably about 1442. It completely covers the eastern wall of the chapter-house of the Convent of San Marco, Florence. The picture has been badly injured by “restoration,” many of the figures having been much impaired, and it has generally been supposed that the red color of the background was likewise attributable to vandalism; but as Professor Douglas has pointed out, the inharmonious red ground was merely the usual preparation of fresco-painters of that day for a blue, which in this case, if ever added, has now entirely disappeared.

In this fresco Fra Angelico has depicted the death of Christ rather as a sacred mystery than a historical event, and has introduced various saints and founders of religious orders as spectators of the scene. Near the foot of the cross kneels Saint Dominic, gazing reverently upward ; behind him is Saint Jerome, also kneeling, his cardinal’s hat beside him on the ground; and further back, Saint Francis of Assisi, overcome with grief. Near these three founders of monastic orders stand Saint Augustine and Saint Albert of Vercelli, behind whom is Saint Benedict holding a bundle of rods. Saint Bernard, in white, clasps a book, Saint John Gualberto kneels weeping, Saint Romualdo leans upon a staff, and at the extreme end of the group are the two Dominican saints, Saint Peter Martyr and Saint Thomas Aquinas.

On the other side of the cross the Madonna is supported by Saint John and two of the Marys; near them are Saint John the Baptist with the wooden cross, Saint Mark with an open book, Saint Laurence with the gridiron, instrument of his martyrdom, and finally Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, patrons of the Medici family. Half-figures of prophets bearing scrolls adorn the arch of the simulated frame, and medallions containing portraits of the most illustrious members of the Dominican Order form a frieze underneath the picture.

“In this fresco,” writes Lafenestre, “Fra Angelico has given us the highest measure of his spiritual capacity combined with an unaccustomed vigor of style. The figures ranged on either side of the crucified Christ present, with extraordinary intensity of emotion, all the aspirations of Giotto and his followers toward an ideal expression. Every shade of ecstasy, of grief, of compassion which the death of the Saviour could inspire in the faithful is rendered with the same fidelity. Religious art could go no further.”