Blessed Fra Angelico
A famous painter of the Florentine school, born near Castello di Vicchio in the province of Mugello, Tuscany, 1387; died at Rome, 1455. He was christened Guido, and his father’s name being Pietro he was known as Guido, or Guidolino, di Pietro, but his full appellation today is that of “Blessed Fra Angelico Giovanni da Fiesole”. He and his supposed younger brother, Fra Benedetto da Fiesole, or da Mugello, joined the order of Preachers in 1407, entering the Dominican convent at Fiesole. Giovanni was twenty years old at the time the brothers began their art careers as illustrators of manuscripts, and Fra Benedetto, who had considerable talent as an illuminator and miniaturist, is supposed to have assisted his more celebrated brother in his famous frescoes in the convent of San Marco in Florence. Fra Benedetto was superior at San Dominico at Fiesole for some years before his death in 1448. Fra Angelico, who during a residence at Foligno had come under the influence of Giotto whose work at Assisi was within easy reach, soon graduated from the illumination of missals and choir books into a remarkably naive and inspiring maker of religious paintings, who glorified the quaint naturalness of his types with a peculiarly pious mysticism. He was convinced that to picture Christ perfectly one must need be Christlike, and Vasari says that he prefaced his paintings by prayer. His technical equipment was somewhat slender, as was natural for an artist with his beginnings, his work being rather thin dry and hard. His spirit, however, glorified his paintings. His noble holy figures, his beautiful angels, human but in form, robed with the hues of the sunrise and sunset, and his supremely earnest saints and martyrs are permeated with the sincerest of religious feeling. His early training in miniature and illumination had its influence in his more important works, with their robes of golden embroidery, their decorative arrangements and details, and pure, brilliant colours. As for the early studies in art of Fra Angelico, nothing is known. His painting shows the influence of the Siennese school, and it is thought he may have studied under Gherardo, Starnina, or Lorenzo Monaco.
On account of the struggle for the pontifical throne between Gregory XII, Benedict XIII, and Alexander V, Fra Giovanni and his brother, being adherents of the first named, had in 1409 to leave Fiesole, taking refuge in the convent of their order established at Foligno in Umbria. The pest devastating that place in 1414, the brothers went to Cortona, where they spent four years and then returned to Fiesole. There Fra Angelico remained for sixteen years. He was then invited to Florence to decorate the new Convent of San Marco which had just been allotted to his order, and of which Cosmo de’ Medici was a munificent patron.
At Cortona are found some of his best pictures. It was at Florence, however, where he spent nine years, that he painted his most important works. In 1445, Pope Eugenius IV invited Fra Angelico to Rome and gave him work to do in the Vatican, where he painted for him and for his successor, Pope Nicholas V, the frescoes of two chapels. That of the cappella del Sacramento, in the Vatican, was destroyed later by Paul III. Eugenius IV than asked him to go to Orvieto to work in the chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio in the cathedral. This work he began in 1447, but did not finish, returning to Rome in the autumn of that year. Much later the chapel was finished by Luca Signorelli. Pope Eugenius is said to have offered the painter the place of Archbishop of Florence, which through modesty and devotion to his art he declined. At Rome, besides his great paintings in the chapels of the Vatican, he executed some beautiful miniatures for choral books. He is buried in Rome in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
Among the thirty works of Fra Angelico in the cloisters and chapter house of the convent of San Marco in Florence (which has been converted into a national museum) is notable the famous “Crucifixion”, with the Saviour between the two thieves surrounded by a group of twenty saints, and with bust portraits of seventeen Dominican fathers below. Here is shown to the full the mastery of the painter in depicting in the faces of the monks the emotions evoked by the contemplation of heavenly mysteries. In the Uffizi Gallery are “The Coronation of the Virgin”, “The Virgin and Child with Saints”, “Naming of John the Baptist”, “The Preaching of St. Peter”, “The Martyrdom of St. Mark”, and “The Adoration of the Magi”, while among the examples at the Florence Academy are “The Last Judgement”, “Paradise”, “The Deposition from the Cross”, “The Entombment”, scenes from the lives of St. Cosmas and St. Damian, and various subjects from the life of Christ. At Fiesole are a “Madonna and Saints” and a “Crucifixion”.
The predella in London is in five compartments and shows Christ with the Banner of the Resurrection surrounded by a choir of angels and a great throng of the blessed. There is also there an “Adoration of the Magi”. At Cortona appear at the Convent of San Domenico the fresco “The Virgin and Child with four Evangelists” and the altar-piece “Virgin and Child with Saints”, and at the baptistry an “Annunciation” with scenes from the life of the Virgin and a “Life of St. Dominic”. In the Turin Gallery “Two Angels kneeling on Clouds”, and at Rome, in the Corsini Palace, “The Ascension”, “The Last Judgment”, and “Pentecost”. At the Louvre in Paris are “The Coronation of the Virgin”, “The Crucifixion”, and “The Martyrdom of St. Cosmas and St. Damian”. Berlin has, at the Museum, a “Last Judgment”, and Dublin, at the National Gallery, “The Martyrdom of St. Cosmas and St. Damian”.
At Madrid is “The Annunciation”, in Munich “Scenes from the Lives of St. Cosmas and St. Damian”, and in St. Petersburg a “Madonna and Saints”. Mrs. John L. Gardner has in the art gallery of her Boston residence an “Assumption” and a “Dormition of the Virgin”. There are other works at Parma, Perugia, and Pisa. At San Marco, Florence, in addition to the works already mentioned are “Madonna della Stella”, “Coronation of the Virgin”, “Adoration of the Magi”, and “St. Peter Martyr”.
The Chapel of St. Nicholas in the Vatican at Rome contains frescoes of the “Lives of St. Lawrence and St. Stephen”, “The Four Evangelists”, and “The Teachers of the Church”. In the gallery of the Vatican are “St. Nicholas of Bari”, and “Madonna and Angels”. The work at Orvieto finished by Signorelli shows Christ in “a glory of angels with sixteen saints and prophets”. Bryan, Dictionary of Painters and Engravers; Edgecombe-Haley, Fra Angelico.
AUGUSTUS VAN CLEEF (Catholic Encyclopedia)
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