BL. FRA ANGELICO (Giovanni of Fiesole):
Patron of Christian Artists
1395 – 1455
In 1982 Pope John Paul II not only beatified a painter known to the world today as Fra Angelico but also named him patron of all Christian painters. Considering how many painters there are of Christian art one wonders why Pope John singled him out as their patron and why he was beatified an artist.
Unfortunately very little is known about Fra Angelico’s early years. Born c. 1395 Guido di Piero (or Guido da Vicchio) lived in Tuscany, Italy during the fifteenth century. Because in 1417 his name was already listed as a member of a painting fraternity we know that he was by then a painter of some repute.
Becomes A Dominican
But in 1420 he entered the Dominican Order in Fiesole just outside Florence, Italy. As a friar his religious name was Fra Giovanni or Brother John of Fiesole.
As a priest he was assigned several high positions such as being prior of the convent (1450 – 1452). But because he felt that his true religious vocation lay in painting he declined any further non-painting positions even that of being archbishop of Florence.
Painting in San Marco
Around the time that Friar John took major orders the community moved into the convent of San Marco in Florence. This is where Fra Angelico lived all his life. It is thanks to the generosity of the patronage of the Medicis that over the next fifteen years the convent of St. Dominic in San Marco was rebuilt and enlarged. This led to Fra Angelico’s undertaking his unique work of painting almost all of the walls of the monastery. He even painted a sacred scene in each friar’s cell as well as at the end of each corridor.
Fra Angelico mostly painted frescoes which are pictures painted directly on a wall that has been covered with wet plaster.
These series of paintings in the Florentine monastery of San Marco which comprises the bulk of his work is one of his best works and where his fame rests. Thankfully they have been preserved in their original setting.
GOAL of his Works
However Fra Angelico’s purpose was not to decorate the cells but to use his paintings as aids to the monk’s meditation and devotion. So that the occupant of the cell could visualize himself in the scene before him, our gifted artist usually included the figure of a friar or a man.
Nearly all of his frescoes in the monastery include Dominican Saints (especially St. Dominic himself) who were dressed identically as the friars viewing the paintings. This enabled the viewer to imagine himself in the scene in front of him and hopefully to identify himself also with the attitude of devotion displayed in the painting itself.
So while his paintings and frescoes were stunningly beautiful featuring great technical virtuosity the goals of our extraordinary artists was not the aesthetic. Rather his intended purpose was to stir up in the onlooker:
1. Feelings of religious devotion
This is in fact what makes his works religious, not the subject matter. Fra Angelico used his style of narrative painting as visual sermons showing them what should be adored and the meaning of the beatitudes. Thus in one of his most famous fresco he painted St. Dominic adoring Christ on the Cross.
2. To appreciate nature
To show the people that nature was to be enjoyed rather than feared he introduced landscapes in his paintings.
3. To tell sacred stories
But one of the primary aims of his painting was to tell sacred stories which was his favourite subject matter as shown by his paintings.
• Blessed Mother
One of the Angelico’s favourite theme found in his paintings was Madonna and Child. Because he used this theme time and time again his painting of Madonna and Child with a group of saints became known as a “sacred conversation.”
Another favorite theme of Fr Angelico was the Annunciation such that he painted several versions of it.
To demonstrate the saintly attributes of the saints he painted the Crucifixion with Saints.
His famous painting of the Transfiguration establishes the fact that Christ was the foremost prophet of Christianity.
Robert Ellsberg in his book All Saints beautifully describes the art of Fra Angelico. He says:
“Fra Angelic was one of the great early precursors of the Florentine Renaissance. His frescoes and paintings featured vivid color, startlingly lifelike portraits, an ingenuous use of perspective and realistic backgrounds.”
Bernard Beremson on other hand wrote this of his work:
“Perfect certainty of purpose, utter devotion to his task, a sacramental eagerness in performing it.”
His distinctive style was marked by “compassion and luminosity.” Because he was an outstanding colorist his painting are full of vivid color. It was only later when his paintings became more and more simple that he left large areas of flat color.
However because of his developing simplified approach he kept details in his painting to a minimum leaving out the many extraneous details found in most religious paintings of the time.
By using the new techniques of perspective he stood out as an important figure in the development of early Renaissance narrative painting.
While his paintings and frescoes in the monastery of San Marco are some of his most famous ones he also painted several altar pieces outside the convent.
By then he was already the most celebrated painter of his time. Soon his fame spread to Rome so Pope Eugenius IV asked him to decorate 2 chapels in the Vatican. Unfortunately only one survives to this day – that showing scenes in the lives of St. Stephen and St. Laurence – a painting he did for the chapel of Pope Nicholas (Pope Eugenius’ successor).
Asked to do a huge fresco cycle depicting the Last Judgement in Orvieto Cathedral – he unfortunately never completed it as he was asked to return to Rome to start work in St. Peter’s and in the pope’s private study.
FRA ANGELICO: “Angelic Brother“
Shortly after his death in 1453 this extraordinarily holy and gifted man was given the apt name of Fra Angelico or Angelic Brother as indeed he was. It was a tribute to both his angelic piety and artistic talents filling all his paintings with God’s light and God’s love.
Because he firmly believed that to be able to really portray Christ one must be Christlike himself he proceeded to do just that. His paintings that reflect the beauty of God’s love in what He created made one of his friends say this of him: “No one could paint live that without first having been to heaven.”
Only a person who is absolutely sure that God is love could paint like him. His mystical vision reflected in almost all of his paintings was that the religious life is one liked in the presence of Christ.
Michelangelo himself tells us that “Clinging always to Christ he expressed in pictures what he contemplated inwardly, so as to raise people’s minds to the highest things.”
Truly this extraordinarily gifted holy painter was as Ruskin called him: AN INSPIRED SAINT!
Sources of Reference:
The Book of Saints – pp 50 – 51
All Saints – pp 82 – 83
Bulter’s Saint for the Day – pp 81 – 82
Children’s Book of Saints – pp 62 – 64