Born: c. 1400
Died: c. 1455
Italian painter and artist
The Italian painter Fra Angelico combined the religious style of the Middle Ages (a period in European history from around 500 to around 1500) with the Renaissance's (a period of revived interest in Greek and Roman culture that began in Italy during the fourteenth century) concern for representing mass, space, and light.
Not much is known about Fra Angelico's early life. He was born around 1400 and was named Guido di Pietro. Around 1418 he and his brother Benedetto took vows to become monks in the Order of Dominican Preachers in Fiesole, Italy, near Florence. Fra Angelico's religious name was Fra Giovanni da Fiesole. The titles Fra Angelico and Beato Angelico came into use only after his death, as a way of honoring his religious life and work.
In the early 1420s Fra Angelico and Fra Benedetto began operating a painter's workshop and a room for copying documents in Fiesole. Many of Fra Angelico's early works were created at the monastery (a house for persons who have taken religious vows) of San Domenico in Fiesole. The Annunciation of about 1430 and the Linaiuoli Altarpiece (Madonna of the Linen Guild) reveal the directions of Fra Angelico's art. His gentle people are modeled in chiaroscuro (the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts), and these saints and angels stand out from the rest of the picture. Numerous large altar-pieces (works of art that decorate the space above and behind an altar) were ordered from Fra Angelico and his popular shop in the 1430s.
From 1438 to 1445 Fra Angelico worked on frescoes (paintings done on moist plaster with water-based colors) and altar-pieces for the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence. The church and monks' quarters were newly rebuilt at this time under the supervision of Cosimo de' Medici, with Michelozzo as architect for the project. The frescoes by the master and his assistants were placed throughout the corridors, chapter house, and rooms. In the midst of the traditional subjects from the life of Christ, figures of Dominican saints meditate (focus all their thoughts) upon the sacred events. At the same time the dramatic effect is increased by the inclusion of architectural details of San Marco itself in some of the scenes.
A masterpiece of panel painting created at the same time as the San Marco project was the Deposition altarpiece, requested by the Strozzi family for the Church of Sta Trinita. The richly colored and shining figures, the wide views of the Tuscan landscape serving as a backdrop to Calvary, and the division into sacred and nonreligious people reveal Fra Angelico as an artist in tune with the ideas and methods of the Renaissance. Yet all of the accomplishments in representation do not lessen the air of religious happiness.
The final decade of Fra Angelico's life was spent mainly in Rome (c. 1445–49 and c. 1453–55), with three years in Florence (c. 1450–52), as prior (second in command of a monastery) of San Domenico at Fiesole. His main surviving works from these final years are the frescoes of scenes from the lives of Saints Lawrence and Stephen in the Chapel of Pope Nicholas V in the Vatican, Rome. The dramatic figure groupings serve to sum up the highlights of the long tradition of fourteenth-and early fifteenth-century Florentine fresco painting. In the strict construction and rich detail of the architectural backgrounds, the dignity and luxury of a Roman setting are shown.
In spite of the fact that Fra Angelico's life unfolded in a monastic environment, his art stands as an important link between the first and later generations of Renaissance painting in Florence.
For More Information
Pope-Hennessy, John. Fra Angelico. 2nd ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.
Spike, John T. Fra Angelico. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996.
Fra Angelico (1395–1455)
Fra Angelico (1395–1455)
Painter of Florence whose works depict a simple, fervent religious devotion. Born as Guido di Pietro in the town of Vicchio, near Florence, he lived in monasteries all his life and devoted himself to the decoration of churches, monastic chapels, cloisters, and the simple cells inhabited by his brother monks. After his death, he was given the nickname of Fra Angelico (“Angelic Brother”).
Early in his life Fra Angelico lived in San Domenico, a monastery in the town of Fiesole, where he took the monastic name of Fra Giovanni da Fiesole. At the age of thirty, in 1425, he took his vows as a full member of the Dominican order. His earliest works were illuminated manuscripts and altarpieces, in which his painting style was influenced by Masaccio and the new science of visual perspective. As his fame spread outside the walls of the monastery, he won commissions to paint church interiors and altarpieces. The Annunciation and the Linaiuoli Altarpiece, painted between 1433 and 1436, were done for the guild of linen merchants in Florence. In these works, Fra Angelico made a startling advance over traditional Gothic painting by accurately depicting interior space, by using bright, vivid colors, and by a more sculptural and realistic treatment of human figures.
At this time he was operating a workshop that produced altarpieces and tabernacles for wealthy Florentine patrons. He also worked as a manuscript illuminator, whose paintings decorated the pages of Bibles created by monastic scribes. From 1438 to 1445 Fra Angelico completed a series of frescoes and an altarpiece for the monastery of San Marco in Florence. Cosimo de' Medici, the ruler of Florence, had ordered the reconstruction of the monastery and may have personally engaged Fra Angelico for its decoration. The painter and his assistants completed frescoes in the cloister (including the Crucifixion with St. Dominic ), corridors, and chapter house. He also completed forty-five small frescoes in the cells of the convent. These simple but skillfully rendered devotional paintings were meant for a lifetime of study and contemplation by the monks who lived in the cells. The painter included some architectural details of the monastery in the paintings, giving them a startling immediacy to their surroundings.
His work in the convent gained widespread renown, The Strozzi family, rivals of the Medici, commissioned an altarpiece for the church of Santa Trinita. In this famous work, the landscape of Tuscany serves as a backdrop for scenes of the crucifixion. Pope Eugenius IV later brought Fra Angelico to Rome to paint frescoes in a chapel of Saint Peter's cathedral, where the artist worked in the last years of his life. In the private chapel of Pope Nicholas V, he completed a famous series of frescoes of the lives of Saint Lawrence and Saint Stephen.
In 1447 Fra Angelico completed paintings in the cathedral of Orvieto, including Christ as Judge and The Prophets, assisted by his student Benozzo Gozzoli. He returned to Fiesole in 1449, when he was elected prior (head) of San Domenico. A master of fresco painting, Fra Angelico had a long-lasting influence on the painters of the Renaissance.
See Also: Masaccio; Medici, Cosimo de'; painting
The Italian painter Fra Angelico (ca. 1400-1455) achieved a unique synthesis of the mystical, visionary realms of medieval devotional painting with the Renaissance concern for representing the visually perceived world of mass, space, and light.
The monastic life of Fra Angelico began about 1418in the Order of Dominican Preachers in Fiesole, near Florence. His secular name had been Guido di Pietro, and his monastic name was Fra Giovanni da Fiesole. The appellatives Fra Angelico and Beato Angelico came into use only after his death to recall his spirituality as a man and an artist.
The painter's earliest known works were created at the monastery of S. Domenico at Fiesole in the late 1420s and early 1430s. The Annunciation of about 1430 (Museo del Gesù, Cortona) and the Linaiuoli Altarpiece (Madonna of the Linen Guild, Museo di S. Marco, Florence) reveal the essential directions of Fra Angelico's art. Reminiscences of the style of Lorenzo Monaco, the Camaldolese monk-painter who may have been Fra Angelico's first master in passages of rhythmic line and in the intimate narration of predella panels, are overshadowed by the impact of the more progressive styles of Masaccio and Masolino. The draperies of Fra Angelico's gentle people are modeled in chiaroscuro, and these Virgins, saints, and angels exist in a world constructed on the principles of linear and atmospheric perspective. Numerous large altarpieces and small tabernacles (Madonnas and Saints, Last Judgments, Coronations of the Virgin) were commissioned from the painter and his flourishing shop in the 1430s.
From 1438 to 1445 Fra Angelico was principally occupied with the fresco program and altarpiece for the Dominican monastery of S. Marco in Florence. The church and monastic quarters were newly rebuilt at this time under the patronage of Cosimo de' Medici, with Michelozzo as architect for the project. The frescoes by the master and his assistants are situated throughout the cloister, corridors, chapter house, and cells. In the midst of the traditional subjects form the life of Christ, figures of Dominican saints contemplate and meditate upon the sacred events, so that the scenes convey a sense of mystical, devotional transport. At the same time the dramatic immediacy is heightened by the inclusion of architectural details of S. Marco itself in some of the narrative scenes, most notably the Annuniciation with its view of a corner of the cloister.
A masterpiece of panel painting created at the same time as the S. Marco project is the Deposition altarpiece, commissioned by the Strozzi family for the Church of Sta Trinita (Museo di S. Marco, Florence; the pinnacles, as well as the predella now in the Uffizi, were painted earlier by Lorenzo Monaco). The richly colored and luminous figures, the panoramic views of the Tuscan landscape serving as a backdrop to Calvary, and the forthright division into sacred and secular personages reveal Fra Angelico as an artist in tune with the concepts and methods of the Renaissance. And yet, all of the accomplishments in representation do not diminish the air of religious rapture.
The final decade of Fra Angelico's life was spent mainly in Rome (ca. 1445-1449 and ca. 1453-1455), with 3 years in Florence (ca. 1450-1452) as prior of S. Domenico at Fiesole. His principal surviving work of these final years is the frescoes of scenes from the lives of Saints Lawrence and Stephen in the Chapel of Pope Nicholas V in the Vatican, Rome. The dramatic figure groupings serve to summarize the long tradition of 14th-and early 15th-century Florentine fresco painting. In the rigorous construction and abundant classical detail of the architectural backgrounds, the dignity and luxury of a Roman setting are appropriately conveyed.
In spite of the fact that his life unfolded in a monastic environment, Fra Angelico's art stands as an important link between the first and later generations in the mainstream of Florentine Renaissance painting.
John Pope-Hennessy, Fra Angelico (1952), is the standard monograph, but the biography is made obsolete by subsequent documentary findings. Frederick Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art (1969), is the best comprehensive survey. □
http://www.vatican.va/museums/index.htm; http://www.christusrex.org/www2/art/san_marco.htm; http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/collection/default.htm