Study Of Art – Painting In The Fifteenth Century: Florence

Fra Angelico (Giovanni da Fiesole). 1387-1455.

“To Fra Giovanni was reserved the glory of fixing, in a series of imperishable visions, the religious ideal of Middle Ages just at the moment when it was about to disappear forever.” M. LaFenestre.

Fra Giovanni da Fiesole was born in the village of Vicchio, near Giotto’s birthplace. He gave up his baptismal name of Guido on entering the monastery of Fiesole in 1407. He was familiarly known as Fra Angelico, the ” Brother Angelical.” Lorenzo Monaco seems to have influenced him, and the illuminating of manuscripts was probably his earliest work. A beautiful Annunciation among other pictures is still in Cortona, where the brotherhood were in exile for several years, returning to Fiesole in 1418. Many of Fra Angelico’s easel pictures were painted during the eighteen years of his life at Fiesole. Among them are three beautiful little tabernacles now in S. Marco; a Coronation of the Virgin painted for the Convent Church is now in the Louvre, another for S. Maria Nuova, Florence, is in the Uffizi.

In 1436 the Brotherhood moved to San Marco, Florence, built for them by Cosimo de’ Medici, and it is here that Fra Angelico’s most characteristic work is to be seen. Corridors and cells, as well as the great chapter house and cloister court are decorated with frescos of great beauty and deep religious sentiment. In 1447 Fra Angelico was called to Rome by Pope Eugenius to paint a chapel in St. Peter’s. During that summer he worked at Orvieto, assisted by his pupil Benozzo Gozzoli. His later work in Rome, Scenes from the lives of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence, was done for Pope Nicholas V in the chapel bearing his name in the Vatican. He died in Rome and was buried in S. Maria sopra Minerva. He was later beatified and is sometimes called Beato.


The Convent of San Marco. Godkin, The Convent of

San Marco; Oliphant, Makers of Florence, ch. 7, 8.

Monastic life, ideal and real. G. B. Adams, Middle Ages,

131–136; 555–581; Wishart, ch. 8, 9.

Illuminated Manuscripts. Bradley.


No. 115. Madonna of the Linaiuoli.

No. M 1. Angel from the frame.

Uffizi, Florence.

Painted in 1433 for the guild of linen merchants, whence its name. The tabernacle may be closed with shutters, on which are painted life-size figures of saints; below is a predella of three pictures.

Much of mediævalism remains in the colossal figure of the Madonna and in the background. The child is here the Bambino of the church procession, with the prettiness of a doll rather than the reality which the artist was later to show.

M 1 reproduces one of the angels from the deeply beveled frame. They are painted in pure colors on a gold background, with gold decorations on the garments. There is no attempt to represent anatomy or the substance of the body.

Compare with the Madonnas by Cimabue, by Duccio and the Sienese, noting dates. Consider the reasons for the popularity of Fra Angelico’s angels.

No. 116. The Last Judgment.

No. 117. The Blessed.

No. 118. The Damned.

Academy, Florence.

Painted for the Convent of S. Maria degli Angeli in Florence about 1429. The work is of miniature finish and of great charm in its detail, and repays closest study. The extreme right is probably not by Fra Angelico.

Notice the sections into which the picture is divided, and the arrangement of the figures, the characters in each and their sentiments. Study the interpretation of character and emotion. Compare with Giotto. Cf. also 83 and 100. The gentle playfulness and kindly goodness are in marked contrast to the stern and misanthropic virtue of Byzantine art. A mediæval poem on the dance of the angels is recalled by the left-hand section. The grave openings in the center are such as may still be seen in Florentine cemeteries.

No. 119. Dominican Monks meeting Christ.

S. Marco, Florence.

Over three doors in the first cloister court of the monastery are paintings by Fra Angelico. This lunette is above the door leading into the guest room.

Notice the appropriateness of the location and recall the scripture phrase here suggested. Study the arrangement of figures in the space, the way in which balance and symmetry are secured. Compare the three faces and consider Fra Angelico’s ideal of Christ, its simplicity, sincerity and tranquillity, freedom from sorrow.

No. 120. The Annunciation.

S. Marco, Florence.

This is in many respects similar to the much earlier Annunciation still in Cortona, but with less of the surface prettiness of gold and pattern decoration and much more depth of religious sentiment. The painter has emancipated himself from the technique of the miniaturist. No other representation of this scene is so beautiful and so reverential. Cf. 59 and 91.

Note the setting, the excellence of perspective, the architecture, the draperies. Compare with the angels of the tabernacle, 115.

No. 121. Christ appearing to Mary Magdalen.

S. Marco, Florence.

Most of the convent cells were adorned with frescos by Fra Angelico and his assistants. Many of them consist only of the Crucifix, but in the series from the Passion are a number of exquisite beauty. The effect of many white robes upon the white walls of the cells is of great purity and refinement.

Study the flow of lines as shown in attitude and draperies; the perspective and effect of the background of trees and flowers; the character of the sepulchre.

No. 122. The Crucifixion.

No. 123. Saints: detail.

S. Marco, Florence.

Fresco in the chapter house opening from the first cloister court. Probably painted after 1441. The Church Fathers, founders of religious orders and favorite Florentine saints are represented (in 123, SS. Dominic, Zenobius, Jerome, Ambrose, and Francis). Below are medallion portraits of famous Dominicans.

Study the arrangement of figures within the space. The background has suffered some change, or perhaps was never finished. It is, however, impressive, with the three figures lifted against its dark red pall, and the lighter band below as setting for the figures contemplating the mystery of the Crucifixion.

Consider the impressiveness of such a conception in comparison with a more actual presentation of the scene, and Fra Angelico’s ability for one or the other. Study the characterization of the saints.

No. 124. St. Michael.

Academy, Florence.

Decorative figure from the frame of the Descent from the Cross, painted about 1440 for the church of S. Trinità. It illustrates Fra Angelico’s angelic type of face and his strong feeling for decorative effect.

No. 125. Group of Prophets.

Chapel of S. Brizio, Cathedral, Orvieto.

Fra Angelico’s work in Orvieto, begun in 1447, during a brief vacation in his stay in Rome, was never completed, and consists only of a Christ in Judgment and the group of prophets in two compartments of the vaulted ceiling. The work was completed by Signorelli. Cf. 249.

Consider the effectiveness of the arrangement, the decorative value of the halos, the use of scrolls and tablets for identification. Compare with other work by Fra Angelico.

No. 126. Condemnation of St. Lawrence.

No. 127. St. Stephen Preaching: Dispute with the Doctors.

Chapel of Nicholas V, Vatican, Rome.

The chapel of S. Lorenzo, used as a private oratory by Pope Nicholas V, is decorated with scenes from the lives of St. Lawrence and St. Stephen.

Notice the Renaissance detail of the architectural background of 126 in contrast to the earlier architectural form in 120; the oriental suggestions of the street and the women in 127. There is much in this work in Rome to indicate that the painter appreciated the modern movement of the age, and was modifying his work to accord with it. Compare with the earlier work, and consider which is more beautiful; which the line of progress; in which the artist himself seems most interested. Consider also the popular estimate of Fra Angelico’s work and its justice. Should we disparage his mediaevalism and praise his modernity, or the reverse?