18 February 2013

With the Saints in Lent (6): Fra Angelico, 18 February

Fra Angelico (Fra Giovanni di Pietro da Fiesole), The Annunciation (ca 1440-1445), Basilica di San Marco, Florence

Patrick Comerford

During last week’s Ash Wednesday retreat in the Jesuit Centre for Spirituality in Manresa, Clontarf, my tutorial group met in the afternoon in Father Brendan Comerford’s room, where the prints on the wall included a copy of The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, an Italian painter of the early Renaissance who was both a devout friar and an accomplished painter.

Because 25 March falls on the Monday in Holy Week this year, the celebration of the Annunciation have been transferred to 8 April. However, today [18 February], Fra Angelico (1395-1455) is named in the Roman Catholic calendar. Fra Angelico is also the Patron of Artists, and it said he once said: “He who does Christ’s work must stay with Christ always.”

During my visit to the Uffizi in Florence last September among the works of Fra Angelico on display were his Coronation of the Virgin (ca 1432), his Altarpiece, The Coronation of the Virgin, and his life-sized Madonna and Child with twelve Angels.

The National Gallery of Ireland has his Saints Cosmas and Damian and their Brothers Surviving the Stake (ca 1439-1442), which was bought in 1886. This small panel was part of the predella or lower register of Fra Angelico’s most important altarpiece. Other parts of it are scattered in galleries around the world. The altarpiece was painted for the church of San Marco in Florence, and was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici - whose name is echoed in the profession of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian (medici means ‘physicians’ in Italian).

Fra Angelico was called both Angelico (“angelic”) and Beato (“blessed”) because his paintings were of calm, religious subjects and because of his extraordinary personal piety.

He was born Guido di Pietro in Vicchio, Tuscany, in 1395. He entered a Dominican convent in Fiesole in 1418 and he became a friar with the name Giovanni da Fiesole ca 1425. He apparently began his career as an illuminator of missals and other religious books. He began to paint altarpieces and other panels; among his important early works are the Madonna of the Star (1428?-1433, San Marco, Florence) and Christ in Glory surrounded by Saints and Angels (National Gallery, London), which depicts more than 250 distinct figures.

Among other works of that period are two of The Coronation of the Virgin (Uffizi and Louvre, Paris) and The Deposition and The Last Judgment (San Marco). His mature style is first seen in The Madonna of the Linen Weavers (1433, San Marco), which features a border with 12 music-making angels.

In 1436, the Dominicans of Fiesole moved to the Convent of San Marco in Florence, which had recently been rebuilt by Michelozzo. Cosimo de’ Medici, one of the wealthiest and most powerful members of the city’s Signoria, had a large cell – later occupied by Savonarola – reserved for his own personal use at the friary so he could retreat from the world.

There, Fra Angelico, sometimes aided by assistants, painted many frescoes for the cloister chapter house and the entrances to the 20 cells on the upper corridors. The most impressive of these are The Crucifixion, Christ as a Pilgrim, and The Transfiguration.

His altarpiece for San Marco (1439) is one of the first representations of what is known as A Sacred Conversation: the Madonna flanked by angels and saints who seem to share a common space.

In 1445, Pope Eugenius IV summoned Fra Angelico to Rome to paint frescoes for the now destroyed Chapel of the Sacrament in the Vatican. In 1447, with his pupil Benozzo Gozzoli, he painted frescoes for the chapel of Pope Nicholas in the Vatican, including Scenes from the Lives of Saints Stephen and Lawrence (1447-1449), probably painted from his designs by assistants.

From 1449-1452, Fra Angelico was the Prior of the Dominican Convent in Fiesole. He died in the Dominican Convent in Rome on 18 February 1455. He was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

His epitaph says: When singing my praise, don't liken my talents to those of Apelles. Say, rather, that, in the name of Christ, I gave all I had to the poor. The deeds that count on Earth are not the ones that count in Heaven. I, Giovanni, am the flower of Tuscany.

Fra Angelico combined the influence of the elegantly decorative Gothic style of Gentile da Fabriano with the more realistic style of Renaissance masters such as the painter Masaccio and the sculptors Donatello and Ghiberti, all of whom worked in Florence.

Fra Angelico was particularly effective in his use of colour to heighten emotion. His skill in creating monumental figures, representing motion, and suggesting deep space through the use of linear perspective, especially in the Roman frescoes mark him as one of the foremost painters of the Renaissance.

He is described by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists as having “a rare and perfect talent.” Vasari wrote: “But it is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.”

Legend has it that Fra Angelico almost became a saint. When he was called to Rome in 1445, Pope Eugene IV was in search of a new Archbishop of Florence. He eventually chose the Vicar of San Marco, Antonio Pierozzi. Then, 200 years later, when Pierozzi was proposed for sainthood, it emerged that the pope’s first choice as Archbishop of Florence was Fra Angelico, but that the painter’s humility caused him to decline and instead suggest Pierozzi for the post.

Eventually, after a further two centuries, Fra Angelico was beatified on 3 October 1982 by Pope John Paul II in recognition of the holiness of his life, giving him the title of “Blessed” rather than “Saint.” In 1984, Pope John Paul II declared him patron of Catholic artists.

The Incarnation was one of Fra Angelico’s favourite themes, and he painted over 25 variations of it. His painted meditations, so needed at the time of the early Renaissance, are still necessary today. This Lent, let us remember that God became human to bring us closer to God by way of all things human. God makes all things new by fashioning them into possible vehicles of grace for us, so that by visible realities and concrete concepts, we can arrive at an understanding and a love of higher, invisible realities, all leading to God himself.

Tomorrow (19 February): Saint Philothei.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and Adjunct Assistant Professor, the University of Dublin (TCD).

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