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Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Blessed Angelico



Attributed to Isaia da Pisa
Original Floor tomb of Blessed Fra Angelico
c. 1455
Marble
Cappella Frangipane e Maddaleni-Capiferro, Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Fra Angelico died in Rome in February 1455.

He was buried in the Cappella Frangipane e Maddaleni-Capiferro near the High Altar of the Dominican Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. The Church also contains the tombs of many Florentines including two Florentine Popes.

Within his own lifetime Fra Angelico became known as ‘Il Beato’ Angelico due to his reputation and the reverence with which he painted religious subjects.

Although only beatified in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, the recognition of his piety by his contemporaries is seen in his tomb

As regards the depiction of Fra Angelico, reference is made to The Constitutions of the Order of Preachers, and preceding the revised edition of St. Raymond of Pennafort, 1241, the rule of the Observant Friars of which Fra Angelico was a member:

"The brethren shall not sleep on mattresses, unless they cannot obtain straw or something of that sort on which to sleep. They shall sleep dressed in tunic and shoes. It is lawful to sleep on straw, a woollen mat or sacking."

Fra Angelico is sleeping according to the Constitutions.

His arms are crossed while he sleeps, forming a gesture understood to signify humility.

In a contemporary sermon by Fra Roberto Caracciolo da Lecce the meaning of this pose as an imitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is explained:

"…Lifting her eyes to heaven, and bringing up her hands with her arms in the form of a cross, she ended as God, the Angels and the Holy Fathers desired: “Be it unto me according to thy word.” Quoted in Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1988, p. 51.

The Virgin, through her humility and acceptance of the divine will, served as a model of obedience for the monks.

Paolo Morachiello has pointed out:

"Observants not only considered the Virgin to be the first and perfect example of the apostolate but also saw her as their inspiration and model." (Paolo Morachiello in Fra Angelico: The San Marco Frescoes, Thames and Hudson, London 1996, p. 270.)

Beato Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro)
1400-1455
Death of the Virgin 1433-34
Tempera on wood
23 x 14 cm
Museo Diocesano, Cortona

As in life, The Beato has the bare minimum of earthly possessions with him in the tomb. It is he alone awaiting Christ.

Vasari in his Lives of the Artists has this to say of the Beato;

"He was most kind and sober, keeping himself free from all worldly ties, often saying that he who practised art had need of quiet and to be able to live without cares, and that he who represents the things of Christ should always live with Christ. He was never seen in anger by the friars, which is a great thing, and seems to me almost impossible to believe; and he had a way of admonishing his friends with smiles.

To those who sought his works he would answer, that they must content the prior, and then he would not fail.

To sum up, this father, who can never be enough praised, was in all his works and words most humble and modest, and in his paintings facile and devout; and the saints whom he painted have more the air and likeness of saints than those of any one else. It was his habit never to retouch or alter any of his paintings, but to leave them as they came the first time, believing, as he said, that such was the will of God. Some say he would never take up his pencil until he had first made supplication, and he never made a crucifix but he was bathed in tears."


Three years after his death the Dominican poet Fra Domenico da Corella said of the Beato: "Rich in skill and unerring in religion"

Fra Angelico has two epitaphs on his tomb.

The first seems to have been composed by the cleric and humanist Lorenzo Valla (1405 or 1407 – 1457). It states;

"The glory, the mirror, the ornament of painters, John the Florentine is preserved in this place. A religious, he was a brother of the Holy Order of Saint Dominic and he was himself a true servant of God. His pupils greatly mourn the death of such a great teacher because who will find another draughtsman as he ? His homeland and his order mourn the death of such a distinguished painter who had no equal in his art."


The first epitaph seems out of place with the sculpture of Fra Angelico on his tomb. Perhaps however it indicates how the cult of saintliness in some circles was then linked to the pride of one`s homeland and the desire for fame and boasting of the achievements of "one`s own". It seems a bit out of place when remembering the humble friar.

The second epitaph is perhaps more appropriate and more consistent with correct attitudes about what constitutes sanctity. it is the epitaph which is better known.

The second epitaph reads:

"Here lies the venerable painter Brother Giovanni of Florence O P, 1455
Let it not be said in my praise that I was another Apelles
But, O Christ, that I gave my reward to all your people
The deeds that count on earth are different from those in Heaven
I, John, flourished in the city known as the flower of Tuscany."

Modern tomb arrangement of Beato Fra Angelico (1979)

The modern tomb arrangement which you see now in the Church is the work of the architects G. Pediconi and M. Paniconi, and dates from 1979

It was in front of this modern tomb arrangement that Pope John Paul II knelt on 18th October 1984 and proclaimed Blessed Fra Angelico the Patron Saint of Artists.

He had a deep appreciation of the life and works of the Blessed Painter especially his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary

In his Letter to Artists, (4 April 1999, Easter Sunday) Pope John Paul II wrote:

"Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality's surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one's own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things.

All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit.

Believers find nothing strange in this: they know that they have had a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God. Is it in any way surprising that this leaves the spirit overwhelmed as it were, so that it can only stammer in reply?

True artists above all are ready to acknowledge their limits and to make their own the words of the Apostle Paul, according to whom “God does not dwell in shrines made by human hands” so that “we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold or silver or stone, a representation by human art and imagination” (Acts 17:24, 29). If the intimate reality of things is always “beyond” the powers of human perception, how much more so is God in the depths of his unfathomable mystery!

The knowledge conferred by faith is of a different kind: it presupposes a personal encounter with God in Jesus Christ.

Yet this knowledge too can be enriched by artistic intuition. An eloquent example of aesthetic contemplation sublimated in faith are, for example, the works of Fra Angelico."


The monastery of San Marco in Florence, which the Beato decorated and where he prayed and painted is an extraordinary place, an experience. This was not intended to be a museum or art gallery. It was to be a place alive with deep prayer and contemplation.

Walking up the stairs one is confronted by an angel with multicolored wings, announcing momentous news to Mary, and the beginning of the Incarnation

One also comes to scenes special to the Dominican order. St Dominic adoring the Crucifixion is depicted more than once. St Dominic had a special devotion to the Crucifixion. St. Dominic is shown embracing the base of the Cross—the blood of the Saviour trickling onto his hands. This image urged the monks to follow by example.

An inscription at the base of one of the Crucifixion scenes encourages the brothers to embrace Christ’s suffering in the same manner as their founder:

O saviour of the world, accept my salutations, accept them, Oh Dear Jesus; I want to rise on your cross, and know the reason; therefore give me the force to do so.
(Paolo Morachiello in Fra Angelico: The San Marco Frescoes, p. 288, note. 1.)

Further on one comes to the individual cells in which one can seclude yourself. Each cell contains a frescoed wall painted by Fra Angelico to aid the monks' prayers and life. One is alone in a landscape in which Jesus comes and goes, as if entering the very place where one sits, contemplates and prays.



Beato Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro)
1400-1455
The Annunciation1450
Fresco, 230 x 321 cm
Convento di San Marco, Florence

Beato Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro)
1400-1455
Saint Dominic Adoring the Crucifixion
1440s
Fresco, 340 x 155 cm
Northern corridor, Convento di San Marco, Florence

Beato Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro)
1400-1455
Transfiguration
1440-41
Fresco, 193 x 164 cm
Cell 6, Convento di San Marco, Florence
As well as the Apostles, on either side, stand the Virgin and St Dominic in positions indicative of prayer. The heads of Moses and Elias appear beneath the arms of Christ.

Beato Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro)
1400-1455
Coronation of the Virgin
1440-41
Fresco, 184 x 167 cm
Cell 9, Convento di San Marco, Florence
The saints represented on the lower part are (from the left) St Thomas, St Benedict, St Dominic, St Francis, St Peter Martyr and St Mark.


Now we see the place empty apart from the frescoes. What were the cells like when the place with filled with friars ?

Perhaps we can get an inkling from a small panel painted by Friar Angelico which was part of The San Marco Altarpiece (1438-40). The Altarpiece was removed and dismembered in the seventeenth century during the renovation of the church belonging to the Convent of San Marco and dedicated to the two medical saints, Cosmas and Damian.

In the scene below, the Deacon Justinian sleeps while Sts Cosmas and Damian enter his chamber trailing patches of soft cloud. They replace his corrupted and gangraneous leg with a healthy one. Note the swags of curtain, the hard bed, the container hanging from a nail on the side of the bed, the glass and decanter, the slippers and the simple three-legged stool. No carpets or rugs. A simple life with few possessions. Friars were supposed to travel  light through life.

Beato Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro)
1400-1455
The Healing of Justinian by Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian1438-40
Tempera on wood, 37 x 45 cm
Museo di San Marco, Florence