Fra Angelico, the Angelic Friar

Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro circa 1395—died February 18, 1455) was an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. His nickname in English-speaking countries, Fra Angelico, means the “Angelic friar,” referring to his devout and humble demeanor.  He earned his reputation primarily for with the series of frescoes he made for his own friary, San Marco, in Florence.

The earliest recorded document concerning Fra Angelico dates from October 17, 1417, when he joined a religious confraternity at the Carmine Church, still under the name of Guido di Pietro. This record reveals that he was already a painter. The first record of Angelico as a friar dates from 1423, when he is first referred to as Fra Giovanni (Friar John), following the custom of taking a new name upon entering a religious order.

Images from the Linaiuoli Madonna altarpiece by Fra Angelico:

According to Vasari (a sixteenth century artist and art historian), Fra Angelico initially received training as an illuminator, possibly working with his older brother Benedetto, who was also a Dominican and an illuminator. The former Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence, now a state museum, holds several illuminated manuscripts that are thought to be entirely or partly by his hand. According to Vasari, the first paintings of this artist were an altarpiece and a painted screen for the Charterhouse (Carthusian monastery) of Florence; neither still exist.

Annunciation, Fra Angelico

From 1408 to 1418, Fra Angelico lived at the Dominican friary of Cortona, where he painted frescoes, now mostly destroyed, in the Dominican Church. Between 1418 and 1436 he was at the convent of Fiesole, where he also painted a number of frescoes and the Altarpiece for the church.

In 1436, Fra Angelico was one of the friars from Fiesole who moved to the newly built  friary of San Marco in Florence. This was an important move which put him in the center of artistic activity of the region and won him the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici, one of the wealthiest and most powerful members of the city’s governing authority and founder of the dynasty that would dominate Florentine politics for much of the Renaissance. Cosimo had a cell reserved for himself at the friary in order that he might retreat from the world. At Cosimo’s urging, Fra Angelico set about decorating the friary, including the magnificent fresco of the Chapter House, the often-reproduced Annunciation, the Coronation of the Madonna with Saints, and the many other devotional frescoes depicting aspects of the Life of Christ that adorn the walls of each cell.

San Marco Altarpiece, Fra Angelico

In 1439 Fra Angelico completed one of his most famous works, the San Marco Altarpiece at Florence, which was unusual for its time. Images of the enthroned Madonna and Child surrounded by saints were common, but they usually depicted a setting that was clearly heaven-like, in which saints and angels hovered about as divine presences rather than people. But in this instance, the saints stand squarely within the space, grouped in a natural way as if they were able to converse about the shared experience of witnessing the Virgin in glory.

The Crucified Christ, Fra Angelico

In 1445 Pope Eugene IV summoned him to Rome to paint the frescoes of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St Peter’s, later demolished by Pope Paul III. Fra Angelico was offered the Archbishopric of Florence, but he refused it, recommending another friar for the position. In 1447 Fra Angelico was in Orvieto, creating works for the Cathedral there.

The Transfiguration, Fra Angelico

From 1447 to 1449 Fra Angelico was back at the Vatican, designing the frescoes for the Niccoline Chapel for Pope Nicholas V. The scenes from the lives of the two martyrs, St. Stephen and St. Lawrence, may have been executed wholly or in part by assistants. The small chapel, with its brightly frescoed walls and gold leaf decorations gives the impression of a jewel box. From 1449 until 1452, Fra Angelico returned to his old convent of Fiesole, where he was the Prior.

St. Lawrence Distributing Alms, Fra Angelico

In 1455, Fra Angelico died while staying at a Dominican convent in Rome, perhaps while working on Pope Nicholas’ chapel. He was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

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.

~ Translation of epitaph

Information for this article came from Wikipedia.

About Andrea R Huelsenbeck

Andrea R Huelsenbeck is a wife, a mother of five and a former elementary general music teacher. A freelance writer in the 1990s, her nonfiction articles and book reviews appeared in Raising Arizona Kids, Christian Library Journal, and other publications. She is currently working on a young adult mystical fantasy novel and a mystery.
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