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.
Further Reading on Fra Angelico
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.