A Christmas Card from Fra Angelico
by Alan Frost
Fra Angelico is one of a large number of artists whose work may be seen into the season of Advent, adorning the covers of greetings cards that carry a true Christian message. What makes the cards distinctive, apart from other aspects of a unique style, is the appearance in the paintings of figures that should not be there. Usually these are saints, mostly Dominicans, and there is a Last Supper (The Institution of the Eucharist) with the figure of Our Lady present. Thus one may receive a card of the Nativity scene with a Dominican Saint (St. Peter Martyr) kneeling beside St. Joseph before the Holy Infant. Another presents the seated Blessed Virgin with the Christ child looking out to us, upon her knee, flanked either side by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Dominic.
The name 'Fra Angelico' is how the English-speaking world knows this great painter, a loving sobriquet that his talent and exemplary life would earn. On the continent he would be referred to as 'Beato Angelico'. He was actually born Guido di Pietro, in Vicchio di Mugello, Tuscany, possibly in 1395, but more likely in the year 1400. He joined the 'Black Friars' in the Convent at Fiesole near Florence in 1420, and took the name Fra Giovanni di Fiesole. He had had some training as a miniaturist and painter before joining the Order of Preachers, specifically the 'Observants', a voluntary group within the Order which, though strict, did allow members to follow various pursuits outside prayers and the Offices. They also had an especial devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Vasari describes his miniaturist work here as "breathtaking" and as he moved on to larger works, that he was capable of achieving the "illusion of timeless rapture". In due course (1436) a number of the brethren were transferred to a new convent at San Marco, Florence, and Fra Angelico went with them.
It was at San Marco that his skills were honed and his work came to the attention of influential figures. Behind him, he left a legacy of fine spiritual creativity. His initial work in illustrating manuscripts in intricate detail shows a love of Our Lady and early Dominican saints. Then in his larger paintings in the style of the Trecento, he created depictions of passages from Scripture that would become his hallmark. Among the earliest known, from about 1429, is the San Pietro Martine triptych, with the Virgin and Infant Jesus in the centre, Dominicans and St. John the Baptist either side. In 1432 he painted the Cortona Altarpiece for the chapel of his brother monks there, including the rarely painted Wedding of the Virgin. It also depicts the Visitation along the recognizable shores of Lake Trasimere, which means he painted the first identifiable landscape of the Renaissance. Sister Wendy Beckett argues that in fact he develops into one of the innovative painters heralding the Renaissance in art. This is also demonstrated in his introduction of the sacra conversazione, the depiction of the Holy Family, with added saints, in 'sacred conversation'.
Another work of this time brings us into the Christmas story. It is a scene of the Adoration of the Magi , tempera on panel, which is in two parts. The upper part presents the Annunciation prefiguring numerous 'Angelican' meetings between the herald Gabriel on bended knee and the seated obedient Mary (probably inspired by the anonymous 14th C. Annunciation in Santissima Annunziata in Florence); the lower part has one of the three Kings kneeling to kiss the foot of the baby Christ , held out to him by the seated Blessed Virgin. There is only one example of his actually painting the Blessed Virgin standing, again about this time, depicted on a commissioned reliquary, Madonna della Stella.
A trademark of Fra Angelico from his first works such as the Fiesole Triptych, is the inclusion of a red cross, or rather the red hilt of a crucifix in the halo of Christ as Infant or Man, reminding us literally of the Trinitarian Godhead. Similarly the halo of the Blessed Virgin regularly has jewels included, as in the Annunciation detail on the right of the Perugia Triptych. St. Dominic is usually portrayed with an eight-point star, and the often-included St. Peter Martyr is identified by the blooded cleaved head. All of these come together later in the mature stunning work (1450) Madonna della Ombre, so called from the shadows cast by the background columns. The expression of Mother to Child, and of the blonde curly haired Infant staring out to us is simply marvellous; the orb (perhaps representing the world, safe in his hand, but for which He would be the incarnate sacrifice) is held exactly as in the fresco (not the panel) of the 'Mocked Christ' (1441) at San Marco. Sometimes there is a little painting within the main work to remind us of a linked event, such as the inset of a desolating Crucifixion at the bottom centre of the Madonna with Child and Saints on the San Marco Altarpiece. Little wonder Ruskin described Fra Angelico as "not an artist properly so-called, but an inspired saint". The philosopher Hegel observed that his work "was unsurpassed in the solemn depth of its conception".
Before reaching this stage when at the height of his talents, and drawing closer in every sense to God, he would significantly develop his art through commissions offered him by the linen-makers' guild, the 'Linaiuoli' (where again we find in an altarpiece predella a painting of The Adoration of the Magi), and later in 1436, the decorating of the walls of the repaired San Marco church, now a National Museum in Florence. The patron of the San Marco convent was the wealthy Cosimo de Medici, an art lover. Whilst he would have his own vested interests and influence in the content of some of the work he commissioned, such as a series of altarpiece paintings on the protracted martyrdom of Saints Cosmos and Damian (his brother's name), most of what Fra Angelico painted at San Marco was meant as inspiration or an aid to contemplation, the fruits of which, as a teaching Order, the Dominicans would pass on ("contemplare aliis tradere"). Thus there is a lunette over a door portraying St. Peter Martyr, finger on lips, enjoining the friars to silence before entering the church. The cells of the friars were decorated, as were the walls of the corridors, and the rooms, such as the Chapter Room where the whole back wall displays The Crucifixion (c.1441). Elsewhere there is a fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin taking place in heaven above the kneeling Saints, including Dominic, Benedict, and Francis with stigmata. These works prompted St. Antoninus, who would have known the artist monk well, to observe "no-one could paint like that without first having been to heaven".
The scale of all of this undertaking was large. We have the evidence of over forty frescoes preserved, apart from his other commissions, which meant at the time Fra Angelico had to have assistance, and therefore establish his own School, to train and direct budding artists in the completion of his vision. His main protégé who went on to be an influential painter in his own right was Benozzo Gozzoli. Another prominent assistant in some panel work and miniatures was Zanobi Strozzi. This has led to an area of research by art historians as to how much the hand of Gozzoli is to be seen in the Angelic Doctor's work, such as in a later Adoration of the Magi at San Marco, which includes Cosimo de Medici in the scene with the Three Kings paying homage.
Such research is, of course, important and not necessarily critical of Fra Angelico. Where criticism is unjust is when it implies he travelled widely to produce work for certain patrons because they were rich. As a member of his Order anything he earned would have gone to the upkeep of the Order. His motivation was to serve Christ and to preach through his brushes and his fingers. So devout and prayerful was he in his work that he could not paint the Crucifixion without being reduced to tears, and it was not uncommon to see him painting on his knees. There is thus not, or there should not be, anything derisive in the nature of his art being referred to as 'pietistic'. This is a description that can easily accommodate assessments of his work that see it as having religious gravity yet serenity, having a heavenly spirituality, reflecting his own dictum that "to paint Christ, one must live Christ".
It is true he did travel to paint elsewhere. He was summoned by Pope Eugenius IV (who had stayed at the San Marco convent) in 1445 to paint frescoes in the Vatican and in a church at Orvieto. He was kept in Rome by the following Pope, the seasonally named Nicholas V, to decorate the chapel of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence. If there were such a thing as a Boxing Day card, people might send an Angelico image of St. Stephen preaching (Cappella Niccolina, Rome), though not perhaps of The Expulsion and Stoning of St. Stephen, which so cleverly seems to depict Stephen leaving his earthly life and entering heaven as the protomartyr. The Distributing of Alms in the same series (c.1448), with St. Lawrence as benefactor giving money to the poor and crippled, also evokes the notion of a 'Boxing' Day.
The Christmas narrative figures prominently in a collection of small panel paintings for a door, now displayed in the san Marco museum. Known as the Armadio degli Argenti (three of the 35 images being painted by Baldovinetti), they include depictions of the Nativity, the Circumcision, the escape into Egypt, and a graphic Slaughter of the Innocents. All this about the time he was appointed Prior (1449-52) of his old convent at Fiesole. It is said he had earlier turned down Pope Eugenius' offer to be Archbishop of Florence that he might continue to paint.
Despite his duties as Prior, this period in his life saw him produce some of his great works. A number of astonishing frescoes are produced in this time: Christ in Limbo with the souls of the just being freed through the forced-open door of hell, flattening one of Satan's demons (painted on the wall of St. Antoninus' cell); several Crucifixions, including Christ being Nailed to the Cross; the Arrest of Christ with a wonderfully expressed Saviour looking at the black-haloed Judas; the Annunciation of them all (for Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Order of Preachers, "a moment of fertility" with Mary "attentive, waiting, listening".). However, arguably nothing even in this brilliant passage of his life surpasses a fresco painted in San Marco about the year 1442: his Christ on the Cross Adored by St. Dominic. If ever there was a work of art that could inspire the simple penitent to understand sorrow for sin and what the total ultimate sacrifice for love is about, surely this is it.
Sceptics may cast doubt on such claims, and argue merely about artistic skill and technique. But it is much more than that, just as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is much more than a film. Fra Angelico consciously wanted to give instruction, that is his charism and his imperative as a member of the Order of Preachers, whose motto is 'laudere, benedicere, praedicare'. Indeed in many of his paintings he includes Latin quotations from the New Testament, and sometimes the names of Saints, such as Martha, in their haloes, so there is no confusion. Another former Master of the Dominican Order, Fr. Damian Byrne, has written "indeed they do preach" and reminds us that a contemporary at Fiesole, Bd. Lawrence of Rippafratta, told Fra Angelico that "many who will turn a deaf ear to preaching will be won by your pictures, which will continue throughout the ages to preach".
Even so, there is so much depth of meaning, symbolism and significance in all of his work that a thesis could be written on each piece. The current Prior Provincial of the UK Black Friars, Fr. Allan White, interestingly identifies many theological references in Fra Angelico as actually being Augustinian (though the Dominican Rule did evolve from the Augustinian). There is also a bit of a puzzle: the absence of the Rosary in any of his paintings, though tradition has it that Our Lady appeared to St. Dominic in a forest near Toulouse explaining to him that "when God willed the renewal of the face of the earth, he began by sending the fertilizing dew of the Angelic Salutation", and enjoining him to preach "my Rosary of 150 Aves". It is worth noting that there had been a considerable decline in the use of the Rosary (also for many years referred to as the Psalter of Jesus and Mary) as fear of a return of the Black Death receded. Its dramatic revival would be begun and led by Bd. Alan de la Roche, OP, shortly after Fra Angelico's death (in Rome 1455; his tomb is there, in the Church of Santa Sopra Minerva). Perhaps the absence of the expected Rosary is exactly the way to remind us over the centuries to ensure we always keep one handy. He continues to teach us, continues to urge us to seek answers.
Early in his vocation Fra Angelico was much impressed with one Giovanni Dominic who defended traditional spirituality against the "onslaught of humanism". We all need inspiration in these times, to defend it against the onslaught of secularism. We must not be down-hearted, for consider the card illustrated here. It is of a painting that hangs in the Hermitage Museum of a city that, under the years of communist control, was called 'Leningrad'. In 1991 it was returned to St. Peter. So if a Fra Angelico card arrives on your Advent doormat, know there is much more to it than just a festive decoration.