Hailed as an artist and as a Dominican friar, Fra Angelico pioneered several artistic trends that shaped the Early Renaissance. It is through his significant contributions to the arts that he was awarded the “Angelic Painter” title by the Dominican order. This title ranks him among the best of the best Dominican theologians such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, also known as the “Angelic Doctor”.
No wonder Fra Angelico’s life and career have been an inspiration for so many artists over the centuries. However, it was only after his death and recently has the priest’s significance in European arts been studied closely and appreciated. Majority of Fra Angelico’s works had been altarpieces for several churches and cathedrals throughout Rome and Florence. Few examples include the Annunciation (1430), Coronation of the Virgin (1432), Last Judgment (1435), and so on.
Fra Angelico’s given name was Guido di Pietro. He was born around 1390 to 1395 in Mugello near Fiesole, Tuscany Italy. He probably received his early training with the guidance of Lorenzo Monaco, a monk, painter and an illuminator of manuscripts. Monaco spent his professional career in Florence so was Fra Angelico. The Dominican priest originally started out as an illuminator but his talent in painting was undeniably rare and near to perfection.
Another factor that influenced Fra Angelico to paint was the Sienese school because the styles and trends common to this school could be seen in his early works. Also, the screen he painted for the Carthusian Monastery was one of the earliest works of Fra Angelico while he was in Florence, before he decided to join the Dominican community of Cortona.
In October 1417, Fra Angelico joined a confraternity of the Carmine Church. His religious vocation might have been an influence by his monk mentor, Monaco. Anyhow, after joining the said confraternity, he continued doing commissioned works for the church. In 1418, he painted an altarpiece for the church of Santo Stefano del Ponte, although it was in 1423, when his career went full steam ahead. By that time, he was a member of the Dominican Order of Preachers already at Fiesole. His membership to the Dominicans earned him another name, Fra Giovanni, which later on he would use as his signature name.
In 1418, he began painting frescoes for the Dominican friary of Cortona. It was also believed that Fra Angelico had Gherardo Starnina as his mentor while at the friary. Beyond 1418, he spent some time in Fiesole to paint frescoes and altarpieces for churches, most of which have been under restoration. In fact, the National Gallery of London takes care of his earliest altarpiece that is also a living proof of Fra Angelico’s rare talent in painting.
Additionally, between 1422 and 1438, Fra Angelico produced three altarpieces for the San Domenico community in Fiesole. He had made them a principal altarpiece that depicted the Madonna and Child with saints and angels. Apparently, the subject of his early altarpieces was conventional but he added some creativity into it by arranging the figures in a manner that it would look novel from among other paintings. This lured the young Masaccio to study Fra Angelico’s works and adapt some of his techniques.
In the mid-1420’s, Masaccio discovered the importance of using mathematical perspective in sculpturing. This was a very influential discovery that set the trend of Florentine art. Thus, Fra Angelico acquired this pioneering technique to refine his own paintings toward the development of 3-D forms in well-arranged three-dimensional settings.
However unfortunate it may seem that Masaccio had a premature death in 1428; it was a blessing in disguise for Fra Angelico because it helped him rise to popularity among his contemporaries. He became the most anticipated artist of Early Renaissance that he earned some more projects besides working for the Dominicans. Fra Angelico’s pool of clientele expanded quickly. He worked on a series of frescoes, devotional paintings and altarpieces.
In 1501, Fra Angelico re-constructed the triptych of the church to appeal to the established religious tastes of that time. Later that year, he started working on a panel painting entitled the Crucifixion, which believed to be his only signed art work. Crucifixion was a revelation of Fra Angelico’s expertise in narrative painting because of the descriptive detail – from clothing, props and armor – can be seen clearly.
Fra Angelico went to the Friary of San Marco in Florence to join its community of Dominicans in 1436. The events within the decade were considered as another round of highlights to his career, with his close associations to wealthy art patrons like Cosimo de’ Medici. The Medici family had a huge cell in the friary that used to be his retreat house, should he wish to unwind. Fra Angelico was then contracted by Cosimo Medici to decorate the monastery. He did the Chapter House fresco, Maesta with Saints, some devotional works narrating the life of Christ and the painting of Annunciation at the stair top.
While in San Marco, Florence, he produced a magnificent altarpiece for St. Marco’s in 1439. He painted the Virgin and Child sitting on a throne and they are surrounded by some saints. The saints are ought to be conversing with each other about their experience in witnessing the Madonna and Child before them. This kind of painting simply illustrated the Sacred Conversations, which was a very popular theme during the early 15th century.
In 1445, Fra Angelico received a commission by Pope Eugenius IV for painting a series of frecoes for the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican. However, these frescoes had been destroyed when the Basilica was demolished to be reconstructed during the High Renaissance. But two years later, Fra Angelico went to Orvieto to paint works for the said cathedral. He went along with his pupils like Benozzo Gozzoli and Zanobi Strozzi.
After completing his stint in Orvieto, Fra Angelico returned to Vatican around 1447 to 1449. This was where he did some frescoes for the Niccoline Chapel, with Nicholas V as his patron. Since he travelled to Vatican with his pupils, it wasn’t certain whether he was solely responsible for the execution of the frescoes depicting the lives of St. Lawrence and St. Stephen.
In 1449, Fra Angelico returned to Fiesole to stay there until 1452. Later that year he went to Rome to fresco various chapels in the Palace of Vatican for Pope Eugenius I and Nicholas V. He completed this work in 2 years’ time and then another couple of years to restore a panel that depicts the scenes when Christ was on the Cross and with various saints.
The later years of Fra Angelico’s life had been dedicated to making the high altar for the Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, a Dominican church. He was buried at the same church in 1455 when he died of old age perhaps.
Fra Angelico received his beatification rites by Pope John Paul II in October 3, 1983 and was then announced as the patron of Catholic artists a year after. He rightfully deserved the title for he did nothing but to serve Christ and live by the Catholic teachings. He was a humble person and passionate about helping the poor, a living saint per se.
Fra Angelico’s pupils, Gozzoli and Strozzi, continued what their master had started before he passed away in 1455. Gozzoli’s works showed detailed and sophisticated portraiture, which somewhat shared resemblance to the works of Domenico Ghirlandaio, whose pupil back then was Michelangelo.
In Michelangelo’s paintings, he made depiction of the Virgin’s sweet and charming expressions and classic Crucifixions that had been the recurring subjects of Fra Angelico. It is also worth noting that both artists worked for the Vatican, where Michelangelo might have observed of the works of Fra Angelico closely as well as the creations of Botticelli, Perugino and Ghirlandaio.
Michelangelo and Fra Angelico both utilized a technique that does put a lot of emphasis on adorned frescoes but the other way around. The works had clear and vibrant pastel colors, logical spatial settings including the figures, and the depiction of human emotions and grace.
Today, Fra Angelico is remembered through his several altarpieces and frescoes that can be found in the monasteries where he used to stay. A few of these include: