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Italian Great Artist Fra Angelico - The Work of an Angel

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 4:43 AM

Illuminating ideas, Fra Angelico began his artistic training working on illuminated manuscripts. This Annunciation from a manuscript produced at San Domenico, Fiesole, in about 1430 is generally thought to be from his own hand. The Dominican monks were encouraged to paint these miniatures it was considered to be a good mental discipline. The Work of an Angel

It is tempting to attribute the stunning beauty of Fra Angelico's work to divine inspiration, but that would be largely to disregard his abilities and self-discipline as a highly skilled artist.

The great Victorian art critic John Ruskin summed up the traditional view of Fra Angelico when he wrote that he was 'not an artist properly so-called but an inspired saint'. Fra Angelico was certainly pious, but Ruskin was totally misleading in suggesting that he was anything other than a highly professional artist. He was not only in the vanguard of ideas, but also ran an efficient workshop and travelled considerable distances (to Rome and Orvieto) to take up commissions. There were several other painter-monks who achieved great distinction during the Renaissance his contemporaries Lorenzo Monaco and Filippo Lippi, and two generations later Fra Bartolommeo, who worked at Fra Angelico's monastery of San Marco. None of them, however, has matched the popular appeal of Fra Angelico, whose great achievement was in combining the highest technical skills with a sense of radiant spirituality.

'Sacra Conversazione' The San Marco Altarpiece, 1438-40 commissioned by Cosimo de Medici. This is one of the first 'sacred conversations' in which Fm Angelico abandoned the polyptych and showed the Madonna, angels and saints in a unified area. Many devices have been used to give the illusion of space the receding patterns on the carpet, the trees beyond the walls and the looped curtains enclosing the foreground. Certain features of Angelico's style show through virtually all his work, especially his decorative sense and wonderful skill with colour, but his art developed greatly during his career, which falls into three broad phases. In the first he appears as an artist of tremendous innate talent, but still working largely within traditional conventions. In the second phase, his work takes on a greater clarity and weight as he absorbs and refines the ideas of his great contemporaries. And in the third, he excels as a fresco decorator.


Angelico's earliest works, small and jewel-like, are the sort of painting for which the initial commissioning contract would specify the amount of gold or expensive blue pigment the painter was required to use. They were intended to decorate the altars of chapels at Fiesole and in other Dominican establishments. Fra Angelico was also involved in work on manuscript illumination at this time, an activity much favoured as a part of the devotional observance of a young friar. The gorgeous Cortona Annunciation marks the culmination of this early phase but also in the insistent perspective of the architecture looks forward to his more naturalistic later style.

Wall painting, Fresco painting began with a sinopia a drawing on a wall which was used as a guide. Each day a different section was covered with wet plaster and then painted. The plaster and paint dried together, giving a highly permanent surface. Restoration work at San Domenico, Fiesole, has uncovered some of Fm Angelico's sinopie, so that drawing and fresco can now be compared.
A key work in his development is the Linaiuoli Altarpiece, the celebrated work produced for the Florentine Linen Guild in 1433. The magnificent frame is by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the most famous sculptor of the day, and it pulls together the various panels Fra Angelico painted and makes them into a coherent whole. When the altarpiece's doors are shut, two solid, monumental saints (Mark and Peter) stand next to each other on a firm platform of rocky ground. When they are open, Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist flank the Virgin and Child, witnesses and guards. Beneath them all, three small panels, known as the 'predella', contain self-contained scenes showing St Peter Preaching, The Adoration of the Magi and The Martyrdom of St John the Evangelist. Each is a superbly imaginative interpretation of how the real events may have looked. Only the angels decorating the painted arch framing the Virgin and Child panel seem to belong to the earlier, more archaic phase of the painter's work.


Angelic features, This detail from the painting opposite shows the radiant beauty of Fra Angel ice's work. He painted angels with a grace and freshness that no artist has surpassed. Fra Angelico did not stumble on this Re-naissance clarity overnight. His earlier works all show some influence of Renaissance ideas unified lighting, naturalistic plants and other details, real weight to the fall of the draperies of the saints' clothing and, most significantly, a scientific use of geometric perspective to create an illusion of depth in the picture. But in the Linaiuoli Altarpiece, and other works of the 1430s such as The Deposition from the Cross painted for Santa Trinita in Florence, they become his guiding principles.

For all the beauty and splendour of his panel paintings, it is on his frescoes that Fra Angelico's fame and popularity mainly rests. The art of fresco painting was more highly developed in Italy than in any other country and for centuries was regarded as the only fitting outlet for an artist's grandest thoughts. Italy's bright light means that churches there (compared with those in northern Europe) tend to have small windows and consequently large areas of wall that can be covered with paintings. And Italy's generally dry climate is ideal for preserving frescoes, which can deteriorate rapidly if the walls on which they are painted become damp.

Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic, John the Baptist, Peter Martyr and Thomas Aquinas, This is the earliest painting by Fra Angelico which can he given a positive date. It was installed in 1429 on the high altar of the church of San Pietro Martire, Florence, and was probably completed in the previous year.
The sheer scale of the demands placed on Fra Angelico required him to work with a considerable team for his fresco cycles. First the wall would have to be carefully plastered, ready to take the master's design. Over this, a top layer of fine wet plaster was applied, just enough to be painted in one day. The work would then have to be quick and accurate in order to be completed before the plaster dried and could no longer take up the paint. Remarkably, a few of Fra Angelico's own under drawings or sinopie have been uncovered during the restoration of his frescoes in San Marco and at Fiesole. With the top layer of painted plaster removed and mounted on a new base, we can see the extraordinary drawings that lay beneath. This was the clarity of vision that enabled him to carry out large and complex schemes with numerous assistants, yet still ensure that the works were his own. When he went to Rome to work for Pope Nicholas V he took a whole team of assistants, the most important being Benozzo Gozzoli, but stamped his own artistic personality on the work.

Fra Angelico lived at a time when the role of art was changing to something to be appreciated for itself rather than solely for its religious meaning or decorative function. His work showed that the human messages of the Renaissance could be charged with the fervour of Catholic Christianity. Indeed, he succeeded like no other painter of the Renaissance, or any other period, in creating a synthesis between piety and grandeur.

Writer – Marshall Cavendish

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