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Italian Great Artist Fra Angelico - Monastic Life

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 11:14 PM

Dens of iniquity, Accusations that the monasteries were dens of avarice, impiety, fornication and sodomy were widespread from the 13th century onwards. This fresco shows a scene from the life of St Benedict, who rejected the dissolute lifestyle of the monasteries and their prostitutes to pursue a solitary life of prayer. Monastic Life

By the 15th century the monasteries had become notorious for their worldliness and debauchery, yet there were some devout orders in which monks led austere lives of study and prayer.

'They cheat, steal, fornicate, and when they are at the end of their resources they set up as saints and work miracles.' Such was the charge made against friars by the 15th century Italian author Masuccio, and his opinion was shared by many of his contemporaries.

In the growing secular and commercial atmosphere of Renaissance Florence, monastic life appeared parasitic. The most virulent dislike was reserved for the friars in the mendicant (begging) orders the Franciscans, Dominicans and Carmelites, all of whom had settled in Florence during the 13th century.

Santa Maria Novella, The church of Sta Maria Novella became the Florentine home of the Dominicans in 1221, just a few years after their arrival in the city. Together with the Franciscans, they led the great religious revival of the 13th century, preaching obedience to the Roman Papacy.But to a large extent, it was the hypocritical flouting of the basic monastic rules of poverty, chastity and obedience which inflamed the public. Contemporary records make it clear that it was not unusual for friars and priests to carry weapons and hunt, or to keep mistresses and father children.

Obedience to religious rules seemed equally lax in many convents of nuns. Masuccio went so far as to claim: Some nuns are formally wedded to monks, with the accompaniments of mass, a marriage contract and a liberal indulgence in food and wine. The nuns afterward bring forth pretty little monks or else use means to hinder that result'.

The devil in the pope's robes Disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the church was a popular subject of literature and art. This 15th century miniature shows the pope with demon's claws, handing out the fruits of temptation to the bevy of ladies surrounding him.No doubt exaggerated for satirical effect, Masuccio's claim nevertheless held more than a grain of truth. Often, monasteries and nunneries were close enough for members of the orders to mingle and to share beds. Monastery archives testify to this fact with their volumes given over to the trials of cohabiting monks and nuns. Immorality was so rife that rumours began to be heard in favour of priests marrying.

In addition to this, the religious orders were openly becoming worldlier. They courted the patronage of princes and businessmen, owned large amounts of land, sold pardons and deathbed absolutions, and concerned themselves intimately with the affairs of the people and political life. Some monks also took advantage of the anonymity and sanctity their habits afforded them and acted as agents and go-betweens in conspiracies and murder-plots.


The Mendicant friars The Mendicant orders brought religion to the urban poor. They supported their activities by begging, which made them very unpopular in the growing commercial atmosphere of 15th century Florence.
A decline in monastic standards was almost inevitable at a time when candidates were admitted too easily and for the wrong reasons. Many were the children of impoverished noble families who paid a one-off sum to the monastery to secure a respectable career for their offspring, and not all had true vocations for the religious life. The level of learning was generally not high and many candidates had no aptitude for study. However, there were those who pursued lives of prayer, study and work, and monks who belonged to the well-endowed monasteries in the great city states of Pisa, Milan and particularly Florence were the privileged members of some of the best centres of learning in Europe.

Nowhere are the extremes of monastic types more apparent than in the lives of the Florentine painter-monks, Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi. In 1421 Lippi, an orphan, was placed in the Carmelite priory in Florence. But his unsuitability for such a life was shown by his subsequent trial for fraud, and his abduction of a nun, Lucrezia, whom he later married and who bore him a son, Filippino, who also became a painter.

In marked contrast, Fra Angelico led a reverent life within the Dominican order, earning for himself the title of Beato, meaning 'blessed one'. Although the qualities of spirituality and grace that are found in his paintings may have enhanced his reputation, his life in the Florentine monastery of San Marco was certainly a devout one.



San Marco Library, The building of the library at the Dominican monastery of San Marco was part of the extensive renovations carried out with money donated by Cosimo de' Medici. With his help it became one of the largest and most respected libraries in Renaissance Italy. From the early 13th century, the Dominican order had been based in the western part of Florence, around the church of Sta Maria Novella. The Dominicans stressed religious orthodoxy and obedience to the pope. They had a strong commitment to learning as well as to preaching, I and set up studia generale, a form of higher education catering not only for members of their shown order but for secular students too. Similar establishments were founded by the Franciscans and Augustinians in other parts of the city. The teachers came from within the order, but were sent to study abroad at universities such as Paris and Bologna. Dante, a pupil of the studio, is proof of the high standards of learning that the system fostered.
Simple fare, St Benedict and his sister St Scholastica share a simple meal offish, bread and wine. Meals in most monasteries followed a similar pattern of frugality meat was not permitted.  
The history of the Dominican monastery of San Marco demonstrates the close links between political and business interests and religious life. Although professing humanist ideas, Cosimo de' Medici the ruler of Florence was anxious to keep his Christian life blameless. Apparently suffering from prickings of conscience that 'certain portions of his wealth had not been righteously gained', Cosimo was advised by the pope to use the money to extend the monastery around the church of San Marco, which he had recently handed over to the Observantist Dominicans, a reforming branch of the order. In this way, Cosimo could 'unburden his soul'.

Work began on the new monastery and library of San Marco in 1437. The plan followed traditional monastic lines, with the rooms built around three sides of a cloister, with the guest hospice, the chapter house and the refectory downstairs, and the monks' study-cells, dormitories and the library on the first floor. But the light, classical simplicity of the architecture set the monastery apart from others in the city, and the library became a pattern for subsequent Italian monasteries. When in 1444 Cosimo donated a collection of over 400 Greek and Latin manuscripts to the library, San Marco became the largest and most influential of the early public libraries in Italy.

Italy's greatest poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was the most outstanding product of the Florentine religious schools, where he studied for two-and-a-half years. His most famous work, the Divine Comedy, is an allegorical poem which illustrates the tragedy of the human condition and shows the way to happiness through Christian faith.
The second prior of San Marco was Antoninus Pierozzi, who took up his post in 1439 and later authorized the decoration of the monastery's cell walls with the wonderful frescoes of Fra Angelico. He later became Archbishop of Florence and was made a saint at his death. His life was led according to the austerest Dominican precepts; he gave a third of his income to charity and, as was the monastic rule, provided food and sustenance to the Florentine poor and the swarms of beggars who visited the monastery with their children. He also founded an organization for the poveri vergognosi, the 'embarassed poor', who were too ashamed to let their poverty be known publicly.

Antonino's moral guidance also led to a drive to reform both the Florentine clergy and monastic discipline within his own monastery. Here the principles laid down for all Dominican friars were strictly observed, with the celebration of the six liturgical offices, each lasting for three hours, forming the basis of the monastic day.

In most orders there was little privacy, with monks sleeping in large dormitories. Because of the Dominican emphasis on learning, individual cells had developed, where members could obtain a degree of privacy and silence for studying. These were generally small rooms arranged on each side of a central corridor, from which the interior of each cell was visible.


The Franciscans, The followers of St Francis of Assisi settled in Florence at the beginning of the 13th century, establishing themselves in the small church of Sta Croce, which developed into an impressive monastery. A Mendicant order based on the precepts of poverty and humility, it had lost much of its popularity by the 15th century. Meals were frugal, although the Florentine orders were well provided by their farmlands in Tuscany, which supplied them with wine, wheat, beer and oil. Two meals a day were eaten in summer (from Easter to mid-September) and generally only one in winter. Extra food was allowed on feast days but no meat was served in the monastery. Wine or beer was commonly served at meals, although it was frequently withdrawn as a penance. Silence was observed at meals and for most of the day.

After the midday meal came a brief period of recreation, when friars could talk or exercise on the gardens. Relaxation did not include running, playing games, laughing loudly or singing especially singing vulgar songs although by the Renaissance, many warnings for this kind of behaviour are recorded.


After the death of Antonino, the standards at San Marco declined until later in the century, when the puritannical zeal of a yet more famous prior, the martyr Savonarola, brought a new wave of reforms, not only within the walls of the monastery but throughout the whole of Florence.

Writer – Marshall Cavendish

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