When Guido di Pietro became a Dominican friar at Fiesole, he changed his name to Giovanni and was known thereafter as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole. Italians called him Beato, "Blessed One." But the name by which we know him was given him as a tribute fourteen years after his death. Fra Angelico he became: "angelic brother." Unlike many friars, he took his vows seriously. Purity of form and space characterize his art; purity of soul, his life.
His first efforts in art were as an illuminator. Later he moved to larger forms. The landscapes in his backgrounds are said to capture depth and perspective as well as any from the early Renaissance. Supposedly Angelico never painted without first praying and wept whenever he painted Christ. "To paint Christ one must know him," he said. His Lamentation Over the Dead Christ is too tranquil for realism but creates an illusion of timeless rapture. Nonetheless his paintings are not so much mystic as educational, in keeping with the intent of the Dominicans who were a teaching order. While retaining traditional elements such as haloes, his work moved firmly into the Renaissance. It is rich in color and groups figures elaborately.
Wherever he resided -- Cortona, Fiesole, San Marco -- he left frescoes and paintings. When the decayed monastery at San Marco in Florence was restored by the Dominicans, he and his pupils painted fifty frescoes in its rooms as aids to contemplation. His most famous works are there. The figures are lyrical, tender even, as in the The Annunciation. The angel is gracious, feminine, not at all fearsome, the center of light in the room. Mary's face is peaked, a study in consternation.
Painting altarpieces, he created the form known as Sacra Conversazione, a grouping of saints in conversation around Mary, the Mother of Jesus. As his fame as an artist spread, he was called to Rome to decorate the Vatican. Most of the frescoes he created in the eternal city have perished with their buildings. Among those which remain are scenes from the lives of St. Lawrence and St. Stephen. Thanks to Fra Angelico the Vatican possesses portraits of some of his contemporaries, as well as renditions of famous churchmen such as Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus.
The Pope, it is said, wanted to make Angelico archbishop of Florence, but the unworldly priest declined the offer. According to an account which may be apocryphal, he was elected prior of Fiesole in 1449 and served three years, after which he returned to Rome to paint more pictures. It was in Rome on this day he died March 18, 1455. He and Fra Filippo Lippi are considered the two greatest artists of their generation.
The Nazarenes and Pre-Raphaelites, 19th century art schools, imitated Angelico but over-sentimentalized his ideas. As long as works of art are remembered, Fra Angelico's Christian paintings will live with them.
- "Angelico, Bl Fra." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- "Angelico, Frate Giovanni da Fiesole." New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Art. New York, Greystone Press, 1967 - 71.
- Argan, Giulio Carlo. Fra Angelico; biographical and critical study. Skira, 1955.
- Cleef, Augustus Van. "Angelico, Fra." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Grove Dictionary of Art. New York: Grove, 1996.
- Janson, H. W. with Dora Jane Janson. History of Art; a survey of the major visual arts from the dawn of history to the present day. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall; New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969.
- Murray, Peter and Linda. Dictionary of Art and Artists. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin, 1959.
- Nigg, Walter. Great Saints. Hinsdale, Ill.: H. Regnery Co., 1948 pp. 272 - 274.
- Various encyclopedia articles.
Last updated May, 2007.