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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fra Angelico

When we think of church sponsorship of the arts during the Renaissance, we commonly bring to mind Michelangelo, Raphael, Bellini, and a few others. These were all instances of the arts coming from outside the church. Actually, there are some examples of art coming from within the church as well. We're not use to thinking of clerics as being painters but in the case of Guido di Pietro we need to take a new look at the calling. Dubbed "Brother Angel" by his peers, he was known also as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole.  He got his nickname as a result of his unusually pious demeanor. Born around 1400, he has come to be known to art historians as Fra Angelico. Already a much-sought-after artist in his teen years, he took his vows around the age of 20, and considering the quantity of his work thereafter, he must have had few additional responsibilities other than those his God-given talent dictated.   

The Annunciation, c. 1436, Fra Angelico
He spent a good part of his early life in Florence decorating the Dominican Monastery of San Marco. In 1445, he was called by the church in Rome, leaving the completion of the San Marco frescoes to his assistants. Before leaving for Rome however, he completed one of his most beautiful works in a nondescript upstairs cell that may have been his own in the San Marco Monastery. It's an Annunciation painted high on the wall against the vaulted ceiling of Cell No. 3. Not a lavish rendition of the holy event it strikes us as deeply religious in its simplicity instead. Like the man who painted it, the scene can best be described as simply "holy". The angel Gabriel is positioned near the center of the arched composition, enlightening Mary of God's favor while off to the left, in one of several one-point perspective niches, stands Saint Dominic. The effect is that of a vision within a vision as Saint Dominic's prayers conjures up the vision of the angel and Mary and the whole painted scene is that of a vision seen by the occupant of the cell.   
Legend has it that Fra Angelico very nearly became a saint.  When called to Rome in 1445, Pope Eugene IV was in search of a new archbishop of Florence.  He eventually chose the vicar of San Marco, Antonio Pierozzi.  Two hundred years later, when Pierozzi was proposed for sainthood, it was revealed that the pope's first choice as archbishop of Florence was Fra Angelico, but that the painter's humility caused him to decline and instead suggest Pierozzi for the post.  That's unfortunate.  We painters could use a patron saint.

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