Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John on Fiesole) was a Dominican monk and painter who was probably born in 1395 and died in 1455. He is one of the great Renaissance artists, a significant painter who made great contributions to art. His work is an essential link between the gothic look of the middle ages and the Renaissance. What sets him apart is his exceptional skill with a brush and his deep devotion to his Lord. All of his paintings are of Christian subjects. Florence in the Renaissance was a place bursting with humanistic ideas. Artists were increasingly fascinated with mythological themes from antiquity at a time when the churches control over culture remained strong from the Middle Ages. Consider Donatello’s “David” from the 1440s- also made in Florence, the first free-standing nude sculpture since ancient times, yet also a biblical subject.
Contrast that with Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, who maintained the high church or gothic subjects of the middle ages while infusing them with quiet grace and emotion. To him, painting these scenes was an act of devotion to God, so much so that according to Vasari in his “Lives of the Artists” from 1550 he could never handle a brush without fervent prayer and could not paint a crucifixion without tears streaming down his cheeks. Says Vasari- “It is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.” For this reason, he is called Fra Angelico, “the Angelic Friar”. He was beautified by Pope John Paul II in 1982 as the patron saint of Catholic Artists.
For all the great advances of the Renaissance, Fra Angelico remained a humble and devout friar and turned down opportunities to move up within the order. Instead, he devoted himself to a life of prayer, service, and painting. It’s pretty clear to see from his work that he viewed the 3 as 1 and the same. The work above is one of many Fra Angelico scenes of the “Annunciation”, the moment that the angel Gabriel reveals to the virgin Mary that she will give birth to the savior. Check out this link to see another Fra Angelico “Annunciation”. He paints his subjects supremely delicate in a typical Italian structure, which makes use of perspective to show depth to the vaulted porch (Perspective was still a very recent innovation at the time, developed in Florence by Brunelleschi and put to use by Masaccio). The faces and the drapery still appear very gothic in nature, but the entire work conveys a sense of quiet holiness common to all Fra Angelico paintings. He is not interested, as many other Florentine artists were, in challenging the rules and pushing the boundaries of art. Rather, he is continuing the tradition of medieval Christian art with tremendous talent and excellence. His works are built around an uncommon and profound simplicity that enhances the biblical narrative of his paintings.
One of Florence’s great artistic treasures is the Convent of San Marco, a few blocks north of the Duomo. It’s far less crowded than other museums, and is filled with Fra Angelico’s frescos. It was newly built in 1436 and Fra Angelico was among the friars who moved in. As a talented painter, moving to Florence meant that he was surrounded by the greatest patrons of the arts. The story is that Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of Florence and godfather of the Renaissance, kept a cell for himself at San Marco in order to have a quiet place to retreat to. It was there that he encountered Fra Angelico, and urged him to decorate the place. There are 45 frescos in all, decorating each of the individual rooms and areas of the hallway.
Each fresco is designed to enhance the act of devotion and worship. They take the rounded shape of the vaulted ceilings in each room and contain minimal backgrounds in the paintings. giving the illusion of the painting as a window into another room. Many of the scenes, such as the crucifixion and the annunciation, are repeated. Here we see “The Transfiguration” from cell 6, which shows the glowing Christ on the mountain flanked by the hovering heads of Moses and Elijah on his right and left. At his feat, the disciples shield their eyes and bow in reverence.
Like Michelangelo 60 years later, Fra Angelico was summoned from Florence to Rome by the Pope in order to decorate the walls and ceilings of the Vatican. The room is a small chapel named after Pope Nicholas V, and is on the Vatican tour today. It was not long after completing this that Fra Angelico fell ill and died while in Rome. Today, San Marco is a tremendous place to visit to see the best of Fra Angelico’s work. The cells have been restored in the last decade and are bright as they originally where. One of the cells was home to Savonarola decades after Fra Angelico, and his personal items are still there. There is also a great museum in the basement which includes many small wooden altarpieces by the artist. Fra Angelico has been in the news as recently at 2007, when a woman in Great Britain revealed 2 small paintings on wooden panel from her attic, purchased by her father for 100 pounds each in the 60s. As it turns out, they are both missing pieces to a larger Fra Angelico altarpiece and they sold for millions. Today, they are at San Marco too. Here’s a great youtube clip that shows many of Fra Angelico’s paintings in great color and detail.