Many sinners and few saints populate the halls of art history. Guido di Pietro, better known as Fra Angelico, died on this date in 1455. Born around 1395, Fra Angelico created some of the finest works of the early Italian Renaissance, setting the stage for later masterpieces. A direct line of influence can be drawn from Angelico’s pupil Benozzo Gozzoli to his pupil Ghirlandaio to his star pupil Michelangelo. Thus, Fra Angelico’s Day of Judgement (above, from 1432-1435, in San Marco, Florence) can be seen as one of the starting points for Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. Angelico’s Day of Judgment epitomizes the Sacred Conversations genre in which saints and angels gathered about figures such as Jesus and the Virgin Mary conversing and gesturing in a heavenly type of cocktail party. It’s easy to imagine Fra Angelico, who received beatification from Pope John Paul II in 1982, joining the crowd.
Vasari heaps praise on Fra Angelico like he does for few others in his Lives of the Artists. Only truly religious men, Vasari believed, could paint such scenes as Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation (above, from 1437-1446). “A talent so extraordinary and so supreme as that of Fra Giovanni could not and should not descend on any save a man of most holy life, for the reason that those who work at religious and holy subjects should be religious and holy men,” Vasari wrote. “For it is seen, when such works are executed by persons of little faith who have little esteem for religion, that they often arouse in men's minds evil appetites and licentious desires; whence there comes blame for the evil in their works, with praise for the art and ability that they show.” Of course, Filippo Lippi, as Robert Browning’s poem Fra Lippo Lippi attests, breaks that rule with gusto. Regardless of his personal qualities, I love Angelico’s Annunciation for the stylized architecture and the drapery and wings of the angel. Looking at Mary’s beautifully open face today, you know instantly how it won the good father the title of “the angelic one” almost instantly.
One of the many things I regret not seeing during my trip to Florence is Fra Angelico’s works at San Marco. With so many things to see in a short amount of time, you have to prioritize, and, sadly, he didn’t make the cut. It would have been wonderful to see such works as his painting of the Crucified Christ (above, detail, from 1437-1446) in person. “He never painted a Crucifix without the tears streaming down his cheeks,” Vasari says of Fra Angelico, and you can see that intensity in the painting above. I love the tiny details, especially the tufts of chest hair and underarm hair of the dying savior. Fra Angelico may have been “the angelic one,” but his painting humanized Christ and Christianity in a way that the later humanism of Michelangelo and the Renaissance would build upon. To make a bloodless, bodiless saint of Fra Angelico would be a disservice to the blood, sweat, and tears he shed in creating his art.