After studying painting for years with Cosimo Rosselli and briefly with Domenico Ghirlandaio, two of the four artists that first worked on the Sistine Chapel in 1480, Bartolommeo di Pagola del Fartorino found himself searching for something more in life than just art. The man better known today as Fra Bartolommeo found that meaning in the teachings of the Dominican priest Fra Girolamo Savonarola (above, in a portrait by Fra Bartolommeo from 1498). Born March 28, 1472, Fra Bartolommeo joined the Dominican order shortly after the charismatic Savonarola, who condemned the corruption of the Florentine government and the Catholic church and decadent worldliness in general, met his end by hanging and burning the same year that the above portrait was painted. The Latin inscription says “Portrait of the Prophet Jerome of Ferrara, sent by God.” Fra Bartolommeo was a true believer in the power of religion and of art and did his best to bring those two worlds together.
After joining the Dominican order in 1500, Fra Bartolommeo actually gave up painting for four years. However, Savonarola believed in the visual arts as serving a role as a poor man’s Bible to help him understand the meaning of God’s Word, so eventually Fra Bartolommeo followed Savonarola’s preachings and recommitted himself to religious scenes such as his moving Descent From the Cross (above, from 1515), in which his skill in rendering color and drapery come to the forefront. Raphael actually studied color and drapery under Fra Bartolommeo in 1507, in exchange for Raphael teaching his friar friend the intricacies of perspective. Raphael may have been more creative in his paintings, but something remains to be said of Fra Bartolommeo’s combination of workmanlike technique and sincere religious fervor.
One of Fra Bartolommeo’s most fascinating scenes is The Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena (above, from 1511). Saint Catherine was a tertiary of Fra Bartolommeo’s own Dominican order, giving her special significance for him. However, despite this connection and the prominence of her name in the title, we only see Saint Catherine’s back as she kneels before the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus raised upon a throne. Like Catherine, Fra Bartolommeo saw himself as a simple servant of a higher power, content to rest at the feet of glory. Fra Bartolommeo neither rises to the angelic status of Fra Angelico or descends to the tawdry reputation of Fra Filippo Lippi, but remains a bit of a cypher whose work is all we know of the man and priest, and perhaps all we need to know.