Fra Angelico: The Early Life and Career of a Christian Artist
In the world of art, Fra Angelico stands out as a beacon of Christian inspiration. His paintings and frescoes are some of the most admired works of the Renaissance period, created in the service of the Dominican order.
But who was Fra Angelico before he became the gifted artist we know today? In this article, we will explore his early life and career and gain an insight into the man who would become one of the most revered religious painters of all time.
Early Life and Training
Born in the Tuscan town of Vicchio in 1395, Fra Angelico was given the name Guido di Pietro. He was the son of a farmer and stonemason, and one of at least five children.
Although we don’t know much about his early life, his later work suggests that he had a deep religious faith from a young age. As a young man, Guido showed an aptitude for art, and he was soon apprenticed to his fellow Tuscan, Lorenzo Monaco.
Monaco was a highly respected artist, known for his exquisite detail and use of color, and Guido would have learned much from him. Guido’s artistic skills soon surpassed those of his master, and he began working as a freelance artist and manuscript illuminator.
In 1420, he entered the Dominican monastery of San Domenico in Fiesole, a decision that would shape the rest of his life.
Early Career and Dominican Order
Guido’s postulancy, or period of probation, in the Dominican order was to be brief. According to legend, he was visited by an angel who commanded him to devote his life to art in God’s service.
From that moment on, Guido adopted the name Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, or Brother John of Fiesole, and devoted himself to religious art. As a Dominican monk, Fra Giovanni had to adapt to a new way of life.
He took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and was expected to lead a life of prayer and contemplation. He practiced self-flagellation, abstained from meat, and spent long hours reading and studying Latin texts.
Despite this demanding routine, Fra Giovanni continued to create art of the highest quality. His works for the Dominican monastery included illuminated manuscripts, altarpieces, and frescoes.
One of his most celebrated works is the Messale 558, a beautifully illuminated manuscript produced in 1430. But it was his frescoes that would make Fra Giovanni famous.
In the early 1430s, he was commissioned to decorate the cells of the Dominican friars in the monastery of San Marco in Florence. These frescoes, which depict scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, are considered some of Fra Giovanni’s finest works.
Fra Angelico’s art was a reflection of his deep religious faith and his devotion to God. His paintings and frescoes continue to inspire and move people today, more than five hundred years after his death.
Despite his success as an artist, Fra Angelico remained a humble and pious Dominican monk to the end of his life. His legacy remains an enduring testament to the beauty and power of religious art.
3) Rising Fame and Patronage
As Fra Angelico’s reputation grew, his patronage shifted from the small circle of the Dominican order to wealthy traders and merchants. The patrons who commissioned his works varied in their social status, intellect and wealth.
Fra Angelico was able to cater to the demands of various patrons, manifesting in his works a degree of flexibility in style and subject matter. An affluent patron like Palla Strozzi saw Fra Angelico’s brilliance and commissioned significant works from him.
In 1425, Palla Strozzi commissioned the altarpiece for the Church of Santa Trinita in Florence. It is an impressive piece that includes six panels depicting the life of St. Francis, St. John the Evangelist and St. Lawrence in such a way that each of the figures appears to be in conversation with one other, creating a sense of movement and dialogue.
The panels are embellished with glimmering gold and brilliant colours that give the work an ethereal quality. However, Fra Angelico’s most famous and influential patron was none other than Cosimo de Medici, the leading figure of the Florentine Republic.
Cosimo was a renowned art patron, and his love for the arts led to the Medici family becoming one of the most significant artistic patrons of all time. Despite the lavishness of his patrons, Fra Angelico’s artistry and religious themes were never compromised.
The patron’s admiration for Fra Angelico’s works was undoubtedly instrumental in the painter’s rise to preeminence as one of the most important artists of the age.
4) Mature Period and San Marco Monastery
In 1436, Fra Angelico received a commission from Pope Eugenius IV to decorate the walls of the newly rebuilt San Marco monastery in Florence. This commission was highly significant due to the Pope’s authority, and Fra Angelico had a chance to demonstrate his artistic prowess in the presence of the papal court.
Under the patronage of Pope Eugenius IV, Fra Angelico’s abilities were unleashed, and some of his greatest masterpieces were produced. The works that he created in San Marco were defined by a level of refinement and intricacy that was unmatched.
He painted every wall of every cell with exquisite frescoes, each one telling a different story from the Bible. The variety of pieces culminated in his masterpiece, the Last Judgment, which was painted on the wall of the chapterhouse.
It is a piece that is awe-inspiring, depicting the final judgment scene in a harmony of terrifying and glorious colors. During his tenure at San Marco, Fra Angelico was joined by his pupil Benozzo Gozzoli.
The two artists would work together for a period of five years, collaborating on various paintings and altarpieces for the monastery. This union of two artistic minds gave rise to some of the most celebrated artistic works of the 15th century.
Their joint works included the Adoration of the Magi, a painting that brilliantly synthesized the ideas of Dominican philosophy and artistic craftsmanship. They also worked on the Annunciation, a painting characterized by its striking realism and exceptional beauty.
Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli created an indelible mark on the art world that persists to this day. In conclusion, the middle period of Fra Angelico’s career was marked by a series of significant achievements that established him as one of the foremost artistic representatives of his time.
His works were a result of his talent and spirituality that inspired art enthusiasts and religious leaders alike. The patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici and Pope Eugenius IV solidified his position, giving him the chance to display his artistic genius.
Furthermore, his collaboration with Benozzo Gozzoli gave rise to a corpus of works that were some of the most innovative of the 15th century. Fra Angelico’s life was characterized by both his talent and his piety, and his works continue to inspire awe and wonderment in art lovers and religious devotees alike.
5) Late Period and Rome
In the latter period of his career, Fra Angelico’s accomplishments led to Pope Eugenius IV inviting the artist to Rome to work on a project that had enormous religious and symbolic significance. The project he was commissioned to do was the completion of the paintings for the Vatican Library under Pope Nicholas V.
Although Fra Angelico had begun the work on them while he was still in Florence, he was now tasked with bringing the pieces to completion.
Fra Angelico brought his unique ideas to the Vatican Library frescoes, fashioning them into breathtaking compositions that are both religiously significant and artistically inspired.
The altar fresco Christ in Glory is the most celebrated among these works, portraying the Eternal Father surrounded by angelic throngs, with Christ seated at his side. All his frescoes for the Vatican Library aimed to reveal the true spirituality of religious art, a concept that Fra Angelico had carefully crafted over a lifetime of artistic expression.
During this late period, Fra Angelico worked closely with Luca Signorelli, an artist who was a decade younger than him. They collaborated on some of the most significant art projects of the time, including the Chapel of San Brizio at the Orvieto Cathedral.
The chapel was notable for its vast, upward-reaching walls, and for the vision and skill with which Fra Angelico and Signorelli painted the frescoes. The ceiling of the Chapel of San Brizio bore a massive painting of the Last Judgment, in which all humanity stood before the throne of God.
The central piece was flanked by other smaller paintings, each one a study of a particular biblical story or theological concept, and all of them done with Fra Angelico’s usual care and religious fervor. Unfortunately, the chapels’ details were left incomplete due to the poor economy during the time, but their work has stood the test of time, becoming famous among the greatest artistic achievements of all time.
6) Legacy and Influence
Fra Angelico’s exceptional life and career have left an indelible legacy on the history of art and culture. His influence on the religious art of the Renaissance period was profound, and his legacy continues to be celebrated to this very day.
In 1982, Fra Angelico was declared “blessed” by Pope John Paul II, a tribute that attests to the depth of his religious devotion. It is said that Pope John Paul II held him in such high regard that he had a portrait of Fra Angelico installed in his personal chambers so that he could pray to the artist as well as the saint.
Fra Angelico’s influence on painters of the Renaissance, and beyond, cannot be overstated. He had an innate sense of color that allowed him to create artwork with dramatic effect, and his use of structure and composition ushered in a new way of depicting religious themes.
His art captivated and emotionally touched people, inspiring them to feel closer to their religion and their faith. Notable among the painters who were influenced by Fra Angelico’s style were Luca Signorelli, Raphael, the Pre-Raphaelites, Rogier van der Weyden, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
His paintings continue to evoke powerful reactions in people to this day, inspiring awe, reverence, and a profound sense of wonderment. Fra Angelico’s life’s work was an exemplary embodiment of religious dedication that, to this day, continues to inspire generations of people around the world.
In conclusion, Fra Angelico’s life and career were characterized by a deep religious devotion that permeated every aspect of his art. From his early training under Lorenzo Monaco to his rise as a renowned painter in the service of the Dominican order, Fra Angelico’s work exemplified a harmonious blend of talent and piety.
His collaborations with esteemed patrons like Palla Strozzi and Cosimo de’ Medici propelled him to fame, while his works for the Vatican Library and the Orvieto Cathedral showcased his artistic genius alongside Luca Signorelli. Fra Angelico’s influence on religious art and the Renaissance period cannot be overstated, inspiring artists for centuries to come.
His art’s emotive power, exceptional use of color, and profound compositions solidify his legacy as one of the most important artists in history. The life and works of Fra Angelico serve as a reminder of the enduring power of faith and the beauty that can be achieved through the marriage of artistic skill and deep spirituality.