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Fra Angelico: Biography & Paintings

Instructor: Holly Hunt

Holly has master's degrees in history and writing, as well as an extensive background in art history.

In this lesson we'll take a look at the work of Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar and Italian painter of the fifteenth century known for the grace and beauty of his style. His work, while deeply religious, reflects a new realism in its handling of landscape and perspective.

Introduction: The Man Who Painted Like an Angel

The nickname says it all -- or does it? The painter we know as Fra Angelico ('the angelic brother') earned that name because of the sweetness and beauty of his style, as well as the holiness of his life. ('Fra', meaning 'brother', refers to the fact he was a Dominican friar.)

But Fra Angelico -- known during his lifetime as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole -- was more than just one angelic nickname. He was also one of the most innovative painters of his generation, especially in his handling of landscape and perspective. His work forms an important link between the art of the early Renaissance and that of the high Renaissance.

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation of Cortona, 1433-34.
Fra Angelico, Annunciation of Cortona

Biography

As is often the case with artists of his era, there's very little we know for sure about Fra Angelico's early life. The date of his birth is unknown, though it's assumed to be somewhere around the 1390s. His name at birth was Guido da Pietro, and he was born not far from Florence, the center of the Italian Renaissance. By 1420 or so he was both an established painter and a member of a Dominican community at Fiesole, just outside Florence.

Fra Angelico, Meeting of St Francis (left) and St Dominic (right). Detail from the predella of the Compagnia di San Francesco altarpiece, c1429.
St Francis Meeting St Dominic, detail from the predella of the Compagnia di San Francesco altarpiece

The Dominicans, also known as the Order of Preachers, were one of two important new mendicant orders of the era (the other was the Franciscan order, founded by St. Francis of Assisi). This means that, unlike members of traditional monastic communities, the 'brothers' did not shut themselves away from society, but rather played important roles as teachers, preachers, and even inquisitors.

Fra Angelico would have been mindful that his job as a painter was to help lay people and fellow clerics understand and experience their faith more deeply. He was active in other aspects of Dominican life, eventually becoming a prior, or senior member, of the convent of San Marco, the Dominican foundation in Florence for which he also created some of his most celebrated work.

Fra Angelico, St Lawrence Distributing Alms, Niccoline Chapel, Vatican, 1447-1451.
Fresco of St Lawrence Distributing Alms

His work at San Marco brought Fra Angelico to the attention of Pope Eugenius IV, who brought him to Rome to paint at the Vatican in 1445. Unfortunately, little of his work in Rome survives. From 1449 to 1452, he served in Fiesole as a prior, but was back in Rome again when he died in 1455. In 1982, more than 400 years after his death, he was granted the status of Beatus, or Blessed, a kind of junior sainthood.

Paintings

Among the best known of Fra Angelico's works is the altarpiece he painted for a church at Cortona depicting the Annunciation (the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will be the mother of Christ). The surface beauty of the picture (seen at the top of the lesson) sums up what draws people to Fra Angelico's work: an angel in a pink robe highlighted with real gold appears before Mary under an elegant arched loggia, beside a flowery garden. On the left hand horizon, we can see Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden, but even they appear calm and composed.

Fra Angelico, detail of The Annunciation of Cortona.
detail of angel from Annunciation of Cortona

Underlying the prettiness of the scene is a new sense of spatial order, created by Fra Angelico's use of linear perspective (in which parallel lines are seen to converge on a distant vanishing point). His handling of space is even more revolutionary in the scenes he painted for the altarpiece's predella (a series of small scenes bordering a larger picture, often dramatizing religious stories related to the central image). In one panel of the predella, showing the Visitation, a woman climbs a steep path towards the scene's central figures, with a view of landscape (recognizable as a valley near Florence) behind her.

Fra Angelico, The Visitation, from the predella of the Annunciation of Cortona.
The Visitation, from the predella of the Annunciation of Cortona

Why is this important? While artists had been placing figures in convincingly three-dimensional spaces since the time of Giotto (1266/7-1337), these spaces usually resembled stage sets -- shallow boxes with backdrops. In panel paintings, it was still common for figures to be placed against a gold background, with no attempt at a realistic setting. But in this scene, Fra Angelico not only depicts a real landscape, he convinces us that his figures are walking out of it towards the viewer.

Fra Angelico, detail from The Deposition from the Cross, c.1430-1440.
detail of landscape, The Deposition

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