Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro circa 1395—died February 18, 1455) was an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. His nickname in English-speaking countries, Fra Angelico, means the “Angelic friar,” referring to his devout and humble demeanor. He earned his reputation primarily for with the series of frescoes he made for his own friary, San Marco, in Florence.
The earliest recorded document concerning Fra Angelico dates from October 17, 1417, when he joined a religious confraternity at the Carmine Church, still under the name of Guido di Pietro. This record reveals that he was already a painter. The first record of Angelico as a friar dates from 1423, when he is first referred to as Fra Giovanni (Friar John), following the custom of taking a new name upon entering a religious order.
According to Vasari (a sixteenth century artist and art historian), Fra Angelico initially received training as an illuminator, possibly working with his older brother Benedetto, who was also a Dominican and an illuminator. The former Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence, now a state museum, holds several illuminated manuscripts that are thought to be entirely or partly by his hand. According to Vasari, the first paintings of this artist were an altarpiece and a painted screen for the Charterhouse (Carthusian monastery) of Florence; neither still exist.
From 1408 to 1418, Fra Angelico lived at the Dominican friary of Cortona, where he painted frescoes, now mostly destroyed, in the Dominican Church. Between 1418 and 1436 he was at the convent of Fiesole, where he also painted a number of frescoes and the Altarpiece for the church.
In 1436, Fra Angelico was one of the friars from Fiesole who moved to the newly built friary of San Marco in Florence. This was an important move which put him in the center of artistic activity of the region and won him the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici, one of the wealthiest and most powerful members of the city’s governing authority and founder of the dynasty that would dominate Florentine politics for much of the Renaissance. Cosimo had a cell reserved for himself at the friary in order that he might retreat from the world. At Cosimo’s urging, Fra Angelico set about decorating the friary, including the magnificent fresco of the Chapter House, the often-reproduced Annunciation, the Coronation of the Madonna with Saints, and the many other devotional frescoes depicting aspects of the Life of Christ that adorn the walls of each cell.
In 1439 Fra Angelico completed one of his most famous works, the San Marco Altarpiece at Florence, which was unusual for its time. Images of the enthroned Madonna and Child surrounded by saints were common, but they usually depicted a setting that was clearly heaven-like, in which saints and angels hovered about as divine presences rather than people. But in this instance, the saints stand squarely within the space, grouped in a natural way as if they were able to converse about the shared experience of witnessing the Virgin in glory.
In 1445 Pope Eugene IV summoned him to Rome to paint the frescoes of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St Peter’s, later demolished by Pope Paul III. Fra Angelico was offered the Archbishopric of Florence, but he refused it, recommending another friar for the position. In 1447 Fra Angelico was in Orvieto, creating works for the Cathedral there.
From 1447 to 1449 Fra Angelico was back at the Vatican, designing the frescoes for the Niccoline Chapel for Pope Nicholas V. The scenes from the lives of the two martyrs, St. Stephen and St. Lawrence, may have been executed wholly or in part by assistants. The small chapel, with its brightly frescoed walls and gold leaf decorations gives the impression of a jewel box. From 1449 until 1452, Fra Angelico returned to his old convent of Fiesole, where he was the Prior.
In 1455, Fra Angelico died while staying at a Dominican convent in Rome, perhaps while working on Pope Nicholas’ chapel. He was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
When singing my praise, don’t liken my talents to those of Apelles.
Say, rather, that, in the name of Christ, I gave all I had to the poor.
The deeds that count on Earth are not the ones that count in Heaven.
I, Giovanni, am the flower of Tuscany.
— Translation of epitaph
Information for this article came from Wikipedia.
One of the highlights of the trip to St. Anthony’s Monastery is the many icons displayed in the church and the chapels. They were brought over from Greece. Some of them look to me like hand-painted originals, others like fine art reproductions, though I don’t know for sure. I don’t remember in which buildings most of these icons were located.
I’ve written about icons before, but I’ve never been where so many are displayed in one place. I’m fascinated by this Greek and Eastern Orthodox art form honoring Jesus, the saints, and the patriarchs. I hesitate to identify most of the images below, because I’d just be guessing. I am not knowledgeable about the symbolism, and I don’t read Greek, so I can’t decipher the writing on the icons.
In many of the icons, the thumb of the right hand (or both hands) touches the tip of the ring finger. I wonder what the significance of that is.
The picture below reminds me very much of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Look at the eyes in the cup below.
Is it just me, or are a lot of the faces below the same?
The icon below is also a mosaic. I’m pretty sure this is St. George. He’s defeating the dragon. And it’s located just outside the St. George Chapel.
The next three pictures are closeups of St. George so you can see the details. Amazing craftsmanship.
The following two mosaic angels are on the exterior of the St. George Chapel.
I love the Madonna and Child below. Any parent will recognize the backward arching of the infant.
I took another picture at an angle, because I wanted to get the Mother’s sweet face without the hanging candle holder right in front of it. Unfortunately, the angle caused a distortion that makes the Baby look all wonky.
This magnificent painted crucifix is in St. Seraphim’s Chapel.
This icon is also in St. Seraphim’s Chapel. Could it be Seraphim himself? Isn’t it interesting that there are notes stuck behind the picture? Could they be prayer requests?
Since childhood I have loved Christian art, no doubt due to my Roman Catholic upbringing. One of my favorite artists is Guido Reni (November 4, 1575—August 18, 1642), an Italian painter of the baroque period, who painted primarily religious themes.
When I was a girl, everyone brought a missal with them to church on Sunday. This missal was a Mass book, and contained the liturgy, plus all the gospel and Old and New Testament readings for every day of the year. It had ribbon markers for holding your places, but many people also collected holy cards as additional markers.
A holy card was a rectangular bookmark that had a religious image on one side and a prayer on the other. I believe some of my holy cards had works by Guido Reni on them.
Reni’s life was marked with drama that gave rise to legends about him. For example, in the painting St. Michael Archangel, Satan reportedly bears a resemblance to a cardinal (church official) whom Reni held a grudge against.
Reni received some important commissions in Rome to paint frescos in the Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Vatican. He was also given an assignment to paint the papal Chapel of the Annunciation, but because of a dispute about payment he left Rome and the job defaulted to another artist.
In 1618, Reni traveled to Naples to paint a ceiling in a chapel of the cathedral of San Gennaro. However, the prominent local painters loathed competitors, and supposedly conspired to poison or otherwise harm him. Reni abandoned Naples as soon as he could.
I’ve always had a special affinity for St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Cecilia was my mother-in-law’s middle name, and we passed it on to our youngest daughter as her middle name.
St. Matthew is the author of the gospel that bears his name, inspired by God. Perhaps God sent him an angel to tell him what to record.
St. James the Greater was one of the sons of Zebedee; his brother’s name was John. He is commonly called “the Greater” to distinguish him from two other Jameses in the Bible.
Stained glass can do three things: beautify buildings, control light, and tell a story.
Well-to-do Romans were first to use colored glass windows–in their homes, back in the first century AD. Early examples of stained glass windows can also be found in some of the palaces and mosques in the Middle East. In Jarrow, England, at St. Paul’s Monastery, pieces of a stained glass window dating from 686 AD were found.
Traditionally, to make stained glass, artisans mix potash and sand and heat it to approximately 3000 degrees Fahrenheit, adding various metallic oxide powders to create different colors. The glass is then flattened into sheets while still pliable. The artists create a blueprint, or cartoon, of the design on a large board. The sheets of glass are laid on top of the blueprint and cut into the approximate sizes needed. (In the olden days, details were painted onto the stained glass windows with a special paint made from ground glass and iron filings suspended in urine or wine; this mixture helped block light and define designs.) The finished pieces of glass are fitted into C- or H-shaped strips of lead called cames. The cames are soldered together to create panels, which are then put into an iron armature, completing the window and readying it for installation.
The stained glass windows so familiar today did not come about until the 10th century, with the construction of Gothic cathedrals. The earliest known stained glass pictoral is a portrait of Christ from the 10th century, discovered at the Lorsch Abbey in Germany. The oldest complete stained glass windows were those of Augsburg Cathedral in Germany, constructed in the late 11th century.
The Roman Catholic Church funded most of the stained glass windows of the time. Abbot Suger of Saint Denis was a famous patron of stained glass art and lived just outside of Paris. He used the wealth of his abbey to make windows larger and more beautiful, because he considered light the manifestation of God himself:
…God is light: in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1: 5b NIV).
One of the most important advancements in Gothic architecture was the development and use of the flying buttress, which served as an arched exterior support that could transfer the excess weight of a building outward. This allowed an increase in window size as well as more wall space to be occupied by windows.
The windows made during medieval times were mostly religious in theme and served to tell Biblical stories to lay people who could not read, as well as beautifying the churches. The windows probably had a more profound impact on the people than the sermons themselves. Portraits of saints depicted in the windows used symbols to convey details about their lives and deaths. Gothic windows were generally tall and spear-, wheel-, or rose-shaped. A good example of Gothic stained glass windows are those of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which holds one of the largest rose-shaped windows in the world.
The primary subjects of Renaissance windows were still Biblical, but the figures are dressed in Renaissance-style clothing. The scenes still feature symbolic imagery, perhaps even more so than in the Gothic period. At this time, even non-religious scenes were included in church windows. Stained glass was used in buildings like town halls and wealthy homes, although the panels of homes were small and usually just painted on. The use of linear perspective is seen in activity taking place in the background, while primary activity occurs in the foreground. Due to the humanist movement of the Renaissance, faces display more emotion than in older specimens.
Between the Renaissance and the mid-19th century stained glass windows fell from favor. This was largely due to changes within religious norms of the time – the church had been the supporter of the arts, and the new Protestants did not believe in fancy art work and decoration in church buildings. By 1640, stained glass was rare and only small panels featuring heraldry were used for homes and city halls. The English Parliament demanded all images of the Virgin Mary and the Trinity be removed from churches, so many stained glass windows were smashed by fanatic vandals. The destruction only stopped because it was too costly to replace the windows. Stained glass window making became a lost art.
Today, some churches, synagogues, and mosques are still constructed with stained glass windows, though many Protestant denominations eschew them. The windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Marc Chagall, and Frank Lloyd Wright are fine examples of modern stained glass windows.
Our Lady of Strasbourg Cathedral, Crucifixion of Christ
This video about the history of stained glass shows the fragment of the Jarrow window mentioned above and the role of artists in Brooklyn, NY. Also, a window maker is shown breaking glass into the required shape.
Take a tour of the beautiful windows at Gower Street United Church, St. John’s, Newfoundland:
The information in this article came from two articles online, “The History of Stained Glass Windows” and “The Development of Stained Glass in Gothic Cathedrals.” To learn more about the process of making stained glass, see this wonderful article from Khan Academy, which includes photographs.
*Lead cames illustration by Rickpelleg, shared under Creative Commons license 2.5.