Giorgio Vasari | Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects, Fra Angelico | Detailed biography of the artist
 Fra Angelico somehow managed to combine the life of a Dominican friar with that of an innovative, professional artist. Though his early training was in manuscript illumination, he is best known for his purely colored frescoes, done in everything from monks' cells to a Vatican chapel. Fra Angelico was influenced by Gentile da Fabriano (early on) and Masaccio (in spatial concepts). Fra Angelico was beatified in 1984, and named patron saint of artists by Pope John Paul II.
Called "Angelico" for his inimitable depictions of paradise, this artist (1400? -1455) and Dominican friar succeeded Masaccio as the foremost painter of the early Renaissance in Italy. Fra Angelicos painting has been beloved for centuries since as an emblem of the flowering genius of quattrocento Florence.
In his engaging new appraisal, John Spike reveals the unexpectedly innovative qualities of Angelicos art, including his use of linear and geometric perspective (even before the publication of Leon Battista Albertis famous treatise). Another of Angelicos inventions was the Renaissance altarpiece known as the sacra conversazione (sacred conversation), in which the Virgin and Child and saints, formerly each rigidly enclosed in separate panels, now gesture and relate to each other within a clearly unified space.
Fra Angelico had a lifelong fascination with the written word, and as Spike persuasively demonstrates, the accuracy of his Greek, Latin, and Hebrew inscriptions reveal his participation in the linguistic studies that flourished in Florence and Rome in the first half of the fifteenth century. He created some of the most visionary and learned compositions of his century, from his Deposition for the private chapel of the humanist Palla Strozzi to the extensive commissions in Rome for the erudite Pope Nicholas v. In this volume Spike presents a major discovery: the secret program of the forty frescoes in the cells of the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence. All previous studies of this artist had concluded that the subjects and arrangement of these frescoes, the artists masterworks, were chosen at random, or by the friars themselves. Instead, as the author now shows, Fra Angelico drew upon the mystical writings of the early church fathers to construct a spiritual exercise organized into three ascending levels of enlightenment. The San Marco frescoes can finally be seen as not only the most extensive cycle of works by any single painter of this century, but indeed the most complete pictorial expression of Renaissance theology.
 "Cosimo ordered his favorite architect Michelozzo to repair the building, richly endowed it with 400 rare manuscripts and classic statues of Venus and Apollo. To do the frescoes, Cosimo called on the great Dominican painter Fra Angelico.
While the old San Marco buildings were being repaired, the Dominicans lived in huts and damp cells. But as the ground floor was readied, Fra Angelico and his assistants went to work, painting a series of Crucifixions in the cloister, the main refectory and the chapter house. For Cosimo's cell, largest in the monastery, where the Medici prince liked to retire for contemplation, Fra Angelico repeated once again the Coming of the Magi at Cosimo's request, "to have this example of Eastern kings laying down their crowns at the manger of Bethlehem always before his eyes as a reminder for his own guidance as a ruler."
Fra Angelico concentrated on the simple devotional images required by his fellow monks for their meditations and prayers. The results, seen in the six cells definitely painted by Fra Angelico, represent Fra Angelico at his strongest and purest. To portray The Mocking of Christ, he painted a regal, blindfolded Christ figure crowned with thorns; the throng of jeering soldiery appear only as a group of disembodied hands and a loutish head, cap raised in sarcasm, spitting upon Christ. By abstracting all but the essential central image, Fra Angelico makes the eye travel through a curve of space to return endlessly to its starting point—the perfect movement theologians ascribe to the contemplative soul.
In 1443, the Pope visited San Marco to dedicate the finished convent. Two years later, the Pontiff called Fra Angelico to Rome to begin the great work of decorating the Vatican."
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The San Marco Museum is housed in the Dominican monastery of San Marco, built between 1438 and 1444 by will of Cosimo the Elder of the Medici family, on a design by the architect Michelozzo, who created an architectural masterpiece of functionality, harmony and elegance.
The monastery, and the adjoining Library, once housing Greek and Latin books, was one of the most important centres of the Florentine Humanism, but its fame is mainly due to the splendid cycle of frescoes painted within 1450 by the painter-monk Fra Angelico, one of the greatest masters of the Florentine Renaissance.
Head of the monastery at the end of the 15th C. was Girolamo Savonarola, great preacher who inspired the Florentine Republic, then condemned as a heretic and executed on Piazza Signoria in 1498.
The State Museum was opened in 1869.
The rooms of the monastery are located all around the Renaissance cloister by Michelozzo, on the ground and on the upper floor. The biggest collection of panel-paintings by Fra Angelico in the world has been displayed in the Hospice Hall (Sala dell’Ospizio) since the early 20th C. The section by the Large Refectory was arranged much later (1980-90) in order to house paintings by Fra Bartolomeo and the artists of the San Marco School. The Last Supper frescoed in 1480 by Domenico Ghirlandaio decorates the Small Refectory. The big cycle of frescoes by Fra Angelico, remarkable example of contemplative art, starts in the cloister and in the Chapter House, but it is fully displayed on the upper floor, along the corridors and inside the cells of the dormitory. On the same upper floor the harmonious Library by Michelozzo houses a great collection of 15th C. illuminated books. At the far end of the dormitory, the cells once belonged to Savonarola show memories of his life and of his tragic death.
Panel-paintings by Fra Angelico, in the Hospice Hall are : Deposition of Christ, from Santa Trinita, Triptych of St. Peter the Martyr, the Annalena Altarpiece, the San Marco Altarpiece, the Last Judgement and the Linen-Drapers Tabernacle.
Frescoes by Fra Angelico: in the Cloister, St. Dominic at the feet of the Cross; in the Chapter House, Crucifixion; along the corridors of the Dormitory, Annunciation and Madonna of the Shadows; in the cells, Noli Me Tangere, Annunciation, The Mocking of Christ, Transfiguration; in the cell of Cosimo the Elder, Adoration of the Magi, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli, one of Fra Angelico’s assistants.
Fra Angelico | Frescoes in the Convento di San Marco (1438-50)
 The Old and New Testaments, which have been understood as a "wheel within a wheel" since at least the sixth century when Saint Gregory the Great presented his Homilies on Ezekiel in (593 AD):
"The wheel within the wheel is, as we said, the New Testament within the Old Testament, because what the Old Testament defined the New Testament showed forth. ... Therefore, the wheel is in the midst of a wheel because the New Testament is encompassed by the Old. And, as we have often said already, what the Old Testament promised the New showed forth, and what the one covertly announced the other openly proclaimed manifest. Therefore, the Old Testament is the prophecy of the New, and the New is the exposition of the Old."
Gregory's explanation of the "wheel within a wheel" is identical to Augustine's poetic dictum "The New is in the Old concealed, and the Old is in the New revealed." This understanding is found throughout the writings of the Church Fathers, and was graphically portrayed in the fifteenth century by Fra Angelico in his magnificent set of 32 panels called the Silver Closet (Armadio degli Argenti, 1455 AD). The first nine panels, shown in the image, begin with a representation of Ezekiel's Wheel. Each panel that follows has two banners quoting Scripture; the top banner quotes an Old Testament prophecy and the bottom banner quotes its fulfillment in the New. For example, the second panel shows the Annunciation when Gabriel spoke to the Virgin Mary. The top banner quotes Isaiah 7:14 "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel," and the bottom banner quotes its fulfillment in Luke 1:31 "Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus." This is the purpose of the Silver Closet. The 31 panels that follow the Wheel exemplify how the Two Testaments interweave like a "wheel in the middle of a wheel." They demonstrate the reality of prophecy by telling the whole story of Christ from His Birth to His Ministry, His Death and His Resurrection through interlaced passages from the both Testaments. It is a magnificent piece of theological art. Here now is the first panel showing Ezekiel's Wheel as the Old and New Testaments:
The outer wheel represents the Old Testament by portraying twelve of its primary prophets. Moses sits in the top position, holding the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. He is flanked by King David on his right and King Solomon on his left. Listed clockwise, we have Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Micah, Jonah, Joel, Malachi, Ezra, Daniel, and Isaac, the latter being the only Old Testament figure not known as a writer of Sacred Scripture. Angelico encircled the outer Wheel of the Old Testament with the Latin text of Genesis 1:1-5 from the Vulgate:
"In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram terra autem erat inanis et vacua et tenebrae super faciem abyssi et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas dixitque Deus fiat lux et facta est lux. Et vidit Deus lucem quod esset bona et divisit lucem ac tenebras appellavitque lucem diem."
The inner wheel represents the New Testament. It portrays the Four Evangelists as a cross like the Four Cherubim around God's Throne. The top figure represents John, the bottom Luke, the right Mark, and the left Matthew. These four figures each hold a codex (bound book). In contrast, the other four prophets of the New Testament – Peter, Jude, James, Paul – are interspersed and portrayed with scrolls. Angelico encircled the Wheel of the New Testament with the Latin text of John 1:1-3 from the Vulgate:
"In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum. hoc erat in principio apud Deum. omnia per ipsum facta sunt et sine ipso factum est nihil quod factum est."
Fra Angelico inscribed both wheels with text that begins with In principio (In the beginning) to show the unity of God's Creative Word as revealed in the Two Testaments. The figures at the bottom are the Prophet Ezekiel on the left and Saint Gregory on the right. The banner at the bottom reads "Flumen Cobar" (River Chebar), the place of the vision. The unrolled scroll in the upper left corner quotes the Latin text of Ezekiel that speaks of the Four Cherubim and their wheels. The unrolled scroll in the upper right corner quotes a fragment from one of Gregory's Homilies on Ezekiel.