In honor of the Christmas season, I thought it would be a nice idea to look at an artist famous for his beautiful and elegant religious paintings. I’m speaking, of course, about Fra Angelico.
Guido di Pietro (c. 1395-1455), aka Fra Angelico, was an Early Renaissance painter and Dominican monk from Florence, Italy. Before joined the Dominicans around 1419-22, he trained in the workshop of artist-monk Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1370-1425). Unsurprisingly, he made his career in religious paintings – mostly altarpieces and frescos for churches and monasteries throughout Italy. His masterpiece is the lovely Annunciation below, part of a whole series of frescos he made for his own convent of San Marco in Florence. In general, he is most admired for his slender and elegant angels and saints, with their expressive faces, beautiful hair, and flowing garments with gilt embellishment. Although he also painted plenty of Christianity’s more dramatic scenes, like Crucifixions and martyrdoms, I’ve chosen to focus this post on the gentler images most appropriate for the Christmas season.
Fra Angelico’s style is partway between Medieval and Renaissance. His paintings display some of the decorative qualities of illuminated manuscripts and Byzantine icons. In art history speak, “decorative” means that a painting features elaborate patterning but lacks the illusion of three-dimensions. The Book of Kells is a great example. Decorative aspects of Fra Angelico’s paintings include textured gold halos, multi-colored angel wings, and gilt ornament on garments. On the other hand, his work also includes aspects of Renaissance naturalism, such as volume and perspective, but they’re less developed than what we will see from High Renaissance artists like Raphael.
Personally, I think that Fra Angelico’s unique balance between Medieval decoration and Renaissance naturalism plays a big role in making his paintings so magical. Although his artworks might seem slightly naïve compared to the those of subsequent centuries, their harmony, grace, and balance make them anything but inferior.
When Guido di Pietro joined the Dominicans, he took the name Fra Giovanni. So, why do we call him Fra Angelico? Shortly after his death, the Dominican order gave him the Latin honorary title Pictor Angelicus (Angelic Painter), which morphed into “Fra Angelico”. The title suggests that the artist himself was like an angel; it doesn’t actually refer to his many paintings of angels, though the title certainly fits there, too. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1984 and is considered the patron of artists.
In recent decades, Fra Angelico’s reputation has been changed and grown thanks to new research conducted for the five-hundredth anniversary of his death in 1955 and for a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005. For centuries, Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Painters was the prime source for information about Fra Angelico. Vasari may have been the world’s first art historian, but he wasn’t the most reliable source. Vasari liked to mix morality into his art history, and he wasn’t above making evidence fit his story rather than the other way around. He portrayed Fra Angelico as an paragon of exemplary morals – a deeply-pious, hermit-like figure who shunned the wider world and dedicate his existence solely to God and painting. It makes a great story, but scholars are increasingly realizing that the real Fra Angelico was more sophisticated than Vasari gave him credit for.
This isn’t just a curiosity about his biography; it impacts his place in art history. Scholars used to believe that Fra Angelico derived much of his style from his more highly-revered contemporary, Masaccio (1401-1428). But new research into Fra Angelico’s early career suggests that he didn’t necessarily follow Masaccio’s innovations and may well have come to these ideas himself. In turns out that this talented monk and his Christmas card-worthy paintings are more original and significant than anybody ever realized.
Update 12/23/19: I liked Fra Angelico so much that I wrote about his Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi for DailyArt Magazine’s pre-Christmas Painting of the Week. Check it out here.
- “The Annunciation“. Madrid: Museo del Prado.
- “Fra Angelico: October 26, 2005-January 29, 2006“. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005.
- Harris, Beth Harris & Steven Zucker, “Fra Angelico, The Annunciation and Life of the Virgin (c. 1426)“, in Smarthistory, November 24, 2015.
- Harris, Beth & Steven Zucker, “Fra Angelico, The Annunciation (c. 1438-47)“, in Smarthistory, November 28, 2015.
- Kanter, Laurence B. et al. Painting and Illumination in Early Renaissance Florence 1300-1450. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994. Available online through MetPublications.
- Kanter, Laurence & Pia Palladino. Fra Angelico. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005. Available online through MetPublications.
- Kanter, Laurence. “In Search of Fra Angelico: The Artist as a Young Man”. Lecture delivered at the Yale University Art Gallery, February 2, 2018. Video available on the Yale University Art Gallery YouTube channel.