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Blessed Fra Angelico, The Angelic Painter

Last Judgment by Fra Angelico, ca. 1431 (Source)

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.”

So goes the epitaph of the Blessed Fra Angelico: Dominican friar, Renaissance painter, and — most recently — the Patron of All Catholic Artists. His moniker translates to ‘Angelic Brother’, a name he gained for living his Christian life in devotion and virtue.

Fra Angelico’s artistic genius was immeasurable — he was called “a rare and perfect talent” by artist and author Giorgio Vasari. He was renowned for a wide variety of luminescent religious artworks. He lived with the motto: “He who does Christ’s work must stay with Christ always.” His profession as a friar and artist was a true reflection of these words.

The Monastic Life of Fra Angelico

The earliest known records of Fra Angelico show that he has been a practicing artist at a very young age. Born around 1395 as Guido di Pietro, he was a trained illuminator along with his brother, Fra Benedetto, and they were reportedly taken under the wing of art master Lorenzo Monaco. He also did commission-based works in local parishes as early as 1418 — far before he was known as Fra Angelico. 

When he joined the Dominican Order around the early 1420s, he had taken on the name Fra Giovanni Angelico, or “Angelic Brother John.” He was known to be a tremendously virtuous man who’d never shown any displays of anger, which earned him a title as saintly as an “angel.” 

At the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, Angelico would create his signature altarpieces — all of which would become definitive of his career. The Fiesole altarpiece, created during his early life as a friar, depicts an enthroned Virgin Mary carrying the child Christ. Angels and saints surround the two holy figures in worship.

Fiesole Altarpiece by Fra Angelico, ca. 1425 (Source)

Some parts of the tempera painting have chipped off and faded over time, and as early as 1501 it had already undergone repainting and restoration. While it is nearly impossible for some of its qualities to be replicated (the original background, for instance, was believed to be gilded), the piece is still immaculate in its own right.

Revolutionizing Catholic Renaissance Art

Later on, Fra Angelico would be transferred to the Convent of San Marco, and the works he’d produced here would become some of his most celebrated oeuvres. 

In 1439, he created another astonishing altarpiece: the San Marco Altarpiece, also highlighting the Virgin Mary and child Jesus. While it would be misleading to call the piece an “upgrade” from the Fiesole altarpiece, there is an enhancement — both in technique and theme — that was not present in the earlier artwork. Unlike in the Fiesole altarpiece, the San Marco Altarpiece depicted the surrounding holy figures seemingly speaking with each other. 

This art motif or genre is called sacra conversazione, or “sacred conversations,” and would become a well-favored theme in the Italian Renaissance. The first known work of this genre is credited to Angelico himself. Years later, other renowned artists like Raphael and Giovanni Bellini would also create their own renditions of these sacred conversations.

San Marco Altarpiece by Fra Angelico, ca. 1439 (Source)

Fra Angelico also produced a variety of artworks on various biblical events, but the one he seemed to be most inspired by was The Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38), where Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would conceive the Son of God.

One such artwork is still the pièce de résistance of the Convent of San Marco which Fra Angelico had painted in 1440. Whereas his previous works on The Annunciation also featured Adam and Eve, Fra Angelico depicted only Mary and Angel Gabriel here. It is considered among the most simplistic of his otherwise luminescent works, and yet it is also the most celebrated.

The Annunciation in the Convent of San Marco by Fra Angelico, ca. 1445 (Source)

To this day, most of the paintings of the Annunciation are closely associated with Fra Angelico — and even future Catholic painters would use his oeuvre as a guide for their own interpretations of the subject.

‘A Rare and Perfect Talent’

Fra Angelico would continue building a monumental body of Catholic artworks, including some frescoes in some prominent chapels in the Vatican City. He would move to Rome to accommodate the extensive commissions of Pope Eugenius IV and Pope Nicholas V. The Cappella Niccolina (Niccoline Chapel), in particular, would be known far and wide for housing Angelico’s spectacular frescoes.

The vault and ceiling of Cappella Niccolina by Fra Angelico, ca. 1447 (Source)

Angelico served God all his life through his duty and talent until his death in 1455. “He who does Christ’s work must stay with Christ always,” he’d said in his lifetime — and it’s clear that he applied this in all that he did. 

As an artist, Fra Angelico moved away from the Gothic art style and instead depicted religious themes in a more naturalistic way. It may seem like a contradiction since Angelico’s art was bright and luminous — but he was more fond of turning these divine themes into “realistic” portrayals, which filled his works with even more life.

Center wall of Cappella Niccolina by Fra Angelico, ca. 1477 (Source)

Fra Angelico’s striking and ethereal style would revolutionize Catholic art forever. In 1984, centuries after his life, his works remained so relevant to the faith that he would be beatified as Beato Angelico (“Blessed Angelico”) as the patron for all aspiring Catholic artists. Pope John Paul II himself commended Fra Angelico by honoring “the perfect integrity of his life” and “the almost divine beauty of the images he painted.” His feast day is on February 18.

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