Fra Angelico, whose real name was Guido di Pietro, was born sometime between 1395 and 1400 in Vicchio, a small town near Florence.
For a long time, there was a bit of an uncertainty over his birth-date – the exact day is still not known, but he was thought to have been born earlier than the aforementioned dates – and the fine details of his life still remain shrouded. Fra Angelico lived in the early years of the Renaissance, when, unlike later during the High Renaissance, artists hadn’t yet achieved the elevated status where every notable personal trait was recorded for posterity.
The first time that Fra Angelico was written about in any great detail was, after his death, in Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’. Here he is depicted as a rather unworldly, saintly personality, who cared for religion and religion alone. His work tells you differently – when I look at it, I see a brilliant colorist, a brilliant draftsman, a brilliant man with a broad, humanist vision.
As a young man, Fra Angelico was a successful and rather well-known painter. According to Vasari, he was so in demand with art patrons that he could have made a mint and lived on happily in the secular world. However he was strongly inclined towards religion and entered the Dominican Order and devoted his talent, without any expectation of personal compensation, for the Church’s benefit henceforth. He worked first at the San Domenico Monastery in Fiesole and later at the San Marco Monastery in Florence. He took on the name of Fra Giovanni da Fiesole. The title ‘Fra Angelico’ was bestowed upon him posthumously – for his angelic temperament and the angelic beauty with which he infused his paintings.
Most of the paintings by Fra Angelico are based on Biblical themes. Art for art’s sake was not in vogue then. Paintings were meant to celebrate Christ and the Christian religion. However, Fra Angelico’s works also show a keen interest in earthly existence – his figures are realistic and show a remarkable study of perspective and chiaroscuro. His painting ‘The Deposition’ is the first painting of the Renaissance to incorporate a well-composed foreground with a realistically receding background landscape.
After he joined the Dominican Order, Fra Angelico initially worked on illustrating holy manuscripts and then progressed to painting triptychs for Church Altars and frescoes for the Church and the Monastery. The Fresco painting was usually undertaken with a large group of assistants, who worked under his strict supervision and direction.
The frescoes at the Monastery of San Marco, showing scenes from the New Testament, were begun in 1441 and are considered to be some of his finest works – realistic and spiritual at the same time and with magnificent coloring. Fra Angelico’s perfectly balanced and jewel-like color schemes remind me of the equally eye-catching color schemes utilized in Indian Miniatures.
He was summoned to Rome by first Pope Eugenius IV, in 1445, and then later by his successor Pope Nicholas V in 1447.
Apparently, Pope Eugenius IV first noticed his work when he was in exile from Rome and stayed for a while at the San Marco Monastery. He liked the paintings so much that when he eventually returned to Rome, he invited Fra Angelico to come paint frescoes in the Capella del Sacramento of St. Peter’s. These frescoes, unfortunately, have since been destroyed.
Pope Nicholas V, a man who did much to encourage Humanist principles, commissioned Fra Angelico to decorate his study and private Chapel. Around this time, Fra Angelico also painted 2 large frescoes for the vault of the chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio at the Orvieto Cathedral.
During his sojourn in Rome, Fra Angelico’s steady, calm temperament won him the admiration of Pope Nicholas V and he was offered position as the Archbishop of Florence. Fra Angelico turned down this offer. He was already Prior of the San Marco Monastery and he was not ambitious. All he wanted was a simple, uncomplicated life and the chance to paint in the service of the Church.
He returned to the San Marco Monastery in 1450, but two years later, his term as Prior having ended, he went back to Rome to paint more frescoes for the Pope.
He died on 18 February 1455 in the monastery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. He was in his mid-fifties.
The Annunciation, 1433-34, Museo Diocesano, Cortona
The Annunciation, 1450, Monastery of San Marco, Florence
The Deposition from the Cross, 1443, Museo di San Marco, Florence
Massacre of the Innocents, 1450-53, Museo di San Marco, Florence