08 May 2024  |   04:36am IST

Fra Angelico

Having joined the Dominicans his skills were often called upon, and, in 1436, Fra Angelico after having shifted into the newly built convent of San Marco, he was to decorate portions of the monastery under the patronage of the illustrious Cosimo de Medici of Florence

Jason Keith Fernandes

Sometime early this month, I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of the convent of San Marco (Saint Mark) in Florence. The reason for my visit was to visit the famous frescos of that notable figure in the history of Western art, the Blessed Fra Angelico (1395 –1455). 

Known to his contemporaries as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, Fra Angelico, as his name should already suggest, was a Friar of the Dominican Order. In addition to his religious duties, Fra Angelico was also a gifted painter, having initiated his training as an illuminator (of manuscripts) even prior to joining the Dominicans. Having joined the Dominicans his skills were often called upon, and, in 1436, Fra Angelico after having shifted into the newly built convent of San Marco, he was to decorate portions of the monastery under the patronage of the illustrious Cosimo de Medici of Florence.

The works that had me quite captivated were the frescos that he painted in the dormitories on the first floor of the convent. The first thing that strikes one, even as one climbs the stairs, is the famous image of the Annunciation. One can often feel that being able to view high-resolution images of famous paintings on high-definition screens can allow one to get close to the real thing in the comfort of one’s own home, but nothing, and I repeat, nothing, can prepare one for the encounter with the real thing. 

Not only is this depiction of the most famous moment in all of Christian history – St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that when the Angel  Gabriel announced to Mary that she had been chosen to be the Mother of God, the angels in Heaven held their breath as they waited for her reply – much larger that one expects it to be, but the image is alive with a vibrance that the virtual reproductions simply do not convey. If one were to visit Florence only to visit this one fresco, then it would be a journey worth making.

But this is not all that the dormitories hold. The first floor is divided into multiple cells, since each monk was given a single room to aid their contemplation, becoming the desert into which they could retreat. In each of these cells, Fra Angelico crafted a different image, many of them around the Passion of Christ, while those in the novices’ corridor are of St. Dominic contemplating the crucifixion, and in the third set of rooms there are other scenes from the life of Christ, and in each of these images is extremely moving.

The image I was particularly moved by, however, was a depiction of the Agony in the Garden. This scene depicts the moment when prior to His arrest, Christ withdraws for prayer into the garden of Gethsemane. Knowing that He was to soon be arrested, tortured and then executed, he calls his closest disciples, Peter, John and James, to stay close and pray with Him. The three men, however, fall asleep. Every great artist, and then some, have tried their hand at depicting this poignant image, and done very well. 

However, what Fra Angelico does to this scene, is, to the best of my knowledge quite unique. Rather than simply depict Christ in prayer and His three disciples asleep, he adds to this scene the images of the Virgin Mary, and Martha, both in contemplation of scripture.

Now, there is no scriptural reference to indicate what the mother of Christ was doing on that fateful night, but looking at this image I thought to myself, of course, Our Lady – the greatest disciple of Christ – would have been awake and in prayer if that was the request of Her Son. Further, we should not imagine that She did not follow Her Son with the rest of the disciples into the garden of Gethsemane. Fra Angelico depicts the scene very interestingly. Rather than place the Lady in the landscape of the garden itself, he depicts Her within a pavilion set in the same garden. The landscape of the garden encompasses and even encroaches into the pavilion where She sits in prayer with Martha.

For those who would like to contemplate the place of women within Catholic spirituality, I believe that this image offers us a good idea of the understanding of the medieval Catholics in Italy on the matter. The Catholic faith was not an all-male affair. On the contrary they understood that the faith was handed over to men, and women, that women may sometimes have been stronger than the male disciples. Indeed, one of the other frescoes within the dormitories is of the first appearance of Christ after his resurrection, to Mary Magdalene.

There was another image that also stands out in my memory – this one was of St. Dominic adoring and contemplating the crucified Christ. What Fra Angelico managed in this scene is spectacular because there is an intense expression, not just in the face of St. Dominic as he turns his face toward the Cross, but I would wager, even in his eyes! I was reminded of that popular meme: “Find yourself someone who looks at you like …” and reworked it in my head “…who looks at the Cross like St. Dominic does!”

Walking from one cell to another, I could not help reflecting on how much money this must have cost, and then turned my mind to the way in which poverty is currently understood within the Catholic Church and how it was understood in the medieval period. In the medieval period, and even subsequently, the evangelical counsel of poverty did not necessarily mean living in sloth. Rather, while it prevented one from personally accumulating wealth, there was no contradiction with living in a house marked by precious liturgical objects, so that the worship offered was truly worthy. Today, however, there seems to be a peculiar inversion of the understanding of poverty, which ensures that while we are well-fed and housed, the liturgical objects we use are often of the basest quality, consisting of cheap aluminium, steel or brass, and vestments being of even cheaper synthetic fabric. A sad state of affairs indeed.


(Jason Keith Fernandes is a researcher at the Centre for Research in Anthropology (CRIA), Lisbon)


Idhar Udhar