FRA ANGELICO (1387-1455)

Posthumous portrait of Fra Angelico  by Lucca Signorelli (1395)

Posthumous portrait of Fra Angelico by Lucca Signorelli (1395)

Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro in Vecchio in 1387. He joined the Dominican Order of friars in 1407. Initially he was an illuminator of sacred texts. He entered the Friary of Cartona , moved to the convent of Fiesola where he spent many years and then finally ended up in San Marco monastery in Florence, where he did his greatest work.

Cosimo de’ Medici had him decorate San Marco and because of the matchless paintings of angels, his fellow monks called him Fra Angelico.

Fra Angelico was a devout and holy man who believed he had a message from God to impart through his paintings. Before each painting he would fast and pray. His fame as a painter spread and he was offered many commissions, the proceeds of which went directly to San Marco.

The Annunciation - partial -St Gabrial (1431 -1433)  by Fra Angelico

The Annunciation – partial -St Gabrial (1431 -1433) by Fra Angelico

Vasari sums up the character of his devout countryman:—

“This father, truly angelic, spent all his life in the service of God and for the good of the world and his neighbour. In truth, the great and extraordinary powers possessed by Fra Giovanni could not have existed except in a man of most holy life. He was a man of simplicity and most holy in his ways…. He withheld himself from all worldly deeds, and living purely and in holiness, he was such a friend to the poor that I think his soul is now in heaven.

“He worked continually at his pictures and would never treat any but religious subjects. He might have been a rich man but he cared not to boast, and used to say that true riches consisted in being content with little. He might have had command over many but would not, saying that there was less trouble and risk in obeying than in commanding…. He was most gentle and sober, and, living chastely, freed himself from the snares of the world; and he was wont to say that whoever followed art had need of peace and to live without distracting thoughts, and that he who does work that concerns Christ must live continually with Christ.

“He was never known to get angry with the monks; if anyone desired work from him he would say that he would obtain consent of the Prior to it, and then would not fail to fulfill the request. In fact, this father, who cannot be sufficiently praised, was in all his works and conversation most humble and modest, and in his painting dexterous and conscientious, and the saints of his painting have more the air and resemblance of saints than those of any other painter.”

There is no doubt that the work of Fra Angelico has an intangible quality of serenity and what can only be described as sacred, whether one is religious or not. In the flight to Egypt, there is no panic or indication of fear. It’s as if Mary and Joseph know they are in the hands of God. It must be remembered that in Fra Angelico’s time Christian belief permeated every aspect of life. God, Christ, Mary and all the Saints were real and ever present in the lives of believers.

Flight into Egypt by Fra Angelico

Flight into Egypt by Fra Angelico

John Ruskin, the leading Victorian art critic said of Fra Angelico:

“The art of Angelico, both as a colourist and a draughtsman, is consummate; so perfect and so beautiful that his work may be recognized at a distance by the rainbow-play and brilliancy of it: however closely it may be surrounded by other works of the same school, glowing with enamel and gold, Angelico’s may be told from them at a glance, like so many huge pieces of opal among common marbles.”

In 1455 Fra Angelico died while staying at a Dominican Convent in Rome, perhaps working on Pope Nicholas’ Chapel. His tomb can be seen in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in the centre of Rome. And this is his epitaph:

When singing my praise, do not say I was another Apelles.
But say that, in the name of Christ, I gave all I had to the poor.
Part of my work remains on earth and part is in heaven.
The city that bore me, Giovanni, is the flower of Tuscany. 

“He deflowered me in the barn …”

Grazide Rives, a peasant girl from Montaillou lost her virginity to the local priest, Pierre Clergue in the year 1313. We have a detailed account of this from the Inquisition register of Jacques Fournier, bishop of Pamiers in Comte de Foix, southern France. Grazida was interrogated by him, which resulted in a verbatim record of what happened to her. He, later to become Pope Benedict XII, and referred to as a clodhopper by Petrarch, was, fortunately, a meticulous note-taker. Because of this we have one of the very rare insights into the life of the medieval peasant.

Man accosting a woman at the loom: Smithfield Decretals, Southern France, late 13th -- early 14th Century.  British Library, Royal MS 10E

Man accosting a woman at the loom: Smithfield Decretals, Southern France, late 13th — early 14th Century. British Library, Royal MS 10E

Montaillou, in the Pyranees, at that time, had a population of little more than 200. It was a community of mainly peasant farmers, labourers and shepherds. The Comte de Foix was the feudal overlord of the pyranean principality that included Montaillou. In Montaillou the interests of the house of Foix was looked after by a chatelain and a bayle(bailiff). There was little distinction between these minor officials and the peasants and to a large extent Montaillou was left to its own devices as long as it paid its taxes and tithes.

Pierre Clergue, the priest, was the power behind the most dominant family in the village. He was a seducer and incorrigible womaniser with at least a dozen mistresses. It appears not to have been such a great scandal. The villagers, men and women, were well aware of his activities and endured them or, in some cases, welcomed them. Pierre was ruthless in his unquenchable desire for women. If a woman resisted him he would intimidate her by threatening to report her to the inquisition. The inquisition, at that time was trying to stamp out Catharism which was endemic in the region.

The young girl Grazide Rives gave a very frank account of her liason with Pierre Clergue:

“The priest came to my mother’s house while she was out harvesting, and was very pressing: ‘Allow me,’ he said, ‘ to know you carnally. And I said, ‘All right.’

At that time, I was a virgin. I think I was fourteen or fifteen years old. He deflowered me in the barn in which we kept the straw. But it wasn’t rape at all.”

Grazide went on to say that the priest continued to know her carnally, even after he had given her as a wife to an old peasant called Pierre Lizier. Both Grazide’s husband and her mother knew that the priest was having sex with her and both consented to it. The sexual encounters happened mostly during the day in the mother’s house. Grazide’s husband, Pierre, would say, ‘has the priest done it with you?’ and Grazide would answer ‘Yes.’ To which Pierre would say ‘as far as the priest is concerned, all right! But don’t you go having other men.’

Grazide on being questioned about her attitude to her sexual relationship with the priest said : ‘with Pierre Clergue, I liked it. And so it could not displease God. It was not a sin.’ This is an interesting view from a poorly educated girl but it is not an uncommon view. Master Ermengaud’s Breviaire d’Amour and Flamenca express the very same idea: ‘A lady who sleeps with a true lover is purified of all sins … and the joy of love makes the act innocent.’

Couple in bed: Aldobrandino of Siena's le Regime de Corps, Lille, ca. 1285.British Library, MS Sloane 2435 fol. 9v

Couple in bed: Aldobrandino of Siena’s le Regime de Corps, Lille, ca. 1285.
British Library, MS Sloane 2435 fol. 9v

It would certainly appear that there was a considerable degree of sexual tolerance amongst some of our medieval ancestors. As we can see from this story from Montaillou, the Catholic religion and its priest was no deterrent to liberal sexual attitudes. Licentious behaviour of Catholic clergy was widespread in the 14th century. This is one reason why Catharism was widely accepted and it’s parfaits (monks who professed to be Cathars) admired for living true Christian lives of prayer and poverty.

If Nobody Asks Me, I Know What Time Is …

“If nobody asks me, I know what time is, but if I am asked then I am at a loss what to say.”
St  Augustine 354 – 430 AD

Time is the one of the most elusive and mysterious concepts that philosophers and scientists have grappled with throughout the history of mankind. I am not even remotely qualified to expound on this subject and do not intend to do so. However, on the measurement of time as a practical everyday aspect of living, I do have an interest, particularly its measurement in Medieval times.

How did the poor medieval labourer or peasant know when to go to work and when to finish work? An anonymous versifier of the fifteenth century gives us a clue about one way to gage the start of day.

I have a gentle cock,
Croweth me the day
He doth me risen early
My Matins for to say.

In truth, things were not so haphazard as that. Bells from the local monastery were rung to signal the different hours of the day. The monks used sundials, hourglasses, calibrated candles and water clocks to calculate the time.

The latin system of counting the hours of the day was:-

Prime – 6 am
Tierce – 9 am
Sext – 12 noon
Nones – 3 pm

The Church designated other times for prayer:

Matins – Midnight
Lauds – Dawn
Vespers – Evening
Compline – Before Bedtime

The astrolabe was another method of calculating the hours of the day. Chaucer himself wrote a treatise, for his young son, on how to use it to tell time. Interestingly, by Chaucers time (1343 -1400), great mechanical clocks were beginning to be built all over Europe. These clocks were housed in the belfries of Churches and Cathedrals and later bell towers in city squares.

It is hard to say when the first mechanical clock was invented, but in Europe they began to appear by the late 13th Century. The earliest public tower clocks had no dials or clockface; they simply rang a bell on the hour. Some of the more elaborate ones triggered displays of animated automatons. The clockface and a single hour hand followed. Other ingenious clocks gave, not only the time, but all kinds of astronomical information.

Saint Bernardino(1380-1444) preaching in Siena before the Palazzo Publico. Notice the clock on the left hand tower. The painting is by Sano di Pietro (1406-1481)

In 1344 Jacopo Dondi installed an astronomical clock in the facade of the Palazzo de Capitano at Padua.

Clock tower, Palazzo del Capitano, Padova

In England an extraordinary astrological clock was designed by the country’s greatest medieval scientists, Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336). Son of a blacksmith, he was a brilliant mathematician and was obsessed with the practical application of science and mathematics, to the extent that he was rather neglectful of his spiritual role and later his administrative role when he became abbot of St. Albans, the principle abbey in England. It is recorded that he gave precedence to the work on his clock over the repair of the Abbey. When mildly rebuked by King Edward III, he argued that any successor of his could hire workmen to repair the abbey but only he could design and make the clock. The clock was not completed in his lifetime but design details are recorded in his Tractatus Horologii Astronomici (1327). Richard’s was not the first tower clock in England but it was the most advanced in its design.

Richard of Wallingford and Abbot of St Albans pointing to a clock. Notice marks on his face showing, the results of leprosy.


Time has always been considered a precious commodity. In the middle ages one of the greatest preachers and orators was Bertold of Regensburg (1220-1272) . Time, he said was one of the talents referred to in St. Mathews parable of the talents. It was man’s duty not to squander it.

This idea of the preciousness of time is well articulated in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales when the Host address the Company before the Lawyers Tale:

“Let’s lose as little time now as we may.
My lords, it’s time that wastes both night and day,
That robs us while we sleep without defense,
And while awake, through our own negligence.
It’s like a stream returning not again,
Descending from the mountain to the plain.
Well Seneca, like others of his measure,
Bewails the loss of time more than of treasure:
‘Of chattels there may be recovery,
But we are ruined by loss of time,’ said he.”

I just wonder if Bertold of Regensburg or Chaucer would approve of the time I spend ‘on the Internet.’ ? Probably not.  

The World is a Haystack

“The world is a haystack, and each man plucks from it what he can.”

This is a Flemish proverb that is famously illustrated in Hieronymous Bosch’s Haywain. In the central panel of this triptych the Haywain is being pulled by demonic characters – half beast half man – towards hell.

The Haywain by Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516)

People from all walks of life are scrabbling to grab hay from the haywain, oblivious to how it is moving them inexorably towards damnation. All manner of human weakness is portrayed by Bosch: fighting, killing, gluttony and lust. People are being crushed under the wheels of the haywain; lovers and musicians on the top of the hay are so self absorbed that they cannot see what’s happening. The rich and powerful from church and state follow on their horses. An angel gazes towards Heaven where Christ looks down with what might well be interpreted as a gesture of despair at the foolishness of mankind.
What is striking in this picture is the depiction of the clergy. On the bottom right hand of the central panel a group of nuns are busily filling a large sack with hay, watched over by a fat abbess who is comfortably seated and drinking while overseeing the work. One of the rich followers behind the haywain is clearly a bishop on a white horse.

Detail from The Haywain – Nuns filling a sack with hay, watched over by the abbess

In another of Bosches works ‘Ship of Fools’ the priest and nun are very prominent. The ship (life) drifts aimlessly while the occupants are preoccupied with their own desires and diversions.

The Ship of Fools by Hieronymous Bosch (1450 – 1516)

This view of the clergy is not uncommon in medieval times.

William Langland, in his great allegorical poem, PiersPlowman, is scathing in his portrayal of of the contemporary church(14th century). He depicts friars as fraudsters and liars given to greed, drunkenness and promiscuity with courtesans and concubines.

Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales is equally cynical with his portrayal of the “fat and personable priest” who loves hunting, expensive clothes, jewellery and “a fat swan, and roasted whole.” His description of a friar is equally damning:

“He kept his tippet stuffed with pins for curls
And pocket-knives, to give to pretty girls.

He knew the taverns well in every town
And every innkeeper and barmaid too
Better than lepers, beggars and that crew,
For in so eminent a man as he
It was not fitting with the dignity
Of his position, dealing with a scum
Of wretched lepers; nothing good can come
Of dealing with the slum-and-gutter dwellers,
But only with the rich and victual sellers.”

Apart from the clergy’s hypocrisy, what irked and infuriated the peasant class in respect of them was the imposition of tithes on what little wealth they could glean from their labours. The church demanded a tenth of their crops and livestock each year. If they did not pay they could be punished by incarceration and excommunication. It is little wonder that peasants were attracted to some of the heretical teachings and their promoters who railed against the greed and mendacity of the established church.

Medieval Schools under Charlemagne

In the eight and early ninth century, Charlemagne had an enormous impact on education and learning. He reformed his own palace school  for  his children and other youths. Before his reign, the school taught young nobles court manners, how to fight and wage war. He introduced the liberal arts into the curriculum.
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Charlemagne 742 – 814

Charlemagne invited Paul the Deacon (an Italian Benedictine) to become head of the Palace School. He also induced Paulinus of Aquileia (theologian), and Peter of Pisa (Grammarian) to teach there. He, himself, attended lectures of Peter of Pisa.

It was after the arrival of Acuin of York to the court of Charlemagne that real educational reform began. Alcuin became Charlemagne’s advisor, teacher and minister of education.

In 787 Charlemagne issued his famous capitulary informing the Bishops and Abbots of the empire that he wished them to pursue the education of the monks and clergy with more zeal and dedication to scholarship, noting that letters he had received from various monasteries were crude and potentially a source of error in religious matters. He also made it clear that the Bishops and Abbots were to set up local schools for boys from the surrounding districts where they could be taught, at least the rudiments of general education and Christian doctrine. These schools were free.

After Charlemagne died in 814 the Empire began to slowly disintegrate and without his influence the interest in education began to diminish. Some monastic and cathedral schools remained and by the 12th century emerged as famous universities like Bologna, Paris, Montpellier and Oxford.

Money in the Middle Ages (l. s. d.)

Charlemagne (747 – 814), King of the Franks and later Holy Roman Emperor, set up a new monetary system based on a system introduced by his father, Pippin. Pippin’s system, in turn, was based on the old Greek and Roman Libra, Solidus and Denarius (l. s. d.) This old system was based on gold which became scarce after the conclusion of peace with Byzantium and the resulting loss of trade routes to Africa and the East.

Denier from the era of Charlemagne

Charlemagne’s new standard was based on silver. The livre (pound) which was worth 20 sous (like the solidus, and later the shilling) or 240 deniers (like the denarius, and eventually the penny). Initially the only coin minted was the denier; the livre and sou were simply counting units. This system was introduced into Charlemagne’s empire, which was most of Europe. England also adopted it.

Charlemagne’s Empire

After Charlemagne’s death, his empire and his reforms in the monetary system, accounting and education began to disintegrate. Continental coinage became totally degraded and the high quality English coinage became the chosen standard up to the 12th century

Medieval Spectacles

At the launch of my novel The Reluctant King an actor friend of mine, Justin Aylmer, who was dressed in medieval costume and reading extracts from the book, apologised that he had to wear glasses because they would be somewhat incongruous with his costume.  I was happy to inform him that, contrary to what many people might think, glasses or spectacles are not a modern invention.

The concept of magnification by using a lens is mentioned as far back as the 1st Century A.D.  when Seneca the Younger mentions the magnifying effects of using a  globe to read small text.

Much later, in his seven volume Book of Optics, Alhazan, born in Basra, Iraq in 965, investigated the magnifying power of the lens. Al Hazan was one of the great Arab experimentalists and a pioneer of optical science.

By the 13th Century spectacles were being manufactured in Italy. The invention of spectacles would have been an incredibly significant technological advance because it enabled scholars to continue their studies undimished by the natural deterioration of eyesight with age. Petrach, who was born in 1304 wrote: “I had … a vision that for many years was sharp. (But it failed me unexpectedly when I was over sixty, so that I was forced reluctantly to the use of spectacles.)”

We also have concrete evidence of these early spectacles in medieval paintings. It is interesting to note in these paintings that it is mainly monks and religious who wear spectacles. This is not surprising since reading and writing were almost exclusively within the competence of the church.

Panel from the Wildunger Altarpiece by Konrad von Soest (1365 – 1425) with Glasses Apostle.

The Alaunt: Hunting Dog of the Middle Ages

Alaunts at the kill of a wild boar from The Grimami Breviary 1490

In the Middle Ages the warrior-class when not engaged in war spent a great deal of their time and resources hunting.

The hunting dog used to seize a running beast was the alaunt. The alaunt, originally a herd and war dog of the Alani warriors of central Asia was cross bred with sight and and scent hounds in the west to produce the alaunt gentil and the bulldog alaunt. The alaunt gentil resembled a greyhound but were heavier and their their heads were broader and shorter.  In his Book of the Hunt, Alfonso of Castile (1311 – 1350) describes the alaunt’s head as being broader than that of the greyhound and more like the conger eel’s head. The bulldog alaunt was heavier again and and looked more like a mastif.

The other important aspect of the alaunt was its temperament. The quarry pursued by hunters of the middle ages and later was large and dangerous. Wild boar, bear and wolf were particularly fierce and the alaunt needed to be fearless and aggressive when it came to the kill. Some of the modern day bull terrier breeds look like smaller versions of the bulldog alaunt and they certainly manifest a fearlessness that is unfortunately exploited by some unscrupulous people.

In the Middle Ages the dog handlers, were very important members of the aristocratic household staff. They were called fewterers.

We can get a good idea of what the alaunt looked like from paintings of the period. There are also modern versions of the alaunt being bred.

 

Modern Alaunt Gentil

American Alaunt Mastif

Love’s Loss

Woman Crying by Fernando Botaro

I

Mrs Kelly in her morning flannel

Ducks out into icy air to grab the milk

Then slams the door of her cosy detached

Double glazed, heavy curtained, neat house

With heat saving sash.

The Kettle burbles on the spotless alabaster top

She starts another day like all her days

Receding into a pale imprint

Soon forgotten, of no consequence

No moment, no import, nothing

To record except a line of dazzling clothes

A clean worktop, a shining floor,

Gleaming brass on her proud hall door.

Once, she planned to be a scientist

Her dad, he said, she’s good enough,

But somehow, between this and that

She ended up with three children

A man, a dog and an elegant cat.

It does niggle her now and then

Like this cold morning between nine and ten

Instead of cups and dirty spoons

She might be in her lab till noon.

Discovering cures and finding ways

To counter time and assuage it’s ravages.

Alas she’s traded charts and hieroglyphs

For soap and bills and shopping lists.

II

In the long nectar-sweet grass

She relinquised all, gave everyting

To the swooning sky and her lover.

Take me she whispered

Take me, you are all I desire

I am yours she gasped, spreading

Soft thighs to quench the fire

I am yours he sighed.

And the whirling  syrup sun

Seared the moment forever

In her mind, forever rememberd

As now when it’s pale morning

Light inclines through her crystal

Windows, recalling the throb

And hectic heat of loves brave time.

III

And later, married, when the first

Passion was forgot, she wondered if ever

The blood would tumble in

Torrents till she could not think

Till she surrendered to the swarming fever

Once more, just once more

To feel young, to feel irrisistible.

Then he devoured her with his hot look,

The stranger

Which she pretended not to see

But sustained the love thread

With a timely glance that lingered longer

Than casual interest.

The frequent chance encounters till

It was easy to believe that destiny

Could not, would not, allow them to deceive

Their true hearts.

They flew into the love frenzy

Ravished each other ‘til

The crude odour and sweat of reality

Smashed the fantasy and they saw

The lie and shamefaced pretended

It was too fierce a fire

To last and she was once more

Mrs Kelly wondering in her shiny

Kitchen what it all meant,

Was passion now forever spent.

IV

But no, the ache continued, the void

That yawned blackly when her guard was down

“She is good enough, a clever child” her teacher said

“She has choices, anything she wants”

Her mother gloated, her father read

The syllabus for medicine and higher maths,

Science, engineering, not art, no jobs in that.

“The world is her oyster” her uncle said

“We should all be proud, she has brains alright

Runs in the family, she’ll astound us yet”

Stupid man, he thought he was the family sage

Thought wisdom guaranteed with age.

But still, yes still, she had hoped despite

The shallow words, the prophesy was right

And even now at forty eight

After love’s dissappointment

Is it too late?

V

Children, home, these are wondrous works

The holy priest was suave and spoke

In pious tones.

Think of Martha’s work at home

But what about me, me she cried

God sees all, your reward is great

Humility is the way, serenely he replied.

The cross is heavy but must be borne

Seek Jesus, he’ll show the way, the light

Pray, repent, renounce the sinful flesh

Learn purity from the Virgin blest.

And for a while the balm of prayer

Eased the pain and quelled the fear.

Novenas, masses, benedictions

Scapulars and holy water

Incense, rosaries and deprofundis

She gave everything once more

To a new lover, Jesus, her chaste paramour.

But like before the passion waned

Until the empty rattle of her beads

No more anaestetised the pain.

VI

She lies, love-spent, upon her back

Her once young lover, old and slack

Toiling to reclaim the past

And force a sultry climax ‘til at last

She moans, not in joy, but tired relief

Her body once again her own

To nurse the ancient grief.

Does he not remember

The honey days

When words made them weak

With longing

Does he not remember the love look

That made them breathless

And the singing

Deep inside,

That sundered heart and body

Till joyously she opened wide

To the hot spew of life.

Mrs Kelly in her morning flannels

Sighs and pours another cup of tea

God, if there is a God she thinks

Is this the way that life should be?

To A Dead Fox

You should be singing at the moon

Serenading your vixen lover

Not cast aside like jetsam

White teeth frozen forever

Snarling helpless at the inexorable

Fume and rumble of morning traffic.

In the noise and bristling heat

You are a bronze illumination

The coil of your neat body and delicate feet

Like an intricate swirling beast

Emblazoning the word in antique psalter.

You etch this morning in flame

Herald this very day a glorious day

Suspended in the move and flux

Of all the every days

In your stillness

I see graceful running

In your silence

I hear joyful singing

In your death

A sermon for life and living.

I will sing at the moon

Sing to your vixen lover

Because your song is in me

Now and forever.