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. 

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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.

John Ruskin

Of King’s Treasuries

John Ruskin 1819 - 1900

Neither does a great nation send its poor little boys to jail for stealing six walnuts; and allow its bankrupts to steal their hundreds of thousands with a bow, and its bankers, rich with poor men’s savings, to close their doors ‘under circumstances over which they have no control,’ with a ‘by your leave;’ and large landed estates to be bought by men who have made their money by … altering the common highwayman’s demand ‘your money or your life’ into ‘your money and your life.’

Sesame and Lilies
John Ruskin 1864

This extract from a lecture by John Ruskin in Manchester in 1864 has an uncanny resonance with the incredible revelations concerning our own dispicable bankers, specualtors and money men. In his lecture Ruskin was making a case for a nation investing in Libraries, Art Galleries, Museums, Gardens and places of rest.  These would be ‘accessible to all clean and orderly persons at all times of the day or evening’ and free of charge.

… it is…better to build a beautiful human creature than a beautiful dome or steeple,” he concludes.

Do we have a modern day John Ruskin and who is he or she.