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. 

Advertisements

“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.