The San Marco Museum occupies part of a complex that has served as the San Marco Monastery since its consecration in 1443. The monastery belongs to the Dominican Order (also known as “The Order of the Preachers” and commonly referred to as “The Black Friars,” derived from their black cloaks as opposed to the white cloaks worn by the Carmelite Order and the grey worn by the Franciscans).
The building was constructed atop the foundations of a medieval Sylvestrian monastery and was paid for by the Medici family, the ruling family in Florence. Cosimo de’Medici (il Vecchio) commissioned Michelozzo, one of the Medici’s favorite architects, to design the new building. It was Cosimo’s intention to relocate the Dominicans of Fiesole to Florence. (Fiesole is a small town about 15 minutes outside of Florence and coincidentally, where my husband and I stayed during our honeymoon).
After the building’s completion, Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, perhaps better known as Fra Angelico, a member of the Order and a friar of the San Marco monastery, was commissioned to fresco the interior.
Fra Angelico was born around 1395 and became a Dominican friar sometime before 1423. His frescoes, intended for the friars’ private use, are typified by sparse settings meant to encourage the friars to focus on the religious purity of the work. Angelico’s frescoes may be seen in sharp contrast to his altarpieces, which were made for public consumption. Indeed, Angelico’s altarpieces reflect the ornate churches for which they were destined; they were more reminiscent of the illuminated manuscripts that he likely decorated while studying in Lorenzo Monaco’s workshop than similar to the frescoes he painted within the monastery.
The Sant’Antonino Cloister is named for St. Antoninus Pierozzi, the first prior of the San Marco Monastery, vicar general of the Dominican Observants, and Archbishop of Florence. It is dominated by Fra Angelico’s fresco of St. Dominic and the Cross.
St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix focuses entirely on the interaction between St. Dominic and Christ, a result achieved by the lack of substantive background. The viewer’s attention is, therefore, drawn towards St. Dominic’s adoration and Christ’s serene acceptance of such. The fresco’s fixation on the communion between Christ and St. Dominic indicates that its purpose was not merely decorative. Indeed, its location within the cloister, generally a place of study and contemplation, affirms that the work was intended to invoke a spiritual response within the friars.
This work also demonstrates Fra Angelico’s important artistic contributions that have inspired some art historians to name him as the first painter of the Renaissance. For instance, instead of the golden background that was common at the time, Angelico chose a natural blue (albeit sparse) sky. Another significant innovation is the realistic, almost portrait-like details of the figures’ faces. Such detail was generally lacking in contemporary painting, as was the technique known as perspective, without which paintings tended to look flat. But here, Angelico used perspective to create space behind the figures, giving the fresco three dimensions and a more realistic feel.
The fresco was set in a marble frame and surrounded by 17th century frescoes when the Fabroni family turned this side of the cloister into their family burial vault. In fact, St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix along with five lunettes were the only frescoes painted in the cloister until the 17th century when the other twenty-two lunettes were decorated with a cycle dedicated to the life of St. Antoninus. The coats-of-arms of the Florentine families who financed the cycle are depicted in the frescoes.
One such lunette depicts the investiture of the saint to the See of Florence.
Perhaps surprisingly, as this painting was completed during the reign of the Medici dukes, is the inclusion of Fra Savonarola on the right. Fra Savonarola, a Dominican monk and a prior of this very monastery (elected in July of 1491), was responsible for the short-lived exile of the Medici in 1494. It is therefore surprising that he should be celebrated in this fresco, especially as he was born only a few years prior to St. Antoninus’ death, making his inclusion anachronistic. Whether included as an act of defiance or simply as an act reverence towards an important member of the monastery, Fra Savonarola’s presence does demonstrate his lasting influence on San Marco and on Florence.
The Pilgrims’ Hospice
The Pilgrims’ Hospice was, as its name implies, used as a reception area for guests (“ospite” is the Italian word for “guest”). The room’s function is reflected in Fra Angelico’s fresco above the door, known as Christ the Pilgrim Welcomed by the Dominicans. Now the room functions as part of the museum, housing the biggest collection of Fra Angelico’s panel paintings.
As I mentioned above, Angelico’s panel paintings are clearly meant for public consumption as compared to his contemplative frescoes located on the monastery’s walls. For instance, compare the cooler palette used in St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix with the warm, rich colors used in his altarpieces.
The Linen-drapers’ Guild commissioned the Linaiuoli Altarpiece in 1433 to adorn their meeting house. Fra Angelico’s attention to light (an innovation of early Renaissance painting) is evident throughout the piece. Moreover, instead of the traditional flat golden background, Fra Angelico inserted a golden drape, creating depth and demonstrating his knowledge of perspective as well as the influence of Masaccio, who is credited as one of the forerunners of the technique.
St. Mark is present both on the interior side of the panels as well as the exterior. “Therefore,” explains Padre Marchese, the 19th century Dominican art historian, “they wished that whether the tabernacle were open or closed, he should be always in their sight.” St. Mark was the patron saint of the Linen-drapers’ Guild.
The frame of this piece was commissioned to Lorenzo Ghiberti, and some art historians posit that he is the influence behind the statuesque bearing of the figures. The Predella depicts St. Peter preaching in the presence of St. Mark (the patron saint of the monastery), the Adoration of the Magi, and St. Mark’s Martyrdom.
This room contains Fra Angelico’s Crucifixion and Saints. Giorgio Vasari, 16th century artist and art historian, tells us:
Unfortunately, the sky in this piece has lost its blue coloring over time and the red used to prep the wall is now visible. The fresco, however, is still impressive.
The main scene is enclosed within a semi-circle, which contains small portraits holding unfurling scrolls. The first scroll on the right, held by the only portrait without an accompanying name, states, “Deus nature patitvr” (“The God of Nature Suffers”), words attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian judge and possibly the first bishop of Athens. Allegedly, when Dionysius witnessed the eclipse that followed Christ’s death, he proclaimed, “Aut deus naturae patitur aut mundi machina dissolvitur.” Following the unnamed portrait, from right to left are the portraits of: Daniel, Zechariah, Jacob, David, a pelican feeding its young, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Job, and the Erythrean Sibyl. (The imagery of the pelican feeding its young with its own blood was associated with redemption). Each of their banners are as follows:
edomades VII et LXII occidet XPS.”
|“Et post hebdomades sexaginta duas occidetur Christus.”||“And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.”||Daniel 9:26 (KJV)|
|Zechariah||“His plagatus sum.”||“Et dicetur ei quid sunt plagae istae in medio manuum tuarum et dicet his plagatus sum in domo eorum qui diligebant me.”||“And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.”||Zechariah 13:6 (KJV)|
|Jacob||“Ad praedam descende, fili mi! Dominus accubuit ut leo.”||“Catulus leonis luda a praeda fili mi ascendisti requiescens accubuisti ut leo et quasi leaena quis suscitabit eum.”||“Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?”||Genesis 49:9 (KJV)|
|David||“In siti mea potaverunt me aceto.”||“Et dederunt in escam meam fel et in siti mea potaverunt me aceto.”||“They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”||Psalms 69:21 (KJV)|
|Pelican||“Similis factus sum pelicano solitudinis.”||“Similis factus sum pelicano solitudinis factus sum sicut nycticorax in domicilio.”||“I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.”||Psalms 102:6 (KJV)|
|Isaiah||“Vere languores nostros idem tulit et dolores nostros.”||“Vere languores nostros ipse tulit et dolores nostros ipse portavit et nos putavimus eum quasi leprosum et percussum a Deo et humiliatum.”||“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.”||Isaiah 53:4 (KJV)|
|Jeremiah||“O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte, si est dolor sicut dolor meus.”||“O vos omnes qui transitis per viam adtendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus quoniam vindemiavit me ut locutus est Dominus in die irae furoris sui.”||“Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.”||Lamentations 1:12 (KJV)|
|Ezekiel||“Exaltavi lignum hile.”||“Et scient omnia ligna regionis quia ego Dominus humiliavi lignum sublime et exaltavi lignum humile et siccavi lignum viride et frondere feci lignum aridum ego Dominus locutus sum et feci.”||“And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish: I the Lord have spoken and have done it.”||Ezekiel 17:24 (KJV)|
|Job||“Qui det de canibus ei ut saturem?”||“Si non dixerunt viri tabernaculi mei quis det de carnibus eius ut saturemur.”||“If the men of my tabernacle said not, Oh that we had of his flesh! we cannot be satisfied.”||Job 31:31 (KJV)|
The Erythrean Sibyl holds a banner that proclaims, “Morte morietur, tribus diebus sonno susceptus/ trino ab inferis regressus ad lucem veniet primus” (“He must die, and sleep for three days. On the third day, returning from hell, he will be the first to come to the light”).
The scene itself consists of the typical three crucifixes, with Jesus between the “good thief” Dismas and the unrepentant thief, who allegedly died with his mouth open to utter a final blasphemy. The skull at the base of the Cross alludes to Golgotha (also known as Calvary), translated as “the place of the skull” and so named because it is believed to be the site where Adam is buried.
Beneath the crucifixion gather a venerable group of saints, specifically chosen for their links to either the monastic orders, Florence, or the Medici. For instance, the three figures on the far left are Saints Cosmas, Damian, and Laurence. Saints Cosmas and Damian were the patron saints of the Medici (and the namesakes of Cosimo and his twin, who died young) while Saint Laurence was Lorenzo (the elder) de’Medici’s patron saint. Next to the Medici saints are Saint Mark, the patron Saint of San Marco, and John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. While on the opposite side of the cross are the founders of the monastic orders, St. Francis, founder of the Friars Minor, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian order, John Gualberto, the Vallombrosan Order, St. Benedict, the Benedictine Order, and Romuald, the Camaldolese Order.
It would perhaps be prudent to briefly explain some of the differences between the major monastic orders here. The Friars Minor (Franciscans) is a mendicant order founded in 1209 by St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. The Mendicants lived in abject poverty, surviving solely on the charity of others. Franciscan ideology was focused on mirroring Christ’s life of simplicity and devotion to service.
The Benedictine Order was founded in the 6th century by St. Benedict. The Benedictines emphasized manual labor and daily prayer, in contrast to the Dominican emphasis on preaching/teaching.
The Cistercian Order was an offshoot of the Benedictine Order, founded by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1098 at Citeaux Abbey, France. The Cistercians split from the Benedictines due to perceived laxity, and therefore the Cistercians tended to emphasize extreme simplicity in all things.
The Dominicans followed the rule of St. Augustine. St. Augustine, one of the most well-known of the early Church Fathers, believed that the purpose of cloistered life was to learn and study, which brought the monk closer to God, and to teach through preaching, which brought the community closer to God (thus the order’s formal name, the Order of the Preachers). The Dominican emphasis on teaching engendered the Order’s priorities: theology and intellectual study.
At the bottom of the fresco are influential Dominicans starting in the center with St. Dominic, who is holding the branches of the order, which give birth to the “fruit” (i.e. the other Dominicans).
Upon close examination, each Dominican has rays emanating from his head, demonstrating that they have been blessed; although, some halos have been subsequently added to those Dominicans who have been canonized.
Gruesomely martyred at Antioch via a saw to the center of the head (which he holds in his left hand while holding a palm, the symbol of martyrdom, in his right hand).
Successor to Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris, where Aristotelianism reigned supreme. His two treatises, De Bono Communi and De Bono Pacis, emphasized the necessity of suppressing individual ambition as a means of achieving civic peace.
Nicholas of Paglia
Allegedly Nicholas joined the Order after hearing St. Dominic preach in Bologna. He served as the third prior provincial of the Roman Province.
Jordan of Saxony
Second Master General of the Order after St. Dominic.
Prior of San Marco and Archbishop of Florence.
Paul of Florence
Served as the Patriarch of Grado (the Patriarchy of Grado was incorporated into the archbishopric of Venice during the 15th century).
Hugh of Saint-Cher
The first Dominican cardinal.
Pope Innocent V
The first Dominican pope.
Founder of the Order.
Pope Benedict XI
Served as Master General prior to becoming Cardinal, then Pope.
Cardinal John Dominici of Florence
Selected by Pope Gregory XII to represent him at the Council of Constance, the Council that ended the Western Schism.
Pietro della Palude (aka Peter Paludanus)
Served as Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Albert the Great
Served as Bishop of Ratisbon, taught and befriended St. Thomas Aquinas, and established the study of nature as a recognized science within the Christian tradition. Thus, he is the patron saint of those who study the natural sciences.
Raymond of Peñafort
Canonized in 1601 and known for the codification of canon law, which was promulgated in 1234.
Chiarito da Sesto
Served as the first Prior Provincial of the Roman Province.
Vincent Ferrer of Valencia
Helped end the Western Schism by persuading King Ferdinand I of Aragon to withdraw his support of Benedict XIII. He is also well known for his conversion of Spanish Jews to Christianity, although there are contradictory accounts (some rather damning) as to the means he used to do so. He was canonized in 1455.
Bernard of Florence
Vignali’s The Good Samaritan hung in the monastery’s Antica Spezieria (Old Apothecary). The Antica Spezieria, founded by St. Antoninus, was famous for its medicines, which were sold to finance the maintenance of the monastery. This painting, dated to around 1630, is believed to have been a gift for the medicines produced during successive waves of plague in the early 17th century.