He is not an artist properly so-called, but an inspired saint.John Ruskin, on Fra Angelico
On the second floor of the San Marco monastery, visitors will find the monks’ dormitories. Each cell, once occupied by a single friar, contains a fresco depicting an event from Christ’s life. Yet, the central focus of the frescoes is not the event, but the witnesses to the event. Indeed, the Renaissance artist Fra Angelico and his team painted each fresco with the intention that the friars emulate the holy witnesses to Christ’s life so that they themselves may be worthy of teaching it. Therefore, the frescoes were simplistic in design, presenting a mental image more akin to icons rather than a full narrative.
For instance, the event depicted in Cell 2 is the Lamentation over Christ, quite literally, the passionate expression of sorrow or grief over Christ’s body. Yet the scene downplays the dramatic trauma of laying Christ to rest via its horizontal construction. Indeed, the only vertical movement is St. Dominic himself, the figure upon whom the viewer is to mediate.
The scene in Cell 6 is, admittedly, slightly more dramatic, with the figure of Christ radiating light in the center. Compare it to Raphael’s Transfiguration, however, and its simplicity is better appreciated.
In Fra Angelico’s version, Saints Peter, James, and John are reacting to Christ, but Mary and St. Dominic are mere observers of the narrative and do not take part. It is therefore Mary and St. Dominic who are the intended focus of the friars’ mediations. Although centered and radiating, Christ’s body is postured in the shape of a cross, becoming a symbol to revere rather than an actor in the narrative and shifting focus back to Mary and St. Dominic.
Included are the floating heads of Elias and Moses. You may notice that Fra Angelico chose to depict Moses with horns. This depiction is based on St. Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew phrase “wēlō’ yāda ‘ki qāran’ ôr pānāyw” found in Exodus 34:29. Jerome translated the Hebrew word “qāran” as “cornuta esset,” rendering the phrase to state (as translated into English) “Moses did not know that his face was horned.” Some scholars argue that Jerome mistranslated the Hebrew word qāran as “horned” when it should have been translated as “rays of light.” Recent scholarship, however, has questioned whether it was really a mistake, arguing that “Jerome was no doubt aware of the metaphysical association of horns with divinity and power in the ancient world in general and the Greco-Roman world in particular, as in the episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (15.565-621) where Cipus looks at his reflection in a clear stream and sees horns springing from his head. When Cipus and his horns are observed by an Etruscan seer, the seer cries out, ‘All hail, O King!’ …” Broderick, Herbert R. Moses the Egyptian in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch (2017).
In Cell 10 is the depiction of Christ’s Presentation at the Temple. Thanks to recent restoration work, the shell semi-dome has been rediscovered.
This work is one of a few frescoes that do not include St. Dominic as witness, but rather St. Peter the Martyr and a woman some art historians identify as St. Catherine of Siena on the right. Joseph, standing behind Mary, is carrying a basket with two doves, a gift of atonement.
In Cell 26, Fra Angelico returns to horizontal movement as a method of creating simplicity.
Here, Christ is shown standing in his tomb, wounds visible on his hands. Above him are the symbols of his Passion: the lance, the sponge, the cross, and the column. Also above him you see the head of Judas kissing Christ (top left), Peter and the handmaiden (directly beneath Christ and Judas), and the mocking of Christ (top right). Once again, St. Dominic and the Virgin are depicted as witnesses to the scene.
Slightly more action packed are those frescoes now believed to have been painted by Benozzo Gozzoli, including one known as The Kiss of Judas. Missing from this fresco are the usual witnesses, St. Dominic and the Virgin Mary. Instead, the scene focuses on the narrative: Judas and his interaction with Jesus. Also interesting is the inclusion of Judas’ halo, which has been painted black.
Although most art historians agree that Gozzoli so perfectly imitated Fra Angelico’s style that it is hard to tell them apart, there are subtle differences. Those frescoes identified as Gozzoli’s contain more figures, dressed in vibrant colors. Additionally, Gozzoli’s lush landscapes differentiate themselves from those sparse backgrounds seen in the frescoes painted by Fra Angelico.
Like The Kiss of Judas, the fresco in Cell 34 was likely painted by Gozzoli. Here, Mary and Martha serve as models for the friars, fulfilling the injunction to “watch and pray,” whereas the three apostles, languishing in their despair, serve as examples of what not to do.
You can really see Gozzoli’s adoption (and expansion) of Fra Angelico’s innovative use of perspective. Using perspective, Gozzoli was able to depict the wall as though it is jutting out towards the viewer, creating a pronounced three dimensional space. Compare Gozzoli’s use of perspective to that of Fra Angelico:
As in the general composition of the frescoes, Gozzoli’s use of perspective less subtle and more dramatic.
Another fresco likely painted by Gozzoli is The Sermon on the Mound. Although the background lacks the lush greenery of The Kiss of Judas and The Agony in the Garden, it is harsher than those painted by Fra Angelico and Gozzoli’s figures wear the same vibrant colored cloths as in his other works.
Again, Judas’ halo is black, but here his face has been obscured, perhaps to avoid “contaminating” the purity of the scene.
Likewise, in The Last Supper, Judas’ face is hidden behind that of the other apostles (he is one of the four kneeling figures in the bottom right hand corner). Odd is also Mary’s placement at the scene. She typically does not show up in Last Supper scenes, as the Gospels make no mention of her being present. Perhaps her inclusion is a return to the focus on the witnesses rather than the narrative.
It is likely that the majority of this fresco was painted by Fra Angelico’s assistants, evidenced by the rather repetitive details of the apostles’ heads, the ambiguity of the apostles’ positions (are they seated or standing), and the distance between Jesus’ outstretched hand and St. John’s mouth. Yet, it is still a fascinating work due to the unknown artists’ inclusion of the windows. The windows in the work reflect the same view that the physical window provides (and would be seen in this photo had it not been so sunny outside).
Fra Angelico’s celebrated Annunciation is also located on the second floor of the monastery. The Annunciation has been dubbed the quintessential Renaissance piece because it combines the three novelties of the 15th century: light painting, classical architecture, and spatial/perspective severity.
Like most Annunciations, Mary is enclosed in a walled garden, reminding viewers that she remains separate from and untouched by the sinful world and evoking the Garden of Eden. Yet, unlike conventional Annunciations of the time, Fra Angelico’s does not contain embossed wording.
Indeed, up until this point, the angel Gabriel was typically portrayed with a ribbon ballooning from his mouth (See detail of the Annunciation by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, dated 1333). Fra Angelico was one of the first artists to do away with this tradition. (Fra Angelico’s Annunciation is dated c. 1442).
Here, Mary is almost life-sized, and the small grated window in the background is reminiscent of those window located in the monks’ cells. These aspects combine to achieve the effect that Mary is actually present in the room.
Cosimo de’Medici reserved these rooms for himself during the construction of the new monastery, and interestingly, Pope Eugenius IV slept in this cell the night of Epiphany 1443 when he came to consecrate the new church. Notably the consecration occurred on Epiphany, not St. Mark’s feast day, as would have been usual since St. Mark is the patron saint of San Marco Monastery. The Epiphany commemorates the moment when the three Magi come to give Christ their gifts, and it is this event that is frescoed on the wall of Cosimo’s cell.
Perhaps significantly, the Adoration of the Magi was a continual theme in the iconography of the Medici. Indeed, the Medici wished to equate themselves to those princely Magi who bestowed their gifts on Christ by bestowing gifts on the Church. Moreover, the Magi are relatively alone in achieving entrance to the heavenly kingdom while maintaining their wealth. Moreover, the three generations of kings paralleled the three generations of the Medici alive at the time (Cosimo, his son Piero, and his grandson Lorenzo). To cement the link, the family paid for lavious processions on the Feast of the Epiphany, which would parade through the city, ending at San Marco. Additionally, Piero de’Medici ignored the conventional practice of waiting only three days between birth and baptism to baptise his son Lorenzo (subsequently known as Lorenzo il Magnifico) on the Feast of the Epiphany. Cosimo and Lorenzo were both members of the Confraternity of the Magi.
Gozzoli painted not only this Adoration for the Medici, but also painted a much grander (and more well known) for the (at the time) newly constructed Medici Palace (now known as the Palazzo Medici Riccardi). (Sandro Botticelli also painted an Adoration for the Medici, now in the Uffizi).
Cosimo de’Medici and the Dominicans came to an agreement in 1441 to build a “public” library within the convent for the use of elite humanists as well as the friars (although touted as a public library, one still needed permission from the library’s trustees to access it). Cosimo, along with several other humanists, had recently come into possession of the late Niccolò Nicoli’s extensive book collection. Indeed, Nicoli had bequeathed his collection to 16 trustees, including Cosimo, for the purpose of creating Italy’s first public library. Over the years, the library’s collection increased under Cosimo’s careful curation. Unfortunately, most of the volumes were transferred to the Biblioteca Laurenziana during the 19th century suppression of the monasteries.