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.
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.
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.