Beato Angelico : biography
He first appeared on the artistic scene in 1417 as a painter in the Compagnia di San Niccolò al Carmine in Florence, and the following year he was paid by officials from Orsanmichele for a panel for the church of Santo Stefano. This was also the period when he entered the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole with the name of Fra Giovanni. His first works were the St. Peter Martyr triptych (c. 1420-1425) and the so-called Fiesole Altarpiece (originally a triptych), executed in a style akin to that of Lorenzo Monaco and Gentile da Fabriano, both of whom were distinguished exponents of late-Gothic painting. The powerful impact of Masaccio’s work made itself felt in Angelico’s, fine, simple images in the form of a new interest in the perspectival system, particularly evident in his backgrounds and architectural structures. A new phase in his work began with his Last Judgement for Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1431. Two years later, he was commissioned to paint the Linaiuoli Tabernacle. This was followed by some of his masterpieces: the Cortona Annunciation, the Coronation of the Virgin, in the Louvre (1434-1435), the Annalena Altarpiece (c. 1436) and the Deposition from the Cross (c. 1440) for the sacristy of Santa Trinita. He began to work in the convent of San Marco in 1438, first doing the San Marco Altarpiece and then a cycle of works with Gospel scenes for the monastic quarters. His frescos for the friars’ cells were sober and essential, brilliant colours giving way to softer tones. This work continued until after 1450, but in 1446 he was called to Rome to work on the Chapel of Nicholas V in the Vatican, which he decorated with his celebrated Lives of St. Lawrence and St Peter (1447-1450). Amongst his final works, executed before he returned to Rome in 1453 (where he died two years later), was the Bosco ai Frati Altarpiece and the Life of Christ for the Silver Treasury of Santissima Annunziata.
Beato Angelico : the works
San Domenico Altarpiece
Originally a triptych, with decorated pilasters, predella and pinnacles, this monumental work was executed for the high altar of the church of San Domenico in Fiesole, but in 1501 it was transformed into an altarpiece by Lorenzo di Credi. The latter replaced the gold background with a landscape and architectural scene which was more in keeping with the taste of the period. The only work of Angelico to have retained its original position, it was probably done at the beginning of the third decade of the century. In the centre, the Virgin Mary hands the Child Jesus a red rose, the symbol of the Passion, and a white one, a symbol of purity. Off to the sides and next to the most important saints of the Dominican Order – Domenic, Peter Martyr and Thomas Aquinas – there is St. Barnabas, an allusion to the patronage of the Florentine noble Barnaba degli Agli who in his will in 1419 made provision for the enlargement and restoration of the church in Fiesole.
St. Peter Martyr Triptych
This triptych was carried out for the nuns of the convent church of San Pietro Martire and is one of the first of Angelico’s works for the Dominican Order. Within what was still a Gothic conception of the pinnacled polyptych, he experimented with a number of languages, demonstrating in his volumetric rendering of the saints and their spatial scaling a particular attention for the perspectival culture of the period. The imposing figure of the Virgin Mary also closely recalls Masaccio’s Sant’Anna Metterza, while there is a more “international” feel to the Annunciation and the Eternal of the tympanums and the scenes from the life of St. Peter Martyr, which were painted in the top section on a panel attached to the frame.
The name of the work derives from its original location in the Florentine convent of San Vincenzo d’Annalena – now destroyed – founded by Annalena Malatesta. Besides the main ancona, which depicts the Virgin Enthroned and Child surrounded by St. Peter Martyr, SS. Cosmas and Damian, St. John the Evangelist, SS. Lawrence and Francis, there were also six smaller panels with scenes from the lives of SS. Cosmas and Damian and other sections, now dispersed in various collections. The convent of Annalena was not, however, the site for which the work was executed, in that it was only founded in 1453, and the presence of SS. Cosmas and Damian, patron saints of the Medici, has led to speculation that the Medici commissioned it for the chapel in the transept of the church of San Lorenzo. In this case the dating of the work could be put back to 1430, before Cosimo’s return from exile. The earlier date gives considerable prominence to Angelico’s fundamental contribution to the development of the genre of the sacra conversazione inscribed in the rectangular outline of a space with a unified perspective.
Santa Trinita Altarpiece
The Deposition was executed for the new sacristy which the Strozzi family had had built next to the church of Santa Trinita between 1418 and 1423 as their chapel. Palla Strozzi, the most prominent member of the family and one of the most influential men in Florence, had commissioned for the same chapel the most famous work of the period, Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi, which Angelico studied when composing his altarpiece. The commission was originally awarded to Lorenzo Monaco, who painted the pinnacles (Noli me tangere, Resurrection, Maries at the Sepulchre) and the predella with scenes from the life of St. Nicholas and St. Onofrio (Florence, Galleria dell’Accademia). However, the commission was subsequently given to Angelico, who managed to adapt his single scene perfectly to the three-part space of the frame. The painter flanked the central pyramidal scene with the two lateral groups, in the background of which there are two broad landscapes, a city on the left and a hillside landscape on the right. The figure with the black hood has been identified as being a portrait of Michelozzo.
The altarpiece was executed for the Florentine church of Sant’Egidio at the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. Angelico had already treated the theme of the Coronation of the Virgin in two panel paintings currently at the Museo di San Marco and the Louvre, in which there was a more “earthly” tone to the scenes, with the presence of steps and a throne. Here the miraculous scene is treated once again but in an entirely innovative fashion. The Virgin and Child appear floating on a cushion of clouds before a luminous gold background. Standing out in the background are the colourful clothes of the blessed and the angels, who are arranged in a circle around the central group.Iconography
Angelico was commissioned to do the tabernacle in 1433 by the Florentine Arte dei Linaioli (Guild of Flax-workers) for their headquarters near the old market, subsequently destroyed in the 19th century. The work was intended to substitute an earlier 13th-century fresco on the same subject. The large dimensions of the tabernacle evoke the forms of a monumental classical door designed by Ghiberti, while the intaglio frame was executed by Jacopo di Bartolomeo da Settignano and Simone di Nanni di Fiesole. The Virgin and Child are surrounded by golden draperies, which besides enriching the work, reflect a bright light onto the figures. On the insides of the shutters there appears John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, and St. John the Evangelist, while on the outsides there is St. Mark, the patron saint of the guild, and St. Peter.
Lamentation over the Dead Christ
The altarpiece was commissioned by Fra Sebastiano di Jacopo di Rosso Benintendi on 13 April 1436 for the altar of the Confraternità di Santa Maria della Croce al Tempio in Florence. This was a charitable confraternity which dedicated itself to assisting prisoners that had been condemned to death. Fra Sebastiano was the nephew of the beatified Villana delle Botti, the woman dressed in black who appears amongst the mourners on the right, next to St. Catherine of Alexandria. A fairly large portion of the lower section of the work has been lost, but in general it appears in good condition. The scene is set outside a strongly-lit walled city.
The fresco forms part of the extensive decorative work carried out by Angelico in the Dominican convent of San Marco, which was reconsecrated in 1443. The Florentine Dominicans had returned from exile in 1418, and in 1436 had finally managed to reobtain the convent, which had been given to the Sylvestrines in their absence. From 1439 to 1444 it was renovated, together with the church, by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi, who gave the building a Renaissance form. The decoration was entrusted to Angelico, who applied himself to the task from 1438 to 1446. The aim of the frescos in the convent was to help the friars to meditate. The work is characterised by a parsimonious perspective, compositional immediacy and formal rigour. The Transfiguration may have been one of the first works carried out in the convent, and critics agree unanimously on the influence of Michelozzi in the monumental figure of Christ.Iconography
The fresco forms part of the extensive decorative work carried out by Angelico in the Dominican convent of San Marco, which was reconsecrated in 1443. The Florentine Dominicans had returned from exile in 1418, and in 1436 had finally managed to reobtain the convent, which had been given to the Sylvestrines in their absence. From 1439 to 1444 it was renovated, together with the church, by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi, who gave the building a Renaissance form. The decoration was entrusted to Angelico, who applied himself to the task from 1438 to 1446. The aim of the frescos in the convent was to help the friars to meditate. The work is characterised by a parsimonious perspective, compositional immediacy and formal rigour, all of which are particularly evident in the Annunciation in the northern corridor, considered to be one of Angelico’s finest works.Iconography
The large altarpiece, consisting of three main registers and the predella, which is divided into three panels, was dismantled during the last century. Apart from two panels of the predella with scenes from the life of St. Nicholas, currently in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, today most sections of the altarpiece are in Perugia (Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria). The work was produced for the chapel of St. Nicholas in the church of San Domenico in Perugia, which was under the patronage of the family of Bishop Guidalotti, who probably commissioned the work. For a long time critics dated the work as having been done in 1437, on the basis of records kept by Father Bottanio, but the fact that the St. Nicholas in the main panel is depicted without a mitre or beard may indicate it is a crypto-portrait of Nicholas V, who became Pope on 6 March 1447. This later date would also explain the late influence of Angelico on Umbrian painting, which is only noticeable around the middle of the century.
Silver Treasury of Santissima Annunziata, group of the first nine stories
This major work, which consisted of as many as forty panels with biblical scenes, was executed by Angelico in the period leading up to his final return to Rome in 1453. Now housed in the Museo di San Marco, the Silver Treasury was commissioned by Piero, the son of Cosimo the Elder, for the Florentine church of Santissima Annunziata. This piece of furniture was designed to store the chalices and other silver objects offered by worshippers to the miraculous image of the Virgin in the church in gratitude for her blessings. There are now 32 panels, divided into three larger panels containing respectively nine, twelve and eleven episodes. Each scene has an Old Testament prophecy in the upper part, while at the bottom there is a Gospel phrase demonstrating its fulfilment. Only nine of the scenes can definitely be attributed to Angelico, while the others, which are also of a fine quality, were carried out according to his designs.
Bosco ai Frati Altarpiece
This work was carried out for the Franciscan convent of San Bonaventura al Bosco ai Frati near Cafaggiolo in the Mugello. The convent church had been renovated by Michelozzo in 1438 on the orders of Cosimo de’Medici, and in fact in the panel there appear Cosmas and Damian, the patron saints of the Medici family. The majority of experts date this work to a little after 1450, which seems to find confirmation in the stylistic similarities with the frescoes in the Chapel of Nicholas V in the Vatican. This is particularly evident in the prominence given to the architectural background, which provides a fit setting for the solemn posture of the saints. Further proof for this date would seem to be provided by the presence in the predella of St. Bernard, who was canonised in 1450.