Angelico, Fra and the San Marco III

The predella of the altarpiece for the choir of San Marco.

In the predella, the story of the twin brothers is unfolded in eight panels. The ninth in the middle was the Lamentation and Burial.

Fra Angelico Lamentation and Entombment’ (predella)
Rogier van der Weijden ‘Lamentation before the open grave’ 1463 -1464

Fra Angelico Lamentation and Entombment' (predella)

Cosmas and Damian are exceptionally rare subjects for a predella of a main altar. Angelico cleverly establishes a link between the narrative scenes in the predella, Marcus in the main panel, and the Dominicans. He portrays Cosmas and Damian as preachers of the true faith. The twin brothers thus fulfilled what Christ had called his apostles to do, as stated in Mark 6: 2-13. Fra Angelico heard the stories of Cosmas and Damian twice a year in the chapter house. They were read from the Dominican breviary, which was based on the Golden Legend. The stories known to Angelico are also depicted in the predella, with one exception: the story of the snake is omitted.

Damian accept the gift

This corresponds to the way the story was read aloud in the chapter house in the morning. Here too, the story of the miracle of the snake was not read aloud. The story is painted in eight parts to fit exactly with the liturgy of the Dominicans. Angelico emphasized the virtues of the twin brothers. Unfortunately, the panels of the predella are spread across multiple museums worldwide. The story begins with the healing of the woman Palladia. As thanks for her healing, she urges Damian to accept money. When Cosmas hears this, he no longer wants to be buried in the same earth as Damian. But the next night the Lord appeared to Cosmas and excused Damian to him for accepting the gift.

Fra Angelico Damian accept a gift detail predella

Fra Angelico Demons attack Lisias  detail predella

Two demons

Our saints became famous because of their miracles. Lisias the proconsul became curious about these brothers and… 
“[…] ordered them to fetch their brothers and then to sacrifice them together with them to the idols. But they refused to sacrifice, so he commanded to torture them severely by hands and feet. The brothers laughed off these kinds of tortures, so he had them beaten with chains and thrown into the sea. But immediately they were freed from the sea by an angel and brought before the judge. The judge examined the case and said, ‘Great gods! It is magic by which you prevail, for you do not care about tortures and calm the sea! Teach me that magic of yours and in the name of the god Adrianus, I will follow you!’ Hardly had he spoken when two demons appeared and struck him a tremendous blow in the face.” Cited and translated from: Jacobus de Voragine, ‘De hand van God De mooiste heiligenlevens uit de Legenda Aurea,’ (vertaling van Vincent Hunink en Mark Nieuwenhuis) Atheneum-Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2006 blz. 216

The last two panels can still be seen in San Marco. The burial of the brothers and the miracle they performed after their death. There was a man sleeping with a leg severely affected by consumption, and there…

Cosmas and Damian heal Deacon Justinianus

“[…] Cosmas and Damian appeared to their devoted servant with various kinds of ointments and instruments. ‘Where can we get meat from now?’ one asked the other. ‘If we cut away the rotten flesh, we must fill the empty space!’ ‘In the cemetery of Saint Peter-in-Chains,’ said the other. ‘A Negro was just buried there today. Go and take some from him to fill in this man.’ And indeed, he quickly went to the cemetery and brought back a hip of the Moor. The saints amputated the sick man’s hip, replaced it with the Moor’s hip, carefully applied ointments to the wounds, and attached the sick man’s hip to the Moor. When the man woke up feeling no pain, he put his hand on the hip: no wound to be found! He held a candle to it and saw that there was nothing wrong with the leg.” Cited and translated from Jacobus de Voragine, ‘De hand van God De mooiste heiligenlevens uit de Legenda Aurea,’ (vertaling van Vincent Hunink en Mark Nieuwenhuis) Atheneum-Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2006 blz. 218

Truly a very special miracle. In this way, Cosmas and Damian did exactly what the Dominicans did: they preached the word of the Lord by setting a good example.

Cosimo looked with pleasure at the predella and could read and understand the story. What he certainly did not understand was the symbolism in the main altar. Christ as ruler, the crucifixion below, and the lamentation or entombment beneath it as a true bridge to heaven. Only well-educated monks could understand this. Catherine of Siena was a nun of the third order of Saint Dominic. In her dialogues, chapter twenty-one, Catherine describes what is meant by the cross as the bridge to heaven (read here in an English translation). In short, it comes down to the fact that through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, it became possible to enter heaven. Catherine uses the word bridge as a metaphor for the cross. The good Christian can cross the bridge between earth and heaven through the crucifixion and thus enter the heavenly paradise.

Images of Mary were based on traditional sources: the songs of Solomon (Song of Songs) and the book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach (particularly chapter twenty-four). On Mary’s mantle, Angelico wrote the following text: ‘I am the mother of beautiful love… and of holy hope. Like a vine that brings forth love, and my blossoms become glorious and exuberant fruit.’ Here, wisdom speaks as personified woman. This is the only text found in the altarpiece. In the background, high in the pictorial plane, Angelico painted garlands of white and red roses. In the garden, palm trees and cypresses can be seen. These are words translated into paint with which wisdom compares itself in Ecclesiasticus (Praise of Wisdom).

San Marco altarpiece       Angels     Damian

Fra Angelico San Marco altarpiece

Angelico painted a hortus conclusus, or a closed garden that extends to the sea. This latter is a subtle allusion to the hymn in which Mary is greeted as Maris stella, or star of the sea (the Ave Maris Stella can be heard here). Mary as the mother of God, as the throne of wisdom, as the protector of order, and as the personification of the church (for more information and the English text).

The altarpiece has a dual significance: a narrative one and a symbolic one. The narrative aspect in the predella is easily understandable, but the symbolic meaning requires extensive knowledge. For the brothers who performed the Eucharist and liturgy, eight times every day, in front of the main altar, the symbolism held no secrets. They were inspired during the eight canonical hours or choir prayers while singing hymns and reading psalms, precisely by the altarpiece of their brother: Fra Angelico.

Dominicans Blackfriars Oxford       Liturgy

Dominicans Blackfriars Oxford    Liturgy
photos: Lawrence OP

Characteristic of altarpieces of the Dominicans is that they refer to the order itself. This is what Hood, who wrote a monograph on Fra Angelico and San Marco, calls traditio. Thus, the Dominicans believed that they had been commissioned by God himself to preach. This is also what Angelico depicts with Mark displaying his gospel. In the predella, you see Cosmas and Damian preaching the word and setting a good example. They carry out the words of St. Dominic: ‘go out into the world and preach the good news.’

Mary and the Dominicans

Mary is depicted not only on the main altar but also in the dormitory. Here, twice in the corridors, including the masterpiece by Fra Angelico: the Annunciation. In the cells, she is also seen multiple times, often near a crucifixion. Mary was highly popular throughout the church and especially among ordinary believers, but she held particular importance for the Dominicans. In the Vitae fratrum (lives of the brothers), at the beginning of chapter one, a remarkable event is described. God is angry with humanity and considers destroying the world. Humbert of Romans described this under the title: ‘the order was the fruit of the blessed prayers of Mary.’ This, according to the Dominican Humbert of Romans, was naturally the order founded in 1226 by Dominic. In the Golden Legend, written to be read aloud in the chapter houses of the Dominicans, the vision that Dominic received about God is also described.

“He (God) stood in the sky with three lances in hand, which He shook towards the world. His Mother quickly approached Him and asked what He intended. ‘Behold,’ He said, ‘the whole world is full of three sins: pride, carnal desires, and greed, and therefore I have here three lances with which I intend to destroy the world.’ The Virgin fell at His feet. ‘Dearest Son,’ she said, ‘have mercy! Temper your justice with mercy!’ ‘But do you not see how much injustice people do to me?’ ‘Moderate your anger, dear Son, and wait a little longer. I have a faithful servant and a strong fighter, who will go through the world and conquer it and bring it under Your dominion! I will also give him another servant to support him, who will likewise fight alongside him.’ ‘Very well,’ said the Son, ‘I am calm again, I see your point. But I would like to see the men you intend for such a great task.’ Then she pointed Christ to St. Dominic. ‘Indeed,’ said Christ, ‘he is a good, strong fighter! He will diligently do as you said.’ [The other servant was Francis]. Cited and translated from: Jacobus de Voragine, ‘De hand van God De mooiste heiligenlevens uit de Legenda Aurea,’ (vertaling van Vincent Hunink en Mark Nieuwenhuis) Atheneum-Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2006 blz. 170‘

‘Mary handing over the habit of the order to Dominic

The Dominicans were reminded of this every night during the Salve Regina. This was a procession that went from the choir to the Maria altar in the lower church (see map), where the Salve Regina was sung. (Wikipedia: Latin and English translation) and Gregorian rendition: The Ave Regina can be heard here.
Not only did the Dominicans owe the founding of the order to Mary, but also their black and white habits. Around 1435, Angelico painted a vision of Dominic. Mary appeared to him to hand over the habits of his order. The white represents purity and the black represents sin. The panel below was probably made for a door of a cabinet.

Mary handing over the habit of the order to Dominic

Fra Angelico'Mary handing over the habit of the order to Dominic'
National Gallery, London

Bartz, G., Fra Angelico, Könemann, Köln 1998
Hood, W., Fra Angelico at San Marco, Yale Uninversity Press, New Haven and London 1993
Morachiello, P., Fra Angelico The San Marco Frecoes, Thames and Hudson, New York 1996
Pope-Hennessy, J., Angelico, Scala Firenze, 1981 (text from 1974)

The texts on Fra Angelico and San Marco are mainly based on the monograph written by William Hood about this painter and the monastery.

Continuation Florence day 5: Angelico, Fra and the San Marco IV