Angelico, Fra en de San Marco IV

Het binnenhof: de kruisiging, en de fresco’s in de lunetten 

San Marco Courtyard      Top view

photos: Dimitris Kamaras

Particularly remarkable about the monastery courtyard of San Marco are the sparse paintings, which naturally relate to the Observants: the reformers. Upon entering the courtyard from the street side, you only see the Crucifixion on the northern wall directly opposite the entrance. A second peculiarity is the use of naturalistic colors. Also noteworthy is the absence of real narratives, unlike Uccello’s works in the chiostro verde at Santa Maria Novella.

Peter Martyr enjoins Silence      Zoom in

The paintings above the doors in the lunettes are only revealed as you walk through the cloister corridors. The five frescoes above the doors gain significance for the monks because they are placed in specific locations along the main axes. One of the paintings is ruined. It depicted Dominic scourging himself. It was the only fresco remaining from the time when the Order of Saint Sylvester (Benedictines) held control of the monastery.

The crucifixion on the north side and the five lunettes

Fra Angelico ‘Crucifixion’      Zoom in

Body of Christ      Face of Christ

The frame you see is not original, but was installed in 1628 by a certain Cecco Bravo with a plaque in memory of the Fabbroni family. From the painted frame beneath the marble border, you can tell that the fresco was originally much wider. The current T-shape is also likely not original. The Christ by Angelico is young and beautiful, his body dominating the entire image. He is not depicted as dead, as evidenced by his face. Angelico emphasizes the humanity of Christ by meticulously detailing his body. Thus, Jesus is portrayed here as God in human form. The two life-size figures, Christ and Dominic, are placed in an almost abstract landscape reminiscent of a desert.

Angelico thoroughly studied several famous crucifixions by his contemporaries, such as Masaccio’s Trinity and Brunelleschi’s crucifix in the same church, Santa Maria Novella. Furthermore, he closely examined Donatello’s crucifix in the Santa Croce.

The positioning of the legs of Angelico’s Christ bears a strong resemblance to the Christ painted by Masaccio in his Holy Trinity. However, there is a notable difference in the way the legs are depicted. Masaccio did not portray Christ’s left leg as bearing the body’s weight, whereas Angelico does. The muscle directly beside the shinbone below the knee is tense and clearly visible. As for the head and the dynamism of the upper body, Angelico owes a debt to Brunelleschi’s Christ.

Dominic       Dominic’s hand     Dominic’s face

Dominic is also depicted convincingly. Could he have used one of his brothers as a model? The representation of the garments on the body is lifelike. It is not the result of a convention or schema that painters typically employed. Dominic’s right hand is highly naturalistic. This is not found in Angelico’s tempera works in the altarpieces. The right hand is meticulously rendered: veins, bones, and tendons are accurately portrayed. From the skin, it can be seen that Dominic is of middle age. Dominic’s face is key to understanding the work. Beardless and with red hair. In the cells, Dominic is painted with a beard and then without one, with various facial features. However, in the crucifixion, the face is painted according to a description by Theodoric of Appoldia.

Angelico pays great attention to truly depicting Dominic. A slight beard growth, furrowed brows, and a face twisted with sorrow. The life-sized head is slightly turned, allowing the viewer to see the moist and somewhat bloodshot eyes. The painter portrays Dominic as he truly was. Not an idealized type or exemplar as Angelico often painted Dominic on his altarpieces. Here, Dominic is a man of flesh and blood, full of anguish.

A layperson or non-Dominican would simply see it as a portrait of Dominic, nothing more. The monks in the San Marco monastery walked to the choir at least eight times a day and then saw the crucifixion with Dominic kneeling. Only when you come close can you see the sorrow in his eyes. And if you then follow Dominic’s gaze and look at the face of the crucified, you’ll notice that his lips are slightly parted, as if more words are coming from the mouth of Christ. This fresco is as large as Masaccio’s Trinity. His fresco is more readable from a distance. Angelico doesn’t opt for readability from afar, as is customary with large frescoes.

Fra Angelico assistant ‘Saint Dominic with Crucifix’
Dormitorium, San Marco Cloister

Fra Angelico borrowed the theme of the crucifixion from the Franciscans, but Angelico surpasses the visualization of the Franciscans. Francis heard the crucified speaking to him as he received the stigmata, as Giotto had already painted on the front of the Bardi Chapel in the Santa Croce. Nowhere in any story about Francis is he described as a saint embracing the cross. The biographers of Dominic do not describe him as some kind of Francis; quite the opposite. The crucifixion in the courtyard of San Marco is not a story or event from Dominic’s life. Nowhere is a connection made between Dominic and embracing the cross. So where does this come from?

Fra ‘Annunciation to the Virgin’ (Inital ‘R’)
Museo San Marco, Florence

The space in the crucifixion is purely fictional. Only the figures are real. They are very carefully, detailed, and naturalistically painted. This strange combination of fictional, unreal space and two flesh-and-blood individuals can also be seen in manuscripts (‘Saint Dominic Flagellating Himself‘ BAV, MS Rossianus 3). In the miniatures, you also see figures meticulously painted in a barely elaborated and neutral space. Angelico was well acquainted with this. After all, he was trained as a miniaturist.

Missal, ms. 558, fol. 33v.

Dominic followed the Lord by taking Christ as an example. In this way, the Dominicans can take an example from their founder. By following Dominic’s asceticism, you are also following the Lord in his footsteps. Angelico depicted Dominic in such a way that you can see his inner life. This allows the observer to identify with the saint and his inner struggles. Thus, the artist also places the subject in the present.

Fra `Angelico ‘Portrait of Dominic’

The portrait of Dominic painted by Angelico has deep psychological content, and that is also the main theme of this work. As mentioned earlier, Dominicans walked past this fresco eight times a day on their way to the choir for the choir prayers. The message was well ingrained and perfectly suited the emphasis the Observants placed on penance. Angelico’s crucifixion gave the monk food for thought. Would the monk, as he let his eyes wander over the body of Christ, also meditate on the Incarnation and the fact that Christ would rise again as God three days later? Did Angelico therefore pay so much attention to the body of the crucified?

Dominic followed the Lord by taking Christ as an example. In this way, the Dominicans can take an example from their founder. By following Dominic’s asceticism, you are also following the Lord in his footsteps. Angelico depicted Dominic in such a way that you can see his inner life. This allows the observer to identify with the saint and his inner struggles. Thus, the artist also places the subject in the present.

The paintings above the doors

The frescoes in the lunettes of the courtyard barely catch the attention of today’s visitors. However, for the monks, it was different. As they walked to the guest quarters, the choir, the chapter hall, or the dining hall, the brothers were reminded of how they were supposed to behave. On their way to the choir prayers, the Dominicans were urged to silence by their fellow member, Petrus Martyr, upon entering the holy of holies: the choir (see map: A2 and A1).

Fra Angelico ‘Peter Martyr’

The frame around Petrus Martyr is not architecture. It is a painted frame consisting of a red-green band with rinceaux (leaf friezes). Angelico painted this frame in foreshortening, making it deceptively realistic. However, the world within the frame was not a continuation of the space outside. The original blue background (now brown) did not break through the wall surface as would be the case with painted skies. The halo of Petrus Martyr overlaps the painted frame. Angelico had always been interested in frames, their operation, and the interplay between pictorial and real space. In the Annunciation, he does this in a very refined way, but we will look at this when we go to the cells of the brothers.

Christ as the Man of Sorrows

Direct opposite Petrus Martyr, on the northeast side at the entrance, Angelico paints Christ as the Man of Sorrows. This was for contemplation of the sacrifice that Christ made and about which he spoke so emphatically during the Last Supper. It is not for nothing that refectories often feature images of the Last Supper with a crucifixion above, as seen in the nearby Sant’Apollonia. In the refectory of San Marco, only a Last Supper from the workshop of Ghirlandaio can be found.

Dominicans receive Christ      In situ

Above the door to the guest quarters, Angelico has quoted a passage from the Rule of Benedict. He paints the first line from CHAPTER LIII: OF HOW GUESTS ARE TO BE RECEIVED “All guests who arrive should be received as Christ Himself, for He will one day say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed Me.'” It is evident that here it is the Dominicans who receive their guest, Christ.

The entrance to the guest quarters is now a museum showcasing works by Fra Angelico. In 2019, the museum underwent significant renovation.

Thomas Aquinas

On the other side, where you enter as a present-day visitor, you see Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian of the Dominicans, with an open book. This area was likely originally the library. The Observants of San Marco had only a small collection of books. A modest library was therefore sufficient. It wasn’t until Cosimo acquired the extensive collection of books and manuscripts from Niccolò Niccoli that the building plans were adjusted. With the new large collection, a larger library was necessary. The construction of the complex under the architect Michelozzo was already well underway. Improvisation was necessary. The library was placed on the first floor and was set perpendicular to the cells of the lay brothers on the north side. Click here for a brief description of the library.

Saint Dominic with the Rod and Book

The ruined fresco of Dominic with the scourge was already there before the Dominicans took over San Marco. The other frescoes were applied to the wall surface, but not this old one. In fact, originally there was no door here. Angelico had the image hung above the door. The irons used to secure it can still be seen. It hung like a shop sign to the left of the entrance. Angelico chose this image because the scene is about penance, which fits well with the chapter hall where the monks chastise themselves with the scourge to ask for forgiveness for their sins.

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

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 V