Angelico, Fra and the San Marco I

San Marco       Zoom in

San Marco facade Florence
photos: Sailko

Facade of the Church

On the night of 6 January 1443, the day of Epiphany, an important company gathered to celebrate the Matins in the chancel of San Marco. Pope Eugenius IV and his retinue, the prior Fra Antonino and his friars, the signoria (administration of Florence) and the Medici; all were present for the consecration of the new convent. The altarpiece on the high altar was painted by Dominican monk Fra Angelico. While singing the Magnificat (hymn to Mary), those present saw Mary sitting on the throne with her Child. After the Matins, the guests and friars enjoyed a lavish meal.

San Marco facade church Florence
photo: Sailko

Fra Angelico ‘San Marco altarpiece’ ( after the  restoration of 2019)

Fra Angelico ‘San Marco altarpiece’ ( after restoration 2019)
The Magnificat and Wikipedia

The friars of the San Domenico from Fiesole now founded a convent in Florence. Prior Antonino of the San Domenico became its first prior.

San Domenico Fiesole

San Domenico Fiesole

Pontormo ‘Cosimo il Vecchio’ c. 1520

The main church of the Dominicans, the Santa Maria Novella, was located west of the San Marco. Originally, the site in Piazza di San Marco belonged to the order of St. Sylvester (Benedictines), but Eugenius IV, who lived in the convent of Santa Maria Novella for nine years, handed it over to the Dominicans. The site underwent an extensive renovation by the architect Michelozzo. Cosimo de Medici financed the project. He will have been satisfied that night that his namesake Cosmas on the high altar is looking at the gathering in the chancel.

Pontormo ‘Cosimo il Vecchio’ c. 1520
Raphael Fra Angelico detail form  'Disputation Holy Sacrament'

Raphael Fra Angelico ‘Disputation of the Holy Sacrament’ (left)

Between 1438 and 1452, Fra Angelico and his gallery produced a total of fifty-five panels and frescoes for the San Marco. To understand these works, we need to know the following:

1. The exact location in the convent or the church with the depictions. Is it accessible to the public, just for the friars, or both?
2. The liturgy, the constitution (Dominican rules and regulations) and Dominican scriptures.
3. The views of the observants in the Dominican order.

Yes, the parish church was open to the public, but none were allowed to go beyond the first part; shown here on the map as A3. This so-called lower church was largely closed off from the rest of the building by a tramezzo (partition). A2 on the map was for the lay brothers.

After all, the chancel (A1) was for the friars only. Lay people were allowed in the cloister and the chapter house (E and C). The guest areas (F), which currently serve to show Fra Angelico’s works, were of course accessible from the streets. Only the brothers were permitted to enter the sacristy (B) and the top floor with the dormitory. The panels and frescoes varied in form and content according to their place in the San Marco. The content was narrative for any audience. In the rooms that were only accessible to the friars, the works had no such narration. In the chapter house, which was also open to the public, Angelico chose an image that could be read and understood on two levels.

Courtyard of the monastery and top view

San Marco courtyard Florence
photos: Dimitris Kamaras

The liturgy, the constitution and other scriptures of the Dominican order were the guiding principles for the friar Angelico when he painted. These determined the themes and the way in which they were shaped. The liturgy, written by the Dominican friar Humbert of Romans in the 13th century, consists mainly of prescribed acts, ceremonies, prayers and hymns. Of importance here are the church calendar and the Liturgy of the Hours that were held every day (the officiating or choir prayer; for more information see Wikipedia).

The constitution comprised many rules on how friars were to act in the refectory or in their cell. Angelico accounts for all this in his work, as we will see later. A writing from the time of Angelico by the first abbot Antonino, called Summa historial, describes the nine ways in which Saint Dominic prayed. This helps to unravel the meanings of the frescoes in the cells.

Altar with Abbot Antonio       Zoom out

San Marco church Altar with Abbot Antonio
photos: Lawrence OP; zoom: MiguelHermoso Cuesta

Fra Antonino and his friars, including Fra Angelico, belonged to a movement called the observants. The name says it all; they strictly observed the original rules and vows. They sought a return to the source of their faith, to Saint Dominic who had founded their order in the 13th century. These types of reform movements could be found all across the church. It was a response to ecclesiastical decline. The reformers or observants were hard on themselves. One would sleep on a hard mattrass, eat little food, definitely no meat, would fast regularly, engage in self-flagellation and for the most part live in complete silence. One’s day would be devoted to study, meditation and prayer. Even at night. The yearning for simplicity and hardship is clearly evident if you compare the cloister of Santa Maria Novella with that of San Marco. The first is lavishly adorned with frescoes; including the chapter house (Spanish chapel) of the Santa Maria Novella that shows a triumphant Dominican Order.

Fra Angelico ‘Crucifixion’ fresco Chapter house of San Marco       Zoom in

Fra Angelico 'Crucifixion' Chapter house of San Marco
photos: Steven Zucker and zoom: Lawrence OP

Angelico’s work in the San Marco is different: it is subdued, modest and lacks narration. What explains the difference between these two convents of the same order is that the friars of the San Marco convent were observants and the Santa Maria Novella friars were not. After all, observants sought a very frugal, modest life.

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 II