Angelico, Fra and the San Marco II

The altarpiece in front of San Marco’s choir

San Marco interior          The chancel          Original chancel

photo: Mentnafunangann

The altarpiece can now be seen in the original guest areas of the convent, which is now a museum. Unfortunately, many parts of the original work have disappeared or have been scattered across various museums worldwide. In 2007, two panels were auctioned at Duke’s in Dorchester (as can be seen on Youtube)  How would those attending the procession have responded to this altarpiece? They would likely notice the new-looking altarpiece immediately. No more usual finials or ornamental gables, no more gold background like in the altarpiece that Angelico painted around 1437 for the San Domenico in Cortona. For the first time, the San Marco altarpiece shows a single, large square panel with a landscape.

Fra Angelico Cortona Altarpiece for the San Domenico c. 1436


The manner in which the deeper message has been embedded in the altarpiece is traditional and can be seen in the high altars of the Dominicans. How do you give meaning and create a hierarchy in an altarpiece with multiple figures? The tradition provided for multi-panelled altarpieces. The center panel would typically be wider and higher. The foremost figures in an altarpieces are depicted to be larger, like Fra Angelico had done for his ‘San Pietro Martire Triptych’ 1422- 1433. Less important scenes were depicted in the predella. The use of precious ultramarine and gold was another way to highlight important parts. What stands out for the high altar of the San Marco is the centre axis. Mary with her child sits high in the center. Below, a small panel of a crucifixion: a painting within a painting.

Fra Angelico ‘San Marco altarpiece’ 1438 – 1440       Reconstruction


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

The predella in the centre directly below the crucifixion was a lamentation and entombment of Christ (now located in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich). Angelico’s unique composition of the lamentation and entombment made a great impression on Rogier van der Weijden some eight years later.

San Marco altarpiece       Angels     Damian

Crucifixion      Zoom out

Christ is seen as ruler on his mother’s lap, but the instruments of passion held in the hands of some angels around the throne seem to be an ironic comment on his power. This explains the overarching theme. Christ will not rule until and after his suffering. Only then may mankind be saved. The Eucharist was celebrated immediately below the entombment and lamentation. Christ was thus actually there during mass. (for more info, please read wikipedia here). Those present on the high altar to the left of Mary with her child are: St. Mark with his gospel, and next to him John the Apostle and St. Laurent. The man kneeling on the foreground and looking out from the panel is Cosmas.

Saint Dominic holding a lily

Across from Cosmas and at an equal level is his twin brother: Damian. Saint Dominic is holding a lily. Next to him we see Saint Francis and then Peter Martyr. Saint Mark being part of an altarpiece in a church devoted to him seems obvious. This evangelist appears as someone deep in thought and sharing those thoughts with John. The opened book shows text from the gospel of Mark, chapter six verse seven to thirteen. It reads that Christ is sending his apostles to preach. This is exactly what Dominicans do, who are known for being devout preachers. Dominican Thomas Aquinas articulated this as follows: contemplata aliis tradere, or, ‘to hand down to others the fruits of contemplation.’

Why are Laurence, Cosmas and Damian being depicted? They are patron saints of the Medici family. Cosimo adopted Cosmas as his patron saint and it was he who financed the large restoration project. He also moved the extensive manuscript collection to the library. The friars and Angelico likely had no other recourse but to depict precisely these three saints.

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 III