Angelico, Fra and the San Marco IX

The cells of Cosimo de Medici (north side)

Pontormo ‘Cosimo de Medici’

The double cell, thirty-eight and thirty-nine, of Cosimo de Medici goes against all the rules of the constitution. According to regulations, the sleeping area was only accessible to the brothers. There is actually only one possible explanation, and that is that this part of the dormitory did not belong to the enclosed part (in claustra) of the monastery.

Pontormo 'Cosimo de Medici'

The present-day museum visitor now sees two dark cells. The skylight in cell thirty-nine was installed much later. Originally, however, both cells were not dark at all. A cell of Cosimo without a window? Unthinkable! The cells have no windows due to the construction of a loggia built in the sixteenth century behind four cells. Cells thirty-eight through forty-one on this side have no windows. Before the construction of the double loggia, there was an open terrace here that ran from behind cell thirty-nine to cell forty-one. You had a view of the northern monastery garden. When Michelozzo built the library, a late unplanned intervention, he extended the terrace to the west side of the library. In one bay of the library, this architect made three doors. The remains of the terrace are the floors of storage spaces behind cells thirty-eight and thirty-nine (see floor plan). At the western end, the terrace connected to Cosimo’s protruding cell and the staircase. Probably, there was a window in the east wall of cell thirty-nine. In Cosimo’s cell thirty-eight, there was a door that provided access to a terrace and thus also to the library.

Gozzoli ‘Adoration of the Magi’      Zoom in

Gozzoli 'Crucifixion with Virgin, Cosmas, John and Peter Martyr'  San Marco
photos: Steven Zucker and zoom: Frans Vandewalle

In the second cell, where you enter via a small staircase from the first cell (33), there is a large painting of the Adoration of the Magi on the back wall. This fresco was likely painted by the chief assistant in the workshop of Fra Angelico: Benozzo Gozzoli.

Christ as the Man of Sorrows in his tomb

Below the fresco of the Adoration, you see Christ as the Man of Sorrows in his tomb and also as the Arma Christi in the cheeks of the niche with the rod, scourge column, and lance, in short, the instruments of the Passion (for more information, see Wikipedia). In the floor of the niche, there was a small round opening leading to a hollow space in the wall. The shape and size resemble the crucifixion in the chapter house. However, other aspects seem more like the main altar in the church of San Marco. In the main altar, the layperson, especially the Medici family, but also the monk, were addressed. The small niche below the Adoration in Cosimo’s cell is reminiscent of the painted panel in the Madonna Enthroned on the main altar and the Lamentation in the middle of the predella They seem like pendants.

Later, this hollow space was made accessible from the front by a small door with a rounded top. The Arma Christi and the Man of Sorrows can also be found in the main altar of the San Marco. In the predella in the middle, there is the Man of Sorrows, and above him, in the main panel, angels around the throne of Mary with her child hold the instruments of the Passion in their hands.

Gozzoli 'Crucifixion with Virgin, Cosmas, John and Peter Martyr' detail: Man of SorrowSan Marco
photos: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

Fra Angelico ‘Lamentation’ in the middel of the predella of the main altar San Marco
Main altar (without predella)

The niche in the cell is in the same location as the painted panel with the crucifixion on the main altar of the San Marco. These are famous symbols of the Eucharist. The Eucharist, which was also actually performed at the altar. All of this suggests that in cell thirty-nine, the hosts were kept in the small space in the wall. With this in mind, the crucifixions in the cells gain a beautiful context and additional meaning.

In cell thirty-eight, a crucifixion is depicted. The patron saint of Cosimo is clearly visible. The meaning is explained in an old-fashioned manner. The words from the mouth of Christ are written in reverse. This allows God in heaven to read them. This is reminiscent of the famous Annunciation painted by Jan van Eyck on the back of the Ghent Altarpiece. The text comes from John 19:26-27 and reads: ‘When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,”

Gozzoli 'Crucifixion with Virgin, Cosmas, John and Peter Martyr' detail: Man of Sorow San Marco

This raises two questions: why a tabernacle or sacrament house, and did the Dominicans or Cosimo want this? The first can be ruled out. Among the Dominicans, the sacrament house was always placed above the main altar. Likely, there was an altar in cell thirty-nine. An altar for a layperson could only be permitted with the permission of the Pope. Martin V granted this permission to the monks of the monastery and Cosimo. A priest could celebrate mass in Cosimo’s cell, or more accurately, in the chapel. The double cell is thus both a cell and an altar space. In essence, Cosimo, the ruler of Florence, was a fourth king when he stood before his altar and looked at the Adoration.

‘Crucifixion with Virgin, Cosmas, John and Peter Martyr’      Zoom in

Angelico 'Crucifixion with Virgin, Cosmas, John and Peter Martyr'   San marco

Benozzo Gozzoli used precious pigments in the Adoration such as ultramarine blue (lapis lazuli), green malachite (a gemstone), and orpiment. The name of the mineral orpiment is derived from the Latin ‘auripigmentum,’ meaning gold paint, due to the mineral’s golden sheen. Quite different from the simple and cheap pigments used in the other cells. The Medicis must have been very pleased with the result. Piero, Cosimo’s son, commissioned G

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.ozzoli to paint an Adoration in his chapel in the Medici Palace near the San Marco (click here if you want to read the story about Gozzoli and the Medici-Riccardi chapel).

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