Angelico, Fra and the San Marco V

The Chapter hall

This was not just one of the many rooms in a monastery. A story from the hagiography about Dominic, Vitae fratrum, illustrates the importance of the chapter hall. This can be read in Part II, Chapter XVI, entitled “How he [Dominic] met the devil who roamed around the convent.” Also in the Legenda Aurea, originally written to be read in the chapter halls of the Dominicans, the encounter between Dominic and the devil is described. Dominic, according to his biographers, always watched out for the devil who roamed the monasteries as a spy, assuming various forms to avoid being recognized. In a miniature, we see the devil in the form of a black cat. Fortunately, Dominic immediately recognizes this and drives the devil out of the church.

One day, the devil sought to tempt the brothers, but when Dominic spends a night in a church in Bologna and the devil appears to him in the guise of a brother, our saint immediately discerns what is happening. Dominic acts decisively and …

Carlo Crivelli  ‘Saint Dominic’ 1476

“He forced the devil to reveal how he tempted the brothers in the choir. ‘I make them arrive late,’ said the devil, ‘and leave quickly.’ Then he took him to the dormitory and inquired how he tempted the brothers there. ‘I make them sleep too much,’ he said, ‘and rise too late, thus missing the divine office, and sometimes I instill impure thoughts in them.’ Then he took him to the refectory and wanted to know how he tempted the brothers there. Then the devil jumped on the tables and kept shouting: ‘More and less!’ Saint Dominic asked what this meant. ‘I tempt some brothers,’ said the devil, ‘to eat more so they sin through excess food, while I tempt others to eat less so they become weaker in their service to God and obedience to the order. Then he took him to the speaking room and inquired how he tempted the brothers there. The devil clacked and rolled his tongue repeatedly, producing a strange mix of sounds.” Continuation text below

Master of James IV of Scotland

“Saint Dominic asked what this meant. ‘This place is entirely mine,’ said the devil. ‘Because when brothers gather to talk, I tempt them to interrupt each other and engage in useless chatter, without allowing anyone to finish speaking.’ Finally, he took him to the chapter hall, but as soon as they stood at the door, the devil absolutely refused to enter. ‘I will never go in here,’ he said, ‘because for me, this is a place of curse, a hell. Here, I lose all the profit I make elsewhere. For if I make a brother stumble through a certain negligence, he soon comes to this place of curse, where he then confesses that negligence before everyone. Here, the brothers are admonished and confess, here they are accused, punished, and acquitted, and so here, much to my annoyance, I lose all the profit I made elsewhere.’ And with those words, he disappeared.” 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. 179-180


The old fresco above the entrance, like the story of Dominic and the devil, makes it clear that the whip was used in the chapter hall. If you confessed your sins, you were punished in front of all the monks. This was a way to maintain the integrity of the monastery.

The chapter hall was also important for other reasons. So, candidates who wanted to become novices were admitted here. Meetings of the provincial and local orders were also held in this space. Important laypeople were received in the chapter hall. Additionally, various ceremonies were held here, such as the blessing of palm branches for Palm Sunday. On Maundy Thursday, the prior washed the feet of his brothers. This served as a reminder of the Last Supper, where Jesus washed the feet of his apostles.

Fra Angelico Scourge detail

The Crucifixion in the chapter hall

Just like the main altar in the church, the crucifixion also had a double meaning. It was very understandable for laypeople. They saw a crucifixion with familiar figures, but the brothers looked with different eyes. They could read the deeper meaning. Partly literally through the inscriptions on the scrolls in the frames, but especially through the imagery used that referred to the liturgy and their collectively shared knowledge.

Fra Angelico ‘The Crucifixion’ 1441 -1442       Zoom in

Fra Angelico 'The Crucifixion'  chapter hall San Marco

Angelico painted the crucifixion opposite the entrance on the north wall in a lunette. The fresco measures 5.5 by 9.5 meters, allowing the figures to be painted life-size. The painting appears to rest on a stone ledge made of pietra serena, but it is merely composed of pigments. The work is elegant and richly decorated, as befits a space accessible to the public. The composition is purely geometric, as seen in the arrangement of the three crosses. The height is determined by the width of the bay; half of the width was taken for the height. The rhythm in the painted frame around the crucifixion becomes stronger at the bottom where seventeen portraits of Dominicans are depicted. The portraits are framed by branches of a tree, reminiscent of the tree with portraits of important Dominicans in the Chiostro Verde in Santa Maria Novella.

The good thief, Dysmas, hangs to the right and the bad one, Gestas, to the left of Christ. Christ is dead, but the thieves are still alive. The crosses of both thieves mark the center of the composition. The biblical witnesses are placed between the cross of Christ and Dysmas. Three women: Mary, Mary Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene supporting Mary. Behind them stands John the Evangelist. To the left of Christ and between the cross of Gestas, we see Dominic separated from the others, and behind him stands Augustine. To the right of the cross of the bad thief are nine figures. They are saints of monastic and mendicant orders.

Dysmas Christ Gestas
Dysmas’s face       Gestas’s face

Fra Angelico 'The Crucifixion'   detail: Dyusmas Christ Gestas chapter hall San Marco


Fra Angelico ‘The Crucifixion’ 1441 -1442       Zoom in

Fra Angelico 'The Crucifixion'  chapter hall San Marco

From right to left, these are: Jerome (with a cardinal’s hat), Anthony the Abbot (with a book and staff), Francis (kneeling), Benedict (with a rod and standing), Bernard of Clairvaux (kneeling and pressing a rule book against himself), Romuald, the standing figure in a white robe, founder of the Camaldolese Order, Giovanni Gualberto, born in Florence, founder of abbeys including the Abbey of Vallombrosa (kneeling), Peter Martyr kneeling entirely to the left of Christ, and finally Thomas Aquinas with his open book from which rays of light emanate. The figures at the crucifixion were not only founders of monasteries but also reformers. This fit nicely in a chapter hall of the Observantines, who also sought to reform the Dominican order.

Dominic between two popes      Dominic and Adam’s skull

Fra Angelico 'The Crucifixion' detail: Dominic between two popes chapter hall San Marco
photo:s jaen louis mazieres

Hugh de Billo also called Hugues Aycelin

In the lower register, seventeen portraits are visible. The criteria for choosing a portrait were simple: one had to be famous, have contributed significantly to the order, and be deceased. During Angelico’s time painting the Crucifixion, there was no one from San Marco who met these criteria. However, there had to be some Dominican brothers from Florence, so the painter selected several famous brothers from Santa Maria Novella. Similar to altarpieces, there is hierarchical symmetry among the portraits. For example, the first Dominican cardinal (wearing a red hat), Hugh de Billo, also known as Hugues Aycelin, is paired with Giovanni Dominici: a brother from Santa Maria Novella and the founder of San Domenico in Fiesole. He is depicted beneath the kneeling Dominicus and wears a cardinal’s hat. Paolo Pilastri, a brother from Santa Maria Novella and patriarch of Gradop, is paired with Pierre de la Palu, patriarch of Jerusalem. The fourth figure to the right of the center is Albertus Magnus. He wears a miter, holds an open book, and a pen in his hand. His counterpart on the other side is Aldobrandino Cavacanti, the founder of Santa Maria Novella.

Fra Angelico 'The Crucifixion' detail: Hugh de Billo chapter hall San Marco

The work is lavish, employing precious pigments. Only Angelico’s work in the chapel of Pope Nicholas V and the main altar surpasses this fresco in luxury. The expensive blue dominated, though unfortunately much of it has since faded. The figures to the right of the cross are adorned in precious attire. The halos gleam, crafted not with pigment but with gold. Mary’s cloak is of ultramarine, the sole instance where Angelico utilized this extremely precious pigment.

Fra Angelico 'The Crucifixion' detail: Christ chapter hall San Marco

Crucifixion of Christ       Pelican

The layperson observing the crucifixion in the chapter hall naturally recognized a crucifixion and likely knew the story of the two thieves. However, for the Dominicans, there was much more to see than for the outsider. In the center of the crucifixion, directly above the cross in the frame, a pelican is visible. This pelican pecks its breast open with its beak so that it can feed its young with its blood. This symbolism naturally points to the great love of God who sacrifices his son by allowing him to be crucified in order to save humanity. The inscription on the banderole comes from Psalm 101 and reads: “Similis factus sum pellicano solitudinis,” which translates to “I have become like a pelican in the wilderness.” Beneath the cross lies the skull of Adam. It was believed that from his skull grew a tree from which the Cross of Christ was made.

On the side panels, completely at the bottom right and left, the beginning and the end of the great Christian story are depicted. Pseudo-Dionysus (left) holds up a scroll with the text: “Deus nature patitur,” meaning “God suffers in nature (or according to nature).” This represents the Crucifixion. On the other side, to the right, the sibyl of Erythrae holds a banderole with the following inscription: “He will die through death, [so] on the third [day] he will be the first to emerge from the realm of sleep and come into the light from the deepest depths.” This represents the Resurrection of Christ. The other eight texts on the banderoles in the frame come from patriarchs and prophets. All inscriptions relate to the Crucifixion, which one could contemplate while observing it. For instance, David and Zacharias hold the following banderoles with verses: “In my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” and “With this I have been struck/wounded” respectively. Additionally, there are banderoles with inscriptions such as “In nature, God suffers” and “He will die through death, [so] on the third [day] he will be the first to emerge from the realm of sleep and come into the light from the deepest depths.” Three of the eight inscriptions come from the liturgy of Holy Week: the climax of the liturgical year.

Fra Angelico ‘The Crucifixion’ 1441 -1442       Zoom in

Fra Angelico 'The Crucifixion'  chapter hall San Marco
Fra Angelico 'The Crucifixion'  detial Dysmas chapter hall San Marco

Dysmas      Face of Dysmas      Gysmas

In Angelico’s Crucifixion, a somber mood prevails, devoid of the joy of impending redemption. Dysmas, the good thief, is the only one who does not appear sorrowful, but then again, he is the one who is saved. In the Gospel of Luke 23:43, when Dysmas asks Christ for respect as he is being mocked by Gysmas, Christ replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Mary Clopas      Mary      Mark      Mary Magdale (kneeling)

Fra Angelico 'The Crucifixion' detail:  Marychapter hall San Marco

“Over her rich crimson dress the Madonna wears an ermine-lined blue cloak, the  only place at San Marco in which Fra Angelico used pure ultramarine blue. The kneeling figure of Mary Magdalene is draped in clear vermilion, and Mary Clopas wears a shimmering golden cloak over a malachite-green dress. Saint Mark’s green mantle was also likely painted with ground malachite […]” Cited from William Hood, ‘Fra Angelico at San Marco’, Yale Uninversity Press, New Haven and London 1993 p. 186.

Fra Angelico ‘Crucifixion and Saints’

Fra Angelico 'The Crucifixion'  detailchapter hall San Marco

It’s striking that almost no one is looking at the crucified figure. Many faces are downturned. The full range of human emotions is visible: Saint Giovanni Gualberto is weeping (facing the viewer), the rage of Gestas, the wrongdoer thief, and his intense fear. Even Dominicus does not look at Christ; he appears lost in thought. His eyes are open, but he does not look, and his arms are outstretched. The pious sorrow of Cosmas and Damianus as they gaze at Christ. The melancholy of Francis. Mary, overwhelmed by emotions, needing support. Romualdus looks solemn. Many are not looking at anything but are introspective.

Fra Angelico 'The Crucifixion'  detail: Mark chapter hall San Marco

Mark       The Book

Exceptions are Mark and John the Baptist. They gaze from the fresco towards the viewer, especially Marcus, who has his book open and shows it to the viewer. John points with his hand towards the cross, while Mark points to his book. After the last restoration before 1993, remnants of text were found. Unfortunately, we do not know what it said. It probably came from his Gospel, which began with the story of Christ’s Passion.

Many details from this crucifixion can be used by the brother for meditation, such as the text from Mark or the inscriptions on the scrolls. He can empathize with Mary and the various reactions of the figures. This is very different from the crucifixion in the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella. Here, the triumph of the Dominicans and the church is shown. With Angelico, it’s about inner contemplation. The individuals depicted in Angelico’s crucifixion are deeply moved, yet they do not move. Observing the crucifixion was a collective memory and a re-experiencing of it by the monks of this monastery.

Fra Angelico 'The Crucifixion' detail Dominic chapter hall San Marco
Dominic Chapter hall    Dominic Courtyard

When you compare the heads of the kneeling Dominicus in the crucifixions in the chapter hall and the courtyard, you see what Angelico is capable of. Apart from Donatello, no artist could portray two such profoundly different emotions in a face in such a convincing manner.

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 VI