Angelico, Fra and the San Marco VI

The cells of the dormitory

Corridor (north)          Zoom out       Corridor (east)

San Marco corridor dormitory
photos: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta; Web Gallery of Art and Sailko

Click here for a floor plan:
A= library B= stairs to the dormitory C= corridor with the cells of the lay brothers (north) D= corridor with cells of the monks (east) E= corridor with cells of the novices (south) F= stairs to the cloister and the bell tower and cell 37 G and G1= double cell of Cosimo de Medici.

The cells were not only used for sleeping but also for study and meditation. They were private, but the door was always left open. In the regulations of the Dominicans regarding the corridors and cells, three important requirements were stated:
1. There must be an image of Mary in the corridor with a light burning day and night.
2. In each cell, there must be an image of Dominic for meditation.
3. Novices, lay brothers, and monks must each be placed together as a group, with the three groups separated from each other.

Angelico workshop Dominic with Crucifixion    Cell 19
photo cell 19: Daniel Hennemand

Dominic with Crucifixion       Cell 19

On the side of Piazza San Marco, the south side, there are seven cells for the novices (see map cells fifteen to twenty-one). Novices were young brothers, usually around fifteen years old, who were being trained as monks. There was a special monk appointed to supervise them and oversee their education. His cell, number twenty-two, was located at the end of the east side, where the monks had their cells. The three cells, 12 to 14, where later the prior Savonarola stayed at the end of the fifteenth century, were also for the novices. Cell twelve, the largest, was used as a classroom for the novices, and the two small cells, thirteen and fourteen, were used as storage spaces.

Cells of Savonarola other side

Cells of Savonarola
photo: Dimitris Kamaras

The master’s primary concern was the behavior of the novices. There were extensive and detailed behavioral rules reminiscent of a school where etiquettes are taught. They learned how to eat, keep their clothes clean, show respect to the elders, avoid making silly noises, and much more. Naturally, the novices had to learn everything concerning the liturgy and the constitution (basic rules and regulations of the Dominicans). The Dominicans aimed to achieve harmony between body and mind through their education, an integration of will and intellect, or in the language of mystical theology: of contemplation and action. The novices were disciplined with order and rigor.

In all seven cells (cells 15 to 18 and cells 19 to 21) for the novices, you see Dominic kneeling at a cross. The paintings are set within a quadrangle. The frames display alternating red and green stripes. The landscape is very simple, only schematically indicated. The only differences lie in the physiognomy of Dominic’s face and his gestures, but he remains kneeling in all the frescoes. The designs are by Angelico, but they were painted by his assistants.

Dominic with Crucifixion      Cell 17

photo cell 17: Daniel Hennemand

The images are only superficially connected to the crucifixion as described in the Bible. Dominic is not witnessing an action, but rather, it is his reaction to the crucifixion that is depicted in these paintings. Dominic, not Christ, is the active figure here. Due to their poor artistic quality, the paintings in the novices’ cells were scarcely discussed in literature. However, the iconography is by no means dull. If you want to understand Angelico’s frescoes, the answer lies here. The postures in which Dominic is painted at the cross are based on those of the saint himself when he prayed.

Dominic with Crucifixion cell 21

Angelico workshop Dominic with Crucifixion  Cell 21

Dominic wit Crucifixion      Cell 16

Fra Antonino, the first prior of San Marco, wrote the Summa Historiale. A significant part of this work is called the “titulus.” This section deals with San Marco during the time when the author was prior of this monastery. In another part of the Summa Historiale, the so-called “Chronicon,” Fra Antonino describes how, according to eyewitnesses, Saint Dominic prayed when he was alone. Yes, some brothers couldn’t resist secretly spying on him during those times. Antonino relies on sources from the thirteenth century, including Humbert of Romans.

Saint Dominic in payer BAV, MS Roddianus 3: 
De modo orandi, flo. 11r. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana detail

Saint Dominic in payer BAV, MS Roddianus 3:
De modo orandi, flo. 11r. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

De Modo Orandi: See Wikipedia
Mindset and corresponding attitude:
1. Reverence Deep: Bowing from the waist
2. Humility: Prostrating oneself
3. Doing penance: Self-flagellation
4. Compassion: Knee bending
5. Meditating: Repeated knee bending
6. Imploring: Standing upright with arms outstretched sideways
7. Ecstasy: Standing with outstretched hands
8. Commemorating: Reading
9. Desiring to preach: Conversation

In Dominican psychology, three fundamental principles are of essential importance:
1. Through gestures and postures, you can discern what is transpiring in the soul.
2. When the body assumes the correct posture, it aids the soul in attaining a particular disposition.
3. A proper diet was highly significant for one’s emotional state. Consuming food from cold waters had a cooling effect on the psyche, whereas meat from warm earth heated the temperament. It’s no surprise that the brethren abstained from meat but consumed fish. Fish also served as an excellent means to prevent carnal desires from arising. It’s unclear whether young novices received an additional portion of fish.

Through postures and meditation, one entered into a certain disposition. This aligns well with the mystical beliefs of the Dominicans. Humbert of Romans advised novices to slightly protrude the neck and lower their gaze, as such a posture not only displayed humility but also cultivated it.

There were three primary postures, as well as postures intermediate to the three main ones. Each evoked a different form of humility:
1. Bowing
2. Kneeling
3. Prostrating oneself

Nicolò Boccasino, serie dei Quaranta domenicani illustri detail

Modo 3 Doing penance Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
Cell 20

Each movement can be done more or less intensely. So, a slight bow or a very deep one. The position of the hands and arms also conveys meaning, such as clasped hands, then spread open, or crossed over the chest. In some parts of the monastery, specific behaviors were required. In the refectory, the brothers were to lightly bow before an image at the abbot’s table. When passing by panels or altars in the church, they would lightly bend the knees, with the upper body leaning forward. Most postures are distilled from the liturgy. The first eight modes or manners are entirely private and must be performed in complete silence.

In the cells, two ways of praying are not depicted: the mode of humility, where one lies on the ground, and that of compassion, with multiple genuflections. The first one wouldn’t fit within the cycle. In all the novices’ cells, Dominicus is shown kneeling. A Dominicus lying on the ground would be out of place.

Perhaps the painter Angelico was also not fond of such a striking posture in a composition with a crucifixion. Moreover, it fits only awkwardly into the more vertically rectangular shape of the frescoes in the cells. He likely omitted the fourth method, the making of multiple genuflections, for practical reasons. How could one straightforwardly represent this in a way understandable to young novices? Only in cell 10, the abbot’s cell, is the modo orandi of compassion (5) visible.

Angelico workshop Dominic with Crucifixion Cell 19
photo cell 19: Daniel Hennemand

Dominic with Crucifixion       Cell 19      Reading

The painting in cell nineteen depicts how Dominic ‘worked lovingly with his spirit’ (mode eight) over a text that made him cry intensely. Naturally, there was no desk or reading table in the fresco. This would not correspond with the fixed scheme of compositions in all the other novices’ cells. Angelico devised something else for this. The crying is depicted through a hand gesture, and the reading through a book. It is the only book visible in the paintings of the novices’ cells.

Reading, in fact, was the way to enter into meditation, not the contemplation of the frescoes. The paintings served merely as an additional support. In contemplative reading, the aim was not to organize facts or acquire knowledge. It’s more about devotion or dedicating oneself to a higher power. This occupied the majority of the day.

Nicolò Boccasino, serie dei Quaranta domenicani illustri

“In spiritual reading, a text in which you hope to find something nourishing is read very slowly, until something touches you. Then you stop. You revisit what touched you, and calmly, through associative thinking, you consider why you were moved, what it actually was, and what your response could be. It’s a sort of tasting and chewing over a text fragment until you think you’ve extracted the nourishing juices from it — the old monks called this ruminatio, the Latin word for what cows do with grass.” Cited and translated from: Wil Derkse ‘Een levensregel voor beginners Benedictijnse spiritualiteit voor het dagelijks leven’, Uitgeverij Lannoo, 2000.

The scourge was only used in the chapter house. Novices were not allowed to use the scourge themselves. Nevertheless, in cell twenty, it can be seen that Dominic is scourging himself. The text of the modo orandi does indicate that Dominic chastised himself, but in the monastery, this could only be done publicly with the other monks. So why this depiction? Well, to remind the novices that they had to keep their bodies in check, as stated in the third mode.

Dominic with Crucifixion

Angelico workshop Dominic with Crucifixion    Cell

Dominic with Crucifixion      Cell 21

In cell twenty-one, we see the sixth way of praying with outstretched arms. According to the text, Dominic did this when he needed divine power to perform a great deed. The text mentions that this occurred when our saint revived a boy from the dead in Rome at the San Sisto.

Angelico workshop Dominic with Crucifixion detail  Cell 21

In the MS Rossianus, the posture of supplication (mode 6) is also depicted. Here, Dominic is seen with outstretched arms, a gesture that alludes to the crucifixion of Christ. The paintings serve as a kind of mnemonic aid for the proper way of praying and meditating. These postures and gestures were also performed in the choir and during the liturgy — the bowing, kneeling, and prostrating oneself. Through the frescoes and prayer, the individual novice learned to adapt, and collective behavior was internalized.

Paul-Hippolyte Flandrin ‘Fra Angelico Visit by the Angels’ 1894

When you entered, you adopted a new name. Thus, Guido di Piero called himself Fra Giovanni da Fiesole upon entering. Later, he was called Giovanni Beato Angelico. Now we know him as Fra Angelico. You were, so to speak, absorbed into a family. Your behavior couldn’t deviate; you had to conform to the collective, the constitution, and the liturgy. However, you were free in the way you prayed or meditated in your cell. When novices completed their training and became monks, their knowledge of theology, liturgy, psalms, and the Bible was greatly deepened. In the cells on the east side, the monks’ cells, the iconography of the frescoes was much more complex and richer. Quite different from the simplicity of the murals in the novices’ cells.

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 VII