Angelico, Fra and the San Marco VII

The cells of the monks (east side)

San Marco corridor north Florence
photo: Steven Zucker

When the novice completed his training, he moved to the east side. There are eleven cells on the outside and nine on the courtyard side, making a total of twenty cells. In cell twenty-two, there is a fresco that closely resembles those of the novices. Such a painting is not found in the other nineteen cells on the east side. It is the only fresco with an intonaco background exactly like those in the novice cells. Cell twenty-two was for the master of the novices. The abbot resided in cells ten and eleven. After restoration, it was revealed that these cells were originally separated only by an arch, almost the size of the cell itself. It was thus a double cell, reserved only for the abbot. Later, Savonarola moved into the other double cell on the south side.

Fra Angelico ‘Annunciation’   detail San marco
photos cell and annunciation: Steven Zucker

Fra Angelico ‘Annunciation’      Angel       Mary      Cell 3

The frescoes in the monks’ cells vary greatly in quality. There are true masterpieces by the artist himself, such as the Annunciation in cell three or the Transfiguration in cell six. However, the murals in cells thirty and twenty-five, on the other hand, are of low quality.

Unlike the novices’ frescoes, which center around a single theme, those in the monks’ cells do not. Hood’s argument is that the subjects are based on the most important events of the liturgical year. Hence, themes from the liturgical calendar were chosen for the paintings.

Certain principles of composition and iconography unify the frescoes. However, there are two exceptions: Mary with Cross, cell twenty-two, and Noli me Tangere (touch me not) in cell one. The Resurrection scene actually belongs to the cells of the lay brothers on the north side. This cell was intended for the monk who was in charge of the lay brothers. Noli me tangere is highly narrative and naturalistic, much like the paintings in the cells of the lay brothers. In all the other eighteen cells, the murals share one common feature: they are in a rectangular form with a lunette at the top. An important characteristic of the frescoes is that in the cells of the novices and the monks, they are not narrative.

Fra Angelico ‘Noli me tangere’       Zoom in
Christ       Mary Magdalene      Stigmata

Fra Angelico 'Noli me tangere' San Marco
photo Noli me Tangere: Lluís Ribes Mateu

Would you like to read more about Fra Angelico and Noli me tangere? Click here for Victoria Emily Jones‘ “Sowing the stigmata: A reading of Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere by Georges Didi-Huberman.”

Fra Angelico 'Noli me tangere' detail: Christ San Marco

The two main objectives of the Dominican constitution were:
1. To connect the past and present.
2. To fathom the deeper divine meaning behind everyday events.

Angelico aimed to achieve the same with his paintings in the monks’ cells. External forms in the frescoes are used to evoke the desired inner state of the monk. In their contemplation, present and past merge, and ordinary events are suffused with divine significance. This is clearly evident in the murals. For instance, the fresco in cell twenty-seven should not actually be called “Christ at the Pillar of Flagellation.” He is not being scourged. His body shows no signs of the whip. The only action depicted is that of Dominic who is mortifying himself. In cell three, there is an Annunciation with Peter Martyr observing and meditating (mode five from the orandi). This work is by Angelico himself. In cell ten, Peter Martyr and the prophetess Anna observe a presentation of Jesus in the temple, yet they are clearly positioned outside the temple. Each time, there is a clear distinction between the two individuals depicted and their example for prayer. Each example is accompanied by one or two postures from the modo orandi.

The Annunciation in cell three is remarkable. By painting Peter Martyr outside the loggia, you immediately think of the cloister courtyard of San Marco.

Fra Angelico ‘Annunciation’           In situ cell 3

Fra Angelico 'Annunciation'   cell San Marco
photos: Steven Zucker

Giotto ‘The Ognissanti Madonna’ c. 1310

In the Annunciation in cell three, the angel is standing while Mary kneels. This was very unusual. In the church of San Marco, there is an Annunciation where the angel knelt and Mary sat, and this was always the way it was painted. In cell three, Angelico demonstrates the humility of Mary. As the mother of God, she held a higher position than the angel, yet she kneels. This is reminiscent of what Giotto did around 1310 in his main altar painting for the Ognissanti. His angels, who were higher in rank than the saints, take a low position: they kneel at the bottom of the composition. The monastic order of the Humiliati, with their main church, the Ognissanti, as the name of the order suggests, held humility in high regard. Could it have been Giotto who inspired Angelico with this idea?

Giotto 'The Ognissanti Madonna' detail

Vasari writes the following about the paintings: “Of many things in the cells, on the wall of the dormitory, an unspeakably beautiful scene from the New Testament.” With this, he assumes that the murals should be understood as a narrative. There has often been a search for unity in the stories behind all the frescoes in the cells on the east side, something that can be found in the fresco cycles in the Brancacci or Peruzzi chapels. In these chapels, stories are painted with a clear sequence and message. However, according to Hood, there is no unity in the cells of San Marco because the paintings are not narrative. They are symbols or emblemata. Fra Angelico designed the frescoes for the personal devotion and contemplation of the Dominicans, not for the public.

Fra Angelico ‘The Mockery of Christ’      Zoom in

Fra Angelico 'The Mockery of Christ'   cell San Marco
photo: Lluís Ribes Mateu

In cell seven, there is a mockery of Christ where the narrative element is deliberately omitted. Christ is depicted seated with a green cloth behind him, somewhat ironically for a king being mocked. He wears a crown of thorns. In the Gospels, it is stated that he was crowned only after the mockery. The New Testament also mentions that Christ wore a purple or red robe, and this was always how it was painted. This fresco is not an illustration of a story but emblemata or symbols referring to the Passion of Christ. Angelico’s source was not the Bible but the Golden Legend. A book that became popular at the end of the Middle Ages due to its beautiful stories about saints, although it was originally intended for another purpose. The stories of the saints from Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, as previously mentioned, had to be read aloud in the chapter halls of the Dominicans.

The mockery first takes place in the house of Annas. In Herod’s house, he is dressed in a white mantle. White signifies that he is not a king. Angelico depicts the entire action in the Golden Legend in one fresco. Thus, Angelico creates one remarkable image from several narrative events that unfold over a longer period, without the usual accompanying drama. In this rich symbolism, there is ample material for the monk in his cell to meditate on and ruminate upon while reading and observing the painting.

Fra Angelico 'The Mockery of Christ'   detail: Spit upon cell

Spit upon

“First, at the house of Ananias where he received spittings, buffets and blindfolding, of the Jews. Whereof St. Bernard saith: Right sweet and good Jesus thy desirous visage which angels desire to see, the Jews with their spittings have defiled, with their hands have smitten, with a veil fortorn they have covered, nor they have not spared to hurt it with bitter wounds.” Golden Legend Chapter 53 (scroll down)

Christ in white vesture

“Secondly, he was mocked in the house of Herod, which reputed him for a fool, and aliened from his wit, because he might have of him none answer. And by derision he was clad with a white vesture.” Golden Legend Chapter 53 (scroll down)

Fra Angelico 'The Mockery of Christ'   detail:  Christ cell

The abbot’s double cell

During the restoration, it was discovered that cells ten and eleven were originally connected. In cell ten, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple is painted, the work of Angelico himself, and in cell eleven, Mary with child and saints.

Fra Angelico ‘Mary with Child and Saints’ cell 11

Fra Angelico 'Mary with Child and Saints' cell

In the ‘Mary with Child and Saints’, motifs from altarpieces, including the main altarpiece of San Marco, reappear. The child stands in his mother’s lap with the orb of heaven in his hand while the other hand blesses. This theme is also visible on the wall of the corridor opposite cell six. Augustine and Dominic each hold an open book in front of them. Unfortunately, the inscriptions have disappeared. They were the rules adopted by the Dominicans from the Augustinians and the constitution, the two most important documents of the Dominicans. That is certainly fitting for the cell of an abbot.

Fra Angelico ‘The presentation of Christ in he Temple’
Zoom in       Cell 10

Fra Angelico 'The presentation of Christ in he Temple' cell
photo: Lluís Ribes Mateu

The Presentation had a red background until around 1993. After restoration, the original colors resurfaced. Now we see a niche again strongly reminiscent of Michelozzo’s architecture. The two saints, Anne and Peter Martyr, are not in the niche. The altar is in the center, and the flames of the fire are visible. Joseph with his basket of doves and Mary are indeed in the niche. Simon holds the child. Peter Martyr kneels, and Anne holds her cloak closed with her right hand. Her left hand repeats Dominicus’s gesture. She stands while he kneels. A miniature from the MS Rossianus illustrates the fourth way of praying from the modo orandi.
Dominicus is depicted twice: kneeling and standing. In the text accompanying this miniature, there is mention of alternating between standing and kneeling. This evokes admiration for Dominicus. Furthermore, it is stated in the text of the fourth method that Dominicus does this for the entire order. Once again, this is very appropriate for the cell of an abbot.

The subject, ‘Presentation in the temple,’ is known in liturgy as the purification of the Virgin. The feast of purification is celebrated on February second. This theme was very important for the Dominicans. The presentation in the temple became a topos for the entrance of youth into religious life. In the fifteenth century, San Marco was the headquarters of a youth movement called the Association of the Purification. Prior Fra Antonino was very fond of this. The youth in this association were potential candidates to become novices. The banner carried at the forefront of the procession by the youth of the purification was painted by Angelico. On the banner, Mary with Child on her lap could be seen with two doves behind her. Moreover, a young boy in a white robe knelt at the feet of Mary. In the liturgy of the Dominicans, purifications often occur. After vespers, the evening prayer, the brothers left the choir with burning wax candles. The procession then went through the monastery courtyard, with the Dominicans stopping at every corner. Prayers were recited here, and special hymns were sung.

Dominicans kneeling
photos: Lawrence OP

The frescoes in the cells can also be interpreted as depicting the important feasts of the Dominicans in the liturgical year. In chronological order, these are:

Dominicans with candle
photos: Lawrence OP

25 December: 1. Birth
1 January: 2. Circumcision
6 January: 3. Epiphany 4. Baptism of Christ;
5. Presentation in the temple Candlemas
2 February: 6. Annunciation
29 April: 7. Good Friday 8. Holy Saturday;
9. Easter 10. Peter Martyr
4 May: 11. Ascension 12. Pentecost
13. Crowning of Mary
4 August: 14. Trinity Sunday 15. Corpus Christi
16. Dominic
15 August: 17. Assumption
1 November: 18. All Saints’ Day

The murals are related to these feasts. The scenes depicting the important commemorations are randomly spread throughout the cells. In Cell five, number 1 Birth; Cell ten, number 5 Presentation in the Temple; Cell twenty-four, number 4 Baptism of Christ; Cell twenty-eight, number 7 Good Friday; Cell two, number 9 Easter; Cell nine, numbers 13 Crowning of Mary. In the upper part, the Coronation of Mary and below, All Saints’ Day (Corpus Christi). Six important main days are not visible in the cells. There is no conclusive explanation for this.

         Cell 5      Birth

photo: Lawrence OP

Fra Angelico ‘Transfiguration’      Christ     Cell 6

Fra Angelico 'Transfiguration' cell
Lawrence OP and cell 6 Richard Mortel

The Transfiguration or metamorphosis in cell six actually doesn’t fit in at all, unless you see the event as a preparation for the Passion of Christ. “Reminiscere” (Latin for “Remember your mercies”) is the second Sunday in Lent, a period of reflection in Christianity. Angelico also associates the Transfiguration with the Crucifixion, by giving Christ the same posture in the metamorphosis as during his crucifixion. This is completely unique in Italian art of that time, much like the kneeling Mary in the Annunciation opposite the standing Gabriel.

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 VIII