Angelico, Fra and the San Marco VIII

The cells of the lay brothers (north side)

North Corridor

North Corridor  San Marco cloister Florence
Web Gallery of Art

Click here for a map: 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 the cells of the novices (south) F= stairs to the cloister courtyard and the bell tower and cell 37 G1 and G2= double cell of Cosimo de Medici

The east and west sides still look like they did when Angelico and his assistants were painting here. This is not the case for the north side where the cells of the lay brothers were. Some cells (thirty-eight to forty-one) no longer have windows (map cells). There was little light in this northern corridor. In the seventeenth century, this is addressed thoroughly. A window is added at the eastern end of the corridor. This means that the fresco of the Annunciation in the corridor now receives daylight. At the same time, two cells opposite the library are demolished to allow more light. Cells thirty-two and thirty-three are expanded with the remains of the demolished cells. In these remains, parts of the old frescoes can still be seen.

Library      Map

San Marco library Florence
photos: Dimitris Kamaras and Web Gallery of Art
Angelico 'Dominic wit Crucifixion'  San Marco

Dominic with Crucifixion      Cell 16

In the paintings on the south side, the new brothers are introduced to the mystical life of the Dominican order. The various postures of Saint Dominic at the cross can be used in spiritual reading to follow Dominic and, naturally, also the Lord himself.

Crucifixion Cell 30

In the northern part were the lay brothers. These brothers had little or no education. Complex symbolism referring to the liturgy, the Bible, or the constitution as found in the cells of the monks was not suitable for them. Here, strongly narrative images that are easy to understand are chosen.

Angelico 'Dominic wit Crucifixion'  San Marcocell 30
 Fra Angelico 'Noli me tangere' detail      Cell 1

Fra Angelico ‘Noli me tangere’       Cell 1      Zoom in

In cell one (map) the story of the resurrection from the tomb, Noli me tangere, is painted. This scene is depicted in a naturalistic and detailed manner. This is the only cell of the monks where a narrative scene is painted. Why here and not in the other cells of the monks? This cell belonged to the monk who had to oversee the lay brothers. Therefore, his cell received a narrative fresco just like the cells of the lay brothers.

Fra Angelico ‘Crucifixion’       Zoom in

In cell forty-two, the final humiliation in the Passion of Christ is painted. He is pierced in his side with a lance. Interestingly, this is the only work on the north side painted by Angelico himself. Angelico portrays various emotional reactions to this event. The suffering of the mother is conveyed very convincingly. Dominic also feels sorrow. He gazes at the soldier piercing the lance into the side of Christ. Dominic engages with what is happening and thus becomes a part of the story. In this crucifixion with the lance, the focus is on the event itself. It illustrates what the evangelist John writes in 19:34: “But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.”

Fra Angelico 'Crucifixion’ detail cell

In the crucifixions depicted in cells forty to forty-four, you also see similarly narrative crucifixions. Hood makes a distinction between ‘crucifixes’ (crosses) and ‘crucifixions’. The former is symbolic, while the latter is narrative.

Arrest of Christ      Zoom in

Fra Angelico Arrest of Christ  cell

There is one exception to the above rule, and that is the crucifixion in cell thirty-seven. Tucked away in the corner on the west side of the northern corridor near a staircase (see map). Through this staircase, one could access the choir. It is clear that the composition heavily relies on the crucifixion in the chapter house. The use of parallel symmetry among the figures can also be seen in this fresco: two biblical figures and two Dominicans. This cell was likely a space where lay brothers gathered: their chapter house. Here, lessons were also taught by the master of the lay brothers, the monk from cell one. The lay brothers had to be well-versed in the history of the order as well as the liturgy. Furthermore, the master always supervised whether the lay brothers fulfilled their duties properly. They cooked, managed the household, served as porters, church keepers, or sacristans. The brothers also had their own choir (see map A2). Additionally, the lay brothers could access the tower through the space near cell thirty-seven to ring the bell.

Fra Angelico ‘Crucifixion’       In situ cell 37

Fra Angelico 'Crucifixion'  cell 37
photo in situ: Lawrence OP

Last Supper

Most frescoes of the lay brothers are based on the Bible. Occasionally, a typical element of the Dominicans can also be seen, as in the Last Supper. The Last Supper in cell thirty-five is also the communion of the apostles. Judas, with dark hair and a dark shadow in his halo, kneels.

Angelico ' Last Supper' detail

Last Supper      Zoom in        In situ (cell 35)

Angelico ' Last Supper' cell 35
photos: Lawrence OP and Richard Mortel

Mary is also present. The interior and exterior resemble the monastery of San Marco. You are on the ground floor. Is this referring to the refectory of the monastery? The chalice in the hands of Christ is very large, and apparently, it was not meant to be overlooked. By emphasizing this, it evokes thoughts of the Eucharist. The scene also symbolizes the feast of Corpus Domini, which is represented in cell twenty-six in a much more abstract and symbolic manner. The work in a monk’s cell is meditative; the Last Supper is not. The Last Supper in cell thirty-five is immediately understandable due to its strongly narrative structure.

Reflection on the Passion cell 26      Zoom in

Angelico 'Reflection on the Passion 'cell 26   

Dominican singing hymns Blackfriars Oxford

photo: Lawrence OP

Crivelli ‘Thomas Aquinas’ 1476 
The demidoff Altarpiece National Gallery, Londen

The Dominican, Thomas Aquinas, wrote four famous hymns about the institution of the Eucharist. This painted scene is a visual translation of his hymns.

Crivelli ‘Thomas Aquinas’ 
Angelico Crucifxion detail cell


The Verbum Supernum
In two forms, bread and wine divine,
He wishes to be our food, benign.
He gives Himself, His flesh and blood,
So completely nourishing, to us bestowed.


The third verse from Pange Lingua Corporis Mysterium
He comes to us as a companion,
He shares Himself with us as bread,
As ransom,He gives Himself on the cross And as reward,
in the Father’s house

Angelico Crucifxion detail: head of Christ

Very easy to understand for those who worked in the kitchen and garden or did cleaning.

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 IX