Angelico, Fra and the San Marco X

The two Mary’s in the corridors of the dormitory

East Corridor            North Corridor

San Marco East Corridor  Florence
photo: Korytarz Klasztoru

In the eastern corridor, on the wall opposite cell six, a painting of Mary with child and saints is depicted. In the north, as you enter the corridor from the stairs, you see an Annunciation. In Fiesole, in the San Domenico monastery, at the end of the stairs, there was also a fresco of Mary and her child.

Fra Angelico (?) ’The Virgin and Child with Dominic and Thomas Aquinas’ Fiesole

Fra Angelico (?) ’ Virgin  Child Dominic Thomas Aquinas’ Fiesole
Hermitage Museum Petersburg

Day and night, light had to be burning at the frescoes of Mary in the corridors, as stated in the rules of the order. Humbert of Romans, the thirteenth-century brother, described in his Vitae fratrum, in chapter one hundred and ninety-eight, how Mary was revered by the Dominicans.

“After reciting the Matins, they devoutly gathered at her altar where they waited briefly before returning to the choir, but they did not go without a prayer. […] In their cells, they had before their eyes the image of her and her crucified son, so that reading and praying they could look to Mary and, in turn, be looked upon with eyes full of grace. According to the rules, Matins had to be held in the dormitory. In the early Dominican monasteries, there was always an altar for Mary.” Vitae fratrum, p. 213 (translation by William Hood p. 255 footnote 1)

According to the rules, Matins had to be held in the dormitory. In the first Dominican monasteries, there was always an altar for Mary.

Mary with Child and Saints

The monks of San Marco gathered in front of the fresco of the Madonna with Child and eight saints to recite their nightly prayers. The work can be well explained through texts.

Fra Angelico painted the enthroned Mary on a platform in front of a niche with a golden-colored conga. This niche strongly resembles the architecture of Michelozzo. Two composite pilasters support the entablature. Decorations of a vine are applied to the frieze. The architectural screen against which the figures are set is white and has the same color as the wall on which the fresco is painted. The sky above the painted wall surface is dark blue. On each side of Mary, there are four figures. To the right of Mary are depicted: Mark (with an open book), Cosmas and Damian (twin brothers), and Dominic with his open book. To the left of Mary are John the Evangelist (with a book), Thomas Aquinas (only his face is visible), Lawrence with his rooster, and finally Peter Martyr. The same saints as on the main altarpiece in the choir. Only Francis is replaced by Thomas Aquinas in this fresco. Dominic simplifies the postures of the figures and the background when compared to the main altarpiece in San Marco.

Fra Angelico ‘Madonna and Childe with Eight Saints’ (East dormitorium)      Zoom in

Fra Angelico 'Madonna and Child with Eight Saints' (East dormitorium)

Face Mark (left)        Face John (right)

The landscape behind the canvas now becomes a dark blue stripe above a wall. There is a strong symmetry in the postures of the saints. The postures of the individuals in the right group are partially mirrored by the saints in the left group. The face and beard of Mark the evangelist and John are so similar that the same cartoon was likely used for both figures. Such mechanical repetition is not typically associated with the painter Angelico.

Angelico frames the entire piece with a narrow ochre stripe. The painted architectural border at the bottom is much heavier than the border within the fresco itself. During the last restoration, it was revealed that the wainscoting is elaborately detailed and rich. Four fictional marble slabs in a white frame. These panels are painted porphyry slabs that appear precious.

Angelico 'Madonna and Childe with Eight Saints' detail: Child

The Child       Dominic

This fresco is often called ‘the Madonna of the Shadow.’ The light comes horizontally from the south, so from the left when facing the fresco. Sharp shadows of the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian capitals fall on the wall. Above the head of Mary, in the conch, you can see the light reflecting. You also see the light bouncing off the golden halo of Mary. Leaf gold was used for the halos, not yellow pigment like in the cells. Angelico used precious materials for this fresco. The shadows are also visible in the softly glowing faces of the saints. The way Dominic and the child look gives the impression that this scene is unfolding before your eyes.

Two walls and the roof

The fresco was made in a unique way for that time. Two techniques were used: fresco buon and secco. For more information, click here on Wikipedia or my story about Giotto (just scroll down). Angelico started with the prescribed method (buon fresco). Once the underlayer was applied, he applied the final thin layer of intonaco in sections. Then, with a light, faint color, he outlined the figures. The parts with skin tones were given a light green base (terra verde). Up to this point, he still worked per section in the moist lime. Once the overall sketch was done and the lime was dry, Angelico continued on the dry lime, a secco, working from top to bottom and painted everything. Here, he switched to a technique derived from panel painting. Analyses of samples during restoration revealed that Angelico used egg yolk as a binder for his pigments. For painting on dry lime, painters always used animal glue. So, this work is actually not a fresco, but a painting in tempera.

San Marco East Corridor  wooden roof Florence

Technically, this was indeed possible in this case. The fresco was painted on an interior wall that did not reach the ceiling nor touch the ground. The wall is set above the vaults of the refectory. All this means that no moisture could penetrate into the wall, which could activate the salts in the stones. Salt is a disaster for frescoes as it ruins the paint. Moreover, the wall between cell twenty-five and twenty-six was even more stable than a panel. Due to temperature fluctuations, wood always expands and contracts slightly.

Fra Angelico 'Madonna and Child with Eight Saints' (East dormitorium) detail:Dominic  open gospel of Mark

Dominic and the open gospel of Mark

Angelico warns his brothers by depicting Dominic with a book. Dominic, as the observer, looks at you and points with his finger to the text, which is clearly readable. It’s almost overwhelming. Mark also holds an open book. The first three verses of his Gospel are readable, but they are not relevant to the meaning of this work. It is his attribute, so the viewer knows that this saint is the evangelist Marcus. There is no doubt about Dominic: the star on his head, the lily, and the habit. The text of the open book reads:

Have charity; perserve humility; possess voluntary poverty. I invoke God’s curse and mine on the introduction of possessions into this Order

These would be the last words that Dominic spoke to his brothers in Bologna before he died on August 4, 1221. Here, Angelico speaks as a true observer.

The Annunciation in the northern corridor

The curse of Dominic was meaningless to non-Dominicans. This also explains why Angelico painted this specifically in the monks’ corridor and not in the north corridor, which was also accessible to Cosimo.

Northern corridor

San Marco cloister Northern corridor Florence

The Annunciation is understandable for everyone. It greets, so to speak, the visitors ascending the stairs. Angelico made Annunciations throughout his entire career. He had already painted at least four Annunciations himself. Around 1450, Angelico painted this Annunciation. He is even the inventor of this composition, which became typical for other Annunciations in Florence after 1435. Angelico designed this type for theological reasons related to the Tuscan Observants, the way they revered Mary, and the virtues she symbolized.

The staircase and the view of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

staircase and the view of Fra Angelico's Annunciation San Marco
photos: Steven Zucker

Angelico’s Annunciation is highly naturalistic, more so than ever in his oeuvre. The fresco is beautifully placed on the wall with fictitious pietra serena frames that connect to the real frames. The painting is sandwiched between a corner frame, a top frame, and the round frame around the door of cell 31. The other frames are painted. Below the top frame, which runs along the entire wall surface, Angelico paints a dark edge. As a result, it appears as if you are looking at the bottom of a beam in front of the mural. At the bottom, the light gray top of the frame opens up the world of the fresco. This is actually painted as well. The shape of this frame repeats the profile of the steps leading to the fresco. The foreshortening of the painted lines runs parallel to that of the door through which you enter the corridor. As a result, it appears as if the frames around the fresco are an extension of the doorway space. The vanishing point of the loggia itself is clearly higher than the vanishing point of the frames. The frame and the painted depiction are thus two different worlds.

San Marco Fra Angelico ‘Annunciation’ North and East Corridor

San Marco Fra Angelico 'Annunciation' North and East Corridor
photos: Steven Zucker

The world at the top and sides behind the frame continues. On the left, a fenced garden opens up with a forest behind it. You look out through an open door via a small window. In the right bay, Mary is seated. The bottom inscription, the second one was added later, reads: When you come before the image of the eternal Virgin, take care not to forget to recite the Hail Mary.

Visitors are always amazed by the miraculous real presence of the painting. As if it is unfolding behind the frame and you are, so to speak, looking through the wall. Unfortunately, this effect is nowadays somewhat diminished due to the plexiglass at the bottom. This was necessary to protect the Annunciation from even more graffiti. Why does it seem so incredibly real? Firstly, because the painted frames and the actual architecture fit together beautifully. It’s a true trompe l’oeil. A second reason is that the light seems to come from the fresco itself. It should not be forgotten that the window now at the eastern end of the corridor is not original. There was no window here before. It was installed after the earthquake in 1453.

Fra Angelico ‘Annunciation’

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

Angelico aimed to depict the architectural setting in the fresco very convincingly. He was particularly well-versed in the new style of Brunelleschi, Alberti, and Michelozzo. He applies the proportions that play a significant role in Renaissance architecture to his painting.

The lighting is applied very controlled. You can see this in the fictitious frames, which are modeled with light and dark. The lighting on the architecture is very realistic. From left to right in the fresco, you can see that the lighting in the right part, in the bay where Mary is seated, clearly diminishes.

Fra Angelico 'Annunciation' fresco San Marco detail Ionic capital

Ionic capitals       Corinthian capitals

However real everything may seem, there are a few strange things going on, which, by the way, do not disturb at all. The figures are too large in proportion to the architecture, and the vaults do not match the arcades. The archangel Gabriel casts no shadow, and the capitals are peculiar: there are Corinthian, but also two Ionic ones. The latter was highly unusual. Despite these inconsistencies, the whole looks convincing at first glance.

Why two columns with Ionic capitals? The type of Ionic columns that Michelozzo used in the cloister of San Marco. It was customary to paint only Corinthian columns in Annunciations. Angelico intended not only to depict the house of Mary in Nazareth with this, but also the house of the Dominicans in San Marco.

A third reason why the fresco appears so lifelike is due to the painted architecture that is harmonized with the wall. The proportions of the painting are integrated into the wall it is painted on. The central column in the loggia aligns precisely with the center of the doorway. That is also the spot from which one should view the fresco.

The archangel Gabriel and Mary

Fra Angelico 'Annunciation' fresco  detail: Mary and Gebriel
photo: Steven Zucker

From this central column, all parts of the composition are derived. The column determines the geometry of the composition. The entire wall up to and including the frame is 6 braccia (1 braccia equals 58.36 cm) high. The width from the frame to the door frame is 5.5 braccia. Angelico had already determined the proportions before applying the intonaco. The height of the shaft of the column (excluding the base and capital) is 2 braccia, and the height of the arcade is 1 braccia. A ratio of two to one. The capitals are 0.5 high, and the diameter of the column is 0.25 braccia, again maintaining this ratio. All other proportions exhibit the same ratio of two to one.

Annunciation in the Santissima Annunziata
Fresco Annunciation

Annunciation in the Santissima Annunziata Florence

Jacopo di Cione ‘Annunciation’ c. 1371 San Marco church

In Angelico’s work, the Annunciation no longer takes place in a bedroom, but in a loggia where you can still see her bedroom. This was not customary in Florence. The model for this subject was the Annunciation that can still be seen in the Santissima Annunziata. Here, the Annunciation took place in Mary’s bedroom. This fresco, if the stories are to be believed, still performs miracles. In San Marco, another Annunciation is visible on the inside of the facade. Like all Annunciations in Florence, this Annunciation is based on the one in the Santissima Annunziata. It was Angelico who first devised a new composition.

Jacopo di Cione 'Annunciation' c. 1371 San Marco church detail: Mary
photo: Jebulon

In Angelico’s Annunciations, in Cortona, Fiesole, and the Northern corridor of San Marco, the focus is on the mystery of the Incarnation in the realm of appearances, or formulated in a more earthly way: Mary giving birth to her Christ child. The inscription on the frame calls upon the viewer to recite Ave Maria (Hail Mary) for the work.

Fra Angelico ‘Cortona altarpiece’ 1433-1434       
Gabriel and Mary

Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The viewer is called upon by the Hail Mary to repeat the words of Gabriel. The Dominicans must kneel during the Hail Mary just like Gabriel. This fresco thus becomes a part of their liturgy. The posture, the praying of the Hail Mary, of the monks in front of the painting is visually echoed in the painting of this Annunciation. The monk is, as it were, a witness to the salvation of mankind. In the mural, it is morning, the beginning of a clear and new day. The sun rises from the east. The idea of a garden, of course, is the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden, which symbolizes the purity of Mary.

The second inscription was added around 1500 to the Annunciation and reads: “Hail, mother of mercy and generous resting place of the Holy Trinity.” With his inscription, Angelico calls upon the viewer to pray and addresses the behavior of the viewer. The second inscription, on the contrary, excludes this; it refers to something outside the painting, the miracle and the role of Mary as mother or temple of the divine Trinity. The new quote did not address the viewer but Mary herself.

Mary      Zoom in      Mary’s face

Mary is greatly enlarged; she is too large in proportion to the angel. Her head protrudes above that of Gabriel. This is unrealistic in relation to the architecture; however, it is done deliberately as she is, after all, the queen of heaven. It also seems strange that the angel casts no shadow. Yet, this is logical since only matter can cast a shadow, not an angel who is purely spiritual.

For the Mother of Christ, Angelico is frugal with his pigments. The blue of azurite is only used for the mantle, and even then, in modest quantities. The precious ultramarine that Angelico used for Mary in the main altar is not applied here. Furthermore, Mary is not depicted as a queen of heaven, but as a simple woman. Her unsuspecting face, open and attentive, suggests that she is still at the beginning of her period as queen of heaven. She has no idea what awaits her. Here, she is not an icon, but a person, a woman who fully surrenders to what is asked of her.

Fra Angelico 'Annunciation' fresco detail: Mary San Marco

This is the only time in his entire body of work that Mary wears a white robe with a dark blue mantle. Typically, in Angelico’s works, Mary wears a red robe under her blue mantle. Mary herself had handed over the black-and-white habit to the Dominicans. Here, the white naturally represented purity. Not only the white robe, but her humble posture and the simple stool on which she sits, indicate submission and simplicity. Such an attitude was also what the Observants of San Marco aspired to. Mary was also the abbess of their monastery here.

Paul-Hippolyte Flandrin ‘Fra Angelico Visited by Angels' detail: Fra Angelico

Paul-Hippolyte Flandrin ‘Fra Angelico Visited by Angels’ 1894

Vasari also recounts the humility of the painter Angelico as follows:
“In short, this never sufficiently praised father was modest and particularly humble in all his words and deeds, and gentle and pious in his works; and the saints painted by him are holier in posture or appearance than anyone else. He never retouched or improved any of his paintings, but always left them exactly as they had turned out, for that, he said, was the will of God. Some say that Fra Giovanni never took up his brushes without first saying a prayer. He never depicted a Crucifixion without tears streaming down his cheeks: hence one perceives in the facial expressions and postures of his figures the goodness of his soul, great and sincere in the Christian religion.”
Cited and translated from Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel I blz. 220 (oorspronkelijke uitgave 1568).

Michel Dumas ‘Fra Angelico in Fiesole’ 1844
Michel Dumas ‘Brother Giovanni Angelico in prayer’ 1845

In 1455, Fra Angelico was buried at the age of sixty in the main church (Santa Maria Sopra Minerva) of the Dominicans in Rome, and in 1982, Il Beato Angelico was declared blessed by the Vatican.

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.

The end of Florence day 5
Continuation Florence day 6: Gozzoli and the Cappella dei Magi I