Fra Angelico - VM - Gertjan Schutte
Fra Angelico: The Crucifixion
Exalted yet Near
by Gertjan Schutte
The small town of San Domenico, Italy, is home to this Crucifixion, a relatively unknown work by Fra Angelico. Beneath the cross there are no Mary and other saints in this fresco, which causes the work to come closer to me than a lot of his other work.
The rickety and much too noisy bus of line 7 drives from the San Marco square in Florence to the north, to the small town of Fiesole. Just about halfway line 7 stops in the even smaller town of San Domenico. This community receives its name from the Convento di San Domenico, a convent still inhabited by Dominican priests. It is also used by the European University Institute (EUI), where I worked for a while. In 2018 one of the Dominicans, the Irishman Michael Dunleavy, presented a series of lectures at the EUI about the most well-known inhabitant of San Domenico, Giovanni da Fiesole, better known as Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455). For a long time this great painter lived and worked in the convent, hence it has housed a number of his masterworks for quite a few centuries. For this reason Father Dunleavy took us to the convento, where two of Fra Angelico’s works still can be seen.
Much of the world he lived in has disappeared. The sterile baroque interior of the convent church is completely dissimilar to its appearance in the late middle ages. Most of Fra Angelico’s works have disappeared, plundered by the French, like the impressive panel The Coronation of the Virgin, now in the Louvre. The French even removed a fresco from the wall, namely the Crucifixion with Mourners and St Dominic. Other works are now in Saint Petersburg and Madrid.
One of Fra Angelico’s early works is still present, the Fiesole Altarpiece, in which Mary and Christ are surrounded by Barnabas and three saints of the Dominican order, Thomas Aquinas, Peter of Verona and of course Dominic (1170-1221) himself. The work shows that Fra Angelico was first of all a believing monk, something which Father Dunleavy emphasized in his lectures. Fra Angelico employed his immense talent to show the majesty of God. He gained fame with his sacra conversazione, a composition that shows Mary, Christ and the saints united in prayer.
Fra Angelico’s scenes depict a celestial holiness that has left the messy terrestrial reality behind. Is it a coincidence that Fra Angelo emphasized holy eminence? Some Dominicans did not have a lot of patience with views less exalted than theirs. It was the Dominicans who played a major role in the medieval inquisition. And it was Dominic Guzmán (1170-1221), founder of the Dominican Order (2016) who went to the Languedoc in Southern France to combat the Cathars, also known as the Albigensians. This group agitated against the beauty of creation: humans need to be redeemed from the suffering of the body and the earth, ideas that the strict Dominicans condemned as heresy. Of these kinds of practices the painter-monk Fra Angelico cannot be accused, but his emphasis on purity is not totally disconnected from the rigidity of the Dominican order.
The second work of Fra Angelico in San Domenico unexpectedly counterbalances this strictness. In the chapter hall in the back of the convento a fresco depicts the crucified Christ (see the top). This fresco has long been concealed by several layers of chalk, which protected it from robbery but also from the eyes of modern tourists. During the tour by Father Dunleavy I was given the opportunity to see it.
Fra Angelico rendered Christ lonely on the cross. The fresco was applied on a wall of the chapter hall, so that the suffering Christ was always present with the monks during their meetings. This may be the reason why light seems to shine forth from the body of Christ. But the work also leaves room for common mortals to look up to Christ.
I do enjoy Fra Angelico’s lofty scenes that transcend the gray everyday, but at same time a distance remains, partly caused by all the piety and devotion. This scene of Christ, however, comes much closer.
Fra Angelico: The Crucifixion, 1424-1430, fresco, Convento San Domenico, Fiesole, Italy.
Fra Angelico and Lorenzo di Credi: Fiesole Altarpiece, 1424-1430, tempera on panel, 212 x 237 cm. Convento San Domenico, Fiesole, Italy.
Gertjan Schutte is a historian and works at the European University Institute in Florence. He is interested in the intersection of history, religion, art, and philosophy.
ArtWay Visual Meditation 22 March 2020