by Giuseppe Frangi
Although he took the name of “Giovanni da Fiesole” upon entering the Dominican order, in art history he goes by another name that is perfect to describe, and fully understand, his style: Beato Angelico literally means “blessed” (and the Dominican friar was in fact beatified by Pope John Paul II) and “angelic”.
Part of what makes Fra Angelico an outstanding painter is the fact he saw art as a function at the service of something greater than art itself. There is no better way to understand his approach than to set foot inside the wonderful Convent of Saint Mark in Florence – built by will of Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder, and designed by Michelozzo – where Angelico lived for so many years. This is where he painted one of his masterpieces, and one of the greatest works of 15th-century art in Italy: a particular cycle made almost entirely of frescoes, which extends from one cell to the other, sometimes “escaping” into the hallways. Angelico worked for his brothers, offering images from the New Testament that could inspire them in their meditation. He often included Saint Dominic in these paintings, as a guide, a mediator, and an example to follow.
Saint Antoninus was a key figure in the origin of this cycle. Before becoming archbishop of Florence, the Dominican friar was prior at Saint Mark for a long time. Outside of Antoninus’s cell, Angelico created one of his best works: the large-scale “Annunciation” that visitors today can admire at the top of the entrance staircase. Antoninus himself suggested the subject, deeply renovating its iconography. In fact, according to Saint Thomas’s teachings, he embraced the principle that images should not so much represent a scene from a story as foster our “natural inclination to know and love God”. Thus, Angelico used every innovation brought by Renaissance humanism, but steered them away from the principles they had stemmed from: he pushed every limit and transformed every image into an act of prayer. He took Masaccio’s visible and three-dimensional shapes, but took them to a level of extreme purity that is almost a revelation.
He painted with knowledge and coherence, according to codes that today we are unable to decipher. This is the case with one of the cycle’s most famous frescoes, inside one of the cells: “Noli me tangere” (meaning “touch me not”). Great thinkers and philosophers have had the kind of deep insight necessary to understand that no detail in that scene is casual. For example, the French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman noticed that the flowers are arranged on the lawn according to a precise logic. At first, he noticed the way in which Angelico had painted them: “They are more or less regular spots, painted first with Bianco di San Giovanni and then, over that, with red. It is a lively color, a red earth color that creates the slightest reliefs, accentuating the rhythmical effect,” Georges Didi-Huberman wrote.
Angelico’s odd way of painting those flowers was very similar to the method he used to paint the stigma on Jesus’s foot set on the grass. In his analysis, Didi-Huberman went on to notice that the flowers are painted in groups of five, like the stigmata. Thus Beato Angelico created what Didi-Huberman defines a “shift of the iconic sign”. His logical, and beautiful conclusion was, “I can say with certainty that Beato Angelico saw the stigmata as flowers on the body of Christ”. Another legitimate explanation would be that “Christ here is represented as he symbolically ‘sows’ his stigmata in the garden of the earthly world”.
A few decades earlier, the great American artist Mark Rothko had been struck by the incredible light in Angelico’s works: an “inner” light that is stronger than the opacity that is intrinsic in the fresco technique. After visiting Saint Mark, Rothko came up with a chalk mixture he could use on canvas, to give pigments a fresco-like quality. He wanted to capture the unique splendor that Beato Angelico had been able to create. The outcome is a famous work of his: “Untitled” (1950), in which blue – like Angelico’s paradisiac skies – finds its way into a background as yellow as the halos painted by the Dominican friar.