Fra Angelico began life with the much more earthly name, Guido di Pietro. He was already an established artist when he joined the Dominican order around 1420, taking the name Fra Giovanni (Brother John). Receiving important commissions for his own monastery, San Domenico in Fiesole, as well as other Dominican houses, Fra Giovanni became the most important painter in Tuscany. It was said he never picked up a brush without saying a prayer. This mix of piety and divine art earned him the moniker ‘angelic’ though it was only after his death in 1455 that he was first recorded as ‘pictor angelicus’, a name that in English became ‘Fra Angelico’. In 1984 Fra Angelico was named the patron of artists and beatified – the first step towards sainthood.
All this praise is understandable when contemplating this sumptuous altarpiece commissioned for an altar in Fra Angleico’s own monastery of San Domenico in Fiesole, possibly by the wealthy Florentine Gaddi family. The subject is the Coronation of the Virgin, which Fra Angelico infuses with his characteristic grace and lyricism. The coronation was a popular theme in the 13th century thanks to Jacobus De Voragine’s widely read Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend). The Coronation was also considered as a metaphorical depiction of the Church triumphant, an appropriate theme for the Dominican order whose raison d’être was to strengthen and defend papal power.
The scene takes place after the Assumption when Christ greets and crowns the Virgin in Heaven. At the top of nine brilliantly patterned marble steps, the Virgin humbly kneels before a regal Christ who places a crown on her golden head prior to her joining him on the gilded throne of heaven. The scene is washed in pure light and the ambiance evokes a splendid celestial royal court.
Around the pair, like glorious courtiers, is the heavenly host of angelic musicians and saints, some identifiable by names engraved on their haloes, others by their attributes. For instance, in the foreground are St Louis of France wearing a crown of fleur-de-lys, St Catherine of Alexandria holding her wheel, and St Agnes with her lamb. Intended for a Dominican church, Fra Angelico includes several of their members, tonsured and dressed in the white robes and black mantles of the Order: St Peter Martyr has a bleeding head wound, St Thomas Aquinas holds books and points to the coronation and a red star shines above St Dominic, the Order’s founder, who holds a lily.
The predella depicts scenes from the life of St Dominic: the dream of Innocent III (who sees Dominic holding up a collapsing church; a similar tale is told about Dominic’s contemporary, St Francis), Saints Peter and Paul appear to St Dominic, the resurrection of Napoleone Orsini (a cardinal’s nephew who died falling from a horse), Christ rising from the tomb, the miracle of the heretical book burning (when Dominic’s books could not be burned), the supper of St Dominic (when angels provided bread) and the death of St Dominic (surrounded by his mourning followers).
The strong geometric composition and one-point perspective – note the paving stones lead the eye to a single vanishing point just at the ointment jar of Mary Magdalene – recalls the work of Fra Angelico’s Florentine contemporary, Masaccio, as does the figures’ round, sculptural quality. However, Fra Angelico chose to place the coronation within a contemporary gothic architectural frame instead of the idealised classical architecture favoured by Masaccio. Fra Angelico’s delicate modelling and resplendent colour here reflect the art of slightly older Florentine artists such as Gentile da Fabriano and Lorenzo Monaco (Fra Angelico may have studied with the latter). The opulent colour also speaks of a generous patron as the blue alone would have cost a small fortune: ultramarine (literally, ‘overseas’) is a blue mineral extracted from the semiprecious stone, lapis lazuli, found only in northeastern Afghanistan, and would have been more expensive than pure gold (which is also used abundantly).
1430 Robert Campin: Portrait of a Man, London, National Gallery
1432 Jan van Eyck: Ghent Altarpiece, Ghent, Church of St Bavo
1433 Pisanello: Portrait of Emperor Sigismund, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum