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Fra Angelico

( Originally Published 1913 )

He who is known as Angelico was not so named by his parents. They called him Guido. Later when he entered the Dominican order he was given the name Giovanni, or John. His Dominican brothers grew to call him Fra Angelico because he painted angels so beautifully.

Angelico was born in 1387, and died in 1455. No painter ever lived a more saintly life. As a boy he and his brother roamed over the hills outside of Florence and there he caught glimpses of nature's harmonious colorings that long abode in his memory. The deep blue of the sky was later used for an angel's robe; the gold of the sun for an angel's harp.

For political reasons the Dominican order of Florence was exiled to Fiesole. After some years the brothers were allowed to return to the city and San Marco was given them for their dwelling place. It had fallen into ruin and Cosimo de Medici at his own cost had the old monastery repaired for their use. To Fra Angelico was given the task of beautifying with sacred paintings the cells for the brothers of his order. It is quite in keeping with the character of the man that some of his finest work should have been done in these cells, away from the public eye. Not only is San Marco remembered today for the pictures created by this artist, but also because here was the church from whose pulpit Savonarola thundered forth his reproaches and prophecies to the people of Florence.

Probably the majority of people remember Fra Angelico as the painter of the trumpet angels, so frequently seen in copies of various degrees of merit. He was asked to paint a Madonna for one of the Florentine guilds. He produced what is known as the Tabernacle Madonna-doors opening as to a tabernacle, revealing the mother and child. These, however, are not the most remarkable features of the picture; rather, a broad band of gold was brought around the whole, between the inner and outer frame. Upon this gold band were painted angels-some playing upon instruments, some blowing trumpets, some with tambourines. Neither male or female are they, but celestial beings of great joy. It was said of Angelico that he painted visions he saw in Paradise, and certain it is that he regarded his mission as called of God. Before touching a brush he always devoted some time to prayer and never altered a stroke once made because he believed it was inspired. His hand held the brush that was given its impulse in heaven. What matters it that critics tell us he knew ,nothing of anatomy, and that his angels were fortunately robed, since otherwise they would be impossible? The fact remains that Angelico caught a vision of the spirit and painted the dreams of his soul on canvas. These visions have been dear to the hearts of men ever since-ignorance of anatomy notwithstanding.

Just as Angelico was in his element portraying angels with ecstatic expressions and picturing meadows riotous with lovely flowers, so was it impossible for him to depict evil. Like many another artist he attempted to execute the Last Judgment. One side of the painting is beautiful-happy beings wander always in flowery meads ; the side wherein is depicted the unfortunate ones who have sinned and are turned from Paradise is less successful. Someone has said: "His devils are very harmless chaps who are quite satisfied with innocent pinching and squeezing, and do even this good-naturedly, as if ashamed of their profession." Yet of all the Paradises ever reduced to canvas, Fra Angelico's probably attracts us most-a place of eternal delight, happy beings and flowered fields.

Masaccio bears the same relation to the fifteenth century that Giotto bore to the thirteenth. Born in 1401 and dying in 1428, he did not live long enough to carry out his own con ceptions fully, but he left them for the following century to assimilate. Masaccio studied nature and tried to imitate her. Until the time of St. Francis men of the Middle Ages had given little or no attention to the world in which they lived. The Church had taught that this world was but a preparation for the one to come, that much of its beauty was merely a delusion and a snare, and thoroughly pious men, like Bernard of Clairvaux, prided themselves on being able to rise above nature's allurements. We read that the saintly Bernard walked all day by the side of a beautiful lake nor once lifted his eyes to behold the glorious panorama spread out before him. With his inordinate love of all things living and for the beauty of the country where he lived, St. Francis did more than any one other man to bring back a love of nature in men's hearts. Masaccio did more than any other during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to demonstrate the fact that artists are successful in painting pictures in proportion as their paintings are faithful copies of nature. In the few brief years in which he worked he adhered strictly to this principle, and some of his followers were profoundly influenced by his example.

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