Fra Angelico was an Italian painter active during the Early Renaissance. His name means "angelic friar". Proficient in both fresco and oil on canvas, Angelico became one of the most respected and famous artists of his period, especially among the most prominent characters from the catholic church. Pope John Paul II would even proclaim Angelico's beatification in recognition of his life as an artist. Giorgio Vasari considered him an incredible talent. While the religious aspects of Medieval art can still be felt in his work, he is among the founding figures of the Renaissance's humanist conceptions.
Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro in 1395, in Rupecanina. Rupecanina was a city near Florence, in the Italian region of Tuscany, and today is known as the Vicchio comune. This area was close to the one that Giotto Di Bondone, another important artist of the Early Renaissance, was born.
Other than his birth, nothing is known about Angelico's parents nor childhood. The earliest document on his life dates from October 1417, when he became a member of a religious guild. This same record states he was already a painter by that time, and the first documentation as a friar dates back to 1423.
The Dominican Order is a mendicant order in the Catholic church. Mendicant orders are known for being funded by donations and not by any grants of the Papal estate. The Dominicans had high intellectual prestige and are famous for their theoretical contributions during the Middle Ages.
The Dominicans were an enterprise founded by the Spaniard Saint Dominic and came about the same time as the Franciscans, with Francis of Assisi and Saint Dominic working together. In some places after the institution grew, the Dominicans were associated with ascetic or mystic principles, as it was with the case of Meister Eckhart.
Regarding Florence, their order was founded by Giovanni di Dominici Bacchini in 1406. Bacchini was known as a passionate preacher and a charismatic leader, which was an important factor in making the Dominicans' word spread in Italian territory. The future bishop of the city, Antoninus, was educated at the institution.
In 1408, Bacchini admitted the then Guido, at the time twenty-one years old, and his younger brother, eighteen years old. To complete their admission into the order, they had to spend a period of a year in prayer and penitence.
According to Giorgio Vasari, Angelico's first training was in illumination, probably under the teachings of his older brother Benedetto, also a Dominican friar. He may have also been influenced by the painter Lorenzo Monaco in his studies, showing notable hints of the Sienese school style. In 1409, Angelico and his young brother Fra Benedetto had to move to Cortona, where they studied theology. This period was marked by religious unrest over the Pope's election and complications due to the plague.
Even though little is known about their stay in Cortona during this time, they surely stayed around eleven years. While Benedetto became a highly praised scholar, deepening his dedication to philosophy and theology, Giovanni listened to his superiors and soon enough became a priest and dedicated his time to artistic creation.
The exile of Angelico was one of the reasons for his achievement in reaching his visuality. The friar was staying in a town that was only sixty kilometers from Siena and Perugia. It was in Siena that the painter saw frescoes and artworks that had a lasting effect on him.
Besides Florence, no other Italian region was capable of coming up with an expressive and unique product, as was the case for Siena. The city was the cultural center of Italy before the age of the Medici family, which ended up annexing Siena to Tuscany. While Florence became the center of the Greek-admiring side of the Renaissance, Sienese painters worked with a Gothic sensibility, still employing golden abstract backgrounds, giving their figures a delicate aspect and working more boldly with color.
Duccio Di Buoninsgena can be understood as the founder of the Sienese School. Duccio was the counterpoint to Giotto, both being the founding figures of their period. Angelico surely saw the famous Duccio altarpiece, the Maestà, in one of his visits to Siena. Even though the friar's work aimed for an even more "humane" sensation of anatomy, he depicted the holiness with a certain aura and embodied lyrical figures was a Sienese influence on Angelico.
In 1418, Fra Angelico left the Dominican friary of Cortona and went to the convent of Fiesole. This year also has documentation of the painter being paid, confirming that he was an independent artist by this period. Fra Angelico stayed in Fiesole until 1436, and during this period, he executed a large number of frescoes for the church.
He created works such as the Fiesole Altarpiece, which the predella remains intact and is today at London's National Gallery. Another example of his production from this period is Virgin and Child with Sts Dominic and Thomas Aquinas, depicting traditional themes for Dominicans. During this period, Angelico also executed his The Last Judgement, a striking composition 2 meters or 6'6 feet wide.
While there is strong evidence that Fra Angelico influenced Masaccio, the opposite is also true. Masaccio popularized the use of a mathematical perspective, one of the defining characteristics of the Renaissance, and that would differentiate it significantly from the Middle Ages. This use of perspective caught the friar's eyes, and he incorporated it in his works.
Masaccio died in 1428, making Angelico, now an experienced professional, Florence's most prominent artist. He was already extending his commissions beyond religious institutions, but this was a defining factor for his success. He created a workshop with his older brother, Benedetto, and had many apprentices.
In 1436, Angelico was one of the first friars from Fiesole to move to the recently built convent of San Marco in Florence, nowadays a museum. This would put him right in one of the region's most prolific centers of artistic production, thus helping him achieve notoriety as well as patronage. His artwork was noticed by one of the city's most wealthy and influential members, Cosimo de Medici, who even had a cell for himself at the friary.
According to Vasari, Cosimo gave Angelico the task to decorate the many parts of the friary, where he painted the Annunciation, the Coronation of the Virgin, and one of his most famous artworks, the San Marco Altarpiece. This work was very bold regarding imagery, by its time standards. Although it was very common to have saints surrounding the Child and Madonna, they were mostly hovering around them in a heavenly background. The San Marco project took him from 1438 to 1444 to conclude.
In 1445, Angelico moved to Rome. He was summoned by Pope Eugene IV to paint frescoes in St. Peter's church, a chapel that was later demolished. He worked from 1447 to 1449 in the Vatican. He spent the last years of his life in Fiesole.
Fra Angelico died in Rome on February 18, 1455. He was about 59 years old.