Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fra Angelico frescoes, Museo del Convento di San Marco

The Annunciation at the top of the stairs

Whenever anyone I know goes to Florence I send them to the Museo del Convento di San Marco where Fra Angelico painted frescoes, one in each of the monks’ individual cells on the upper floor. I have never seen so many frescoes in one place; even before going upstairs to the cells, the whole convent complex is filled with not unimportant works of art, mostly depicting lessons for the use of the given space it adorns. But it is the Fra Angelicos on the upper floor that take me back to the Convento di San Marco every time I am in Florence.
Adoration of the Magi in the smaller of two rooms
reserved for Cosimo de Medici - including the tabernacle
As we walk up the stairs, we are greeted by The Annunciation. For me, the most extraordinary thing about this painting — another one I have read about and seen in reproduction after reproduction — is the spatial dimensions and perspective. I am starting to realize that the depiction of space via the articulation of light and shadow is the measure of an artist’s brilliance in the Renaissance. The more visually unified through the depiction of space — usually in an illusory manipulation of the relations between viewer and painting — the more skilled and in demand was the artist. This characteristic, something like the crescendo of the Renaissance fresco painting, is lost if the work is not seen in the flesh. Of course it is, because this is its defining moment. As we reach the top of the convent stairs, it as though we step into the soft oranges, pinks and golds of the loggia in Fra Angelico’s painting. We step from the world of earthly vices into the space of the Virgin. At least, I felt as though I was elevated into this luminous, timeless world, and I could hear the Angel Gabriel announce the news. We are immediately embraced into the world of silent meditation of the convent. From that moment on, I kept thinking that if it gave me the opportunity to be surrounded by these frescoes, especially The Annunciation on a daily basis, to work with these exquisite images by my side, it would be worth joining the Dominican order and giving my life over to copying of manuscripts. 

The Annunciation in Cell 3
The catalogue on sale in the bookstore is one of the best in its genre because it not only describes the scenes painted on the wall of each cell, but it also explains the use of the images as pedagogical, didactic, or illustrative of the activities or postures of humility to be assumed in the given cell. It also discusses which of the frescoes is painted entirely by Fra Angelico, and which — usually determined by the handling of light and colour — can be attributed to others in the order. Nevertheless, I kept wanting to know, how was it determined who ocuppied which cell? For example, all of those on the outside wall, facing the cloister have a window onto the cloister. While those facing the inside are given light through a round hole in the wall to the corridor, I imagine it would have been preferable to have a window onto the courtyard? There must have been a pecking order for the cells – not only for the ones with the windows into the cloister, but more importantly, for those with Fra Angelico’s brighter and lighter images.

The Sermon on the Mount in cell 32
Some of the frescoes are so soft, gentle, and delicate, that they induce instant calm. For example, the best known, in cell 3, The Annunciation with the silth-like figures, Mary bathed in the light of the angel in her sumptuous pink drapery, makes the heart sing. Others, such as The Sermon on the Mount in cell 32, are dreamy for a single detail, in this case, the disciple fourth on the right whose perfect, glowing complexion seduced me. Other of the cell frescoes were dark, bleak, even scarey. I wouldn’t want to be working in cell 23, having to watch the virtues about to hammer those nails still further into Christ’s already gushing wounds in Jesus Nailed to the Cross by the Virtues. Similarly, all the devils escaping through the crags in the rocks in Christ’s Descent into Hell in cell 31 somehow makes the scene unsavoury. This despite the brilliance of the first liberated figure.
Crucifixion with Saints
in Cosimo de Medici's cell
My question of who occupied which cell was, in a couple of instances, clearly answered. Even though I always do my best to steer clear of la Famiglia Medici when I am in Florence, unfortunately, that’s not a realistic goal. If a visit to Rome is under the sway of the Catholic Church, then visiting Florence is more like a Medici theme park. Sure enough Cosimo de Medici rebuilt the convent complex as it stands today, complete with Fra Angelico’s frescoes, some time after his return to the city in 1435. And for his patronage, Cosimo kept a cell there for private spiritual retreat, complete with private oratory. Needless to say, his cell is the biggest of all: it is a double space, amounting to probably around the same space as my apartment in Paris. And the image on the wall of the larger of the two spaces, Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saints Cosmas, John and Peter of Verona is the only one to have a background in lapis lazuli, the most costly of all pigments.
Detail of Mocking of Christ with the Virgin and Saint Dominic
in cell 7
As I say, the Convento di San Marco is one of the non-negotiables in any visit to Florence. The best part is walking straight past the hoards in line to enter the Accademia, and on up to Piazza San Marco. When inside, there’s no having to share the frescoes with anyone else. The place is empty. It’s a relatively unknown spot, but the experience is sacred. 


Toby Lloyd-Jones said...

The space, light and stillness in the Fra Angelico paintings is fascinating. Related to this, according to critic Rosalind Krauss the American painter Robert Rauschenberg was intrigued by a painting of the Annunciation by Fra Filippo Lippi. In particular, this one: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fra_Filippo_Lippi_-_Annunciation_-_WGA13220.jpg. Here, there is a tension between attention to the white flower which holds the surface of the painting and the deep perspective behind it leading you into the far distance.

Frances Guerin said...

Thank you Toby -
Krauss would, I think, be convinced by Rauschenberg's debt to Lippi because of the tension between figure and ground. And I think there are many unexplored connections between the American postwar painters and the Italian Renaissance - colour being just one of them, More to follow ...