Fra Angelico’s Divine Emotion


The Big Picture

The fifteenth-century Italian artist Fra Angelico invented emotional interiority in art; laid the stylistic groundwork for Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Mark Rothko; and theorized a utopian world, one in which everything and everyone is ultimately linked.

Fra Angelico, The Crucifixion with Saints, 1441

In the summer of 1873, Henry James visited a former monastery on Piazza San Marco in Florence. Surrounded by a scattering of low-slung, washed-out government buildings and conical Tuscan cypresses, the church and convent were in what is still the city’s center. When James first entered the convent, he saw Fra Angelico’s The Crucifixion with Saints in the chapter room. A brightly colored, semicircle fresco about thirty feet wide, Crucifixion depicts Christ and the two thieves on either side of him, nailed to their crosses, as saints and witnesses grieve below. “I looked long,” James wrote. “One can hardly do otherwise.” As the author moved throughout what had then just become a museum, he felt a spiritual urge, even though he had rejected his Christian upbringing. “You may be as little of a formal Christian as Fra Angelico was much of one,” he wrote in Italian Hours. “You yet feel admonished by spiritual decency to let so yearning a view of the Christian story work its utmost will on you.” Even Angelico’s colors, he added, seem divinely infinite, “dissolved in tears that drop and drop, however softly, through all time.”

Earlier this summer, I visited the convent-museum. It is not difficult to get to—there’s a city bus stop in front—but tourists tend to leave it off their itineraries in favor of better-known cultural attractions like the Uffizi and the Duomo. In part, my reason for going was unrelated to art: a person of particular specialness to me went last summer, and I regretted not having gone with her. I wanted to see what she had seen, to stand where she had stood.


Fra Angelico, The Taunting of the Christ, cell number 7. Photograph © Robert Polidori

The art quickly took me in. Some of Angelico’s works are so emotionally stunning that one almost freezes in front of them, as if being whisked away to another world in which there is only faith, in which there is a single, abiding truth. Hegel, the German philosopher, believed that Angelico had invented artistic interiority. The ancients had relied on sculpture, Hegel said, which could provide the idea of bravery (as with a sculpture of Diana the Huntress) or the idea of sexual love (as with a sculpture of Aphrodite), but what these sculptures lacked was the ability to actually conjure those emotions in the viewer. Angelico, however, could capture not just a scene but the feelings of that scene—what Hegel called “the investigation of inner coordination, the indwelling meaning of facial expressions.”


Fra Angelico, Descent from the cross


Born just to the north of Florence in the Mugello region in 1395, Angelico committed himself to the monastery in his mid-twenties, after likely apprenticing as a painter for the Benedictine monk Lorenzo Monaco. Upon becoming a friar, he changed his name from Guido di Pietro to Fra Giovanni. (“Angelico” came posthumously. In Italy, he’s known simply as “Beato Angelico,” since Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1982.) Angelico was one of the most devout monks in the Dominican Observance, where adherents were required to keep mostly silent, wake every morning at three o’clock for prayer, go days or sometimes weeks without food, and inhabit rooms—known as “cells”—which had only a chair, a narrow bed, and a prayer desk. Angelico was known to always pray before taking up his brushes, according to his contemporary, the art historian Giorgio Vasari. Whenever he painted Christ in pain, Vasari wrote, he wept.

He worked first in a pre-Renaissance stylistic mode, even when the Renaissance was underway in Italy, relying on a Gothic style of flatness that evoked what W.H. Auden called “the understanding of suffering.” This style changed though when Angelico began to borrow from Masaccio, the painting prodigy of late-fifteenth-century Italy, who ushered in the High Renaissance, and who, as noted by the critic Arthur C. Danto, was the first to apply the rules of perspective that the architect Filippo Brunelleschi had innovated only shortly before. Masaccio, and subsequently Angelico, became adept at grouping figures in ways that added depth and individuality while also creating a dimensionality around them by manipulating the depiction of light, techniques that would later ground Leonard da Vinci’s chiaroscuro.


Fra Angelico, Noli me tangere


Although Masaccio’s art-historical contributions are perhaps clearer since they have to do largely with technique, Angelico’s contributions have been longer lasting and more shocking in their affect. His figures, in their faces and, almost especially, in their hands, transmit their inner feelings, their emotional and existential weight. The hands touch delicately, as if everything in the world is instilled with great significance. When John Ruskin, the art critic and historian, visited the convent in 1848, before it had become a museum, he wrote that the emotional power of Angelico’s paintings and frescos was more profound than mere art. Not works but “visions,” Ruskin called them.

Angelico had found a way to imbue his own piety into his images. He was, in a way, the first artist to ever really transmit his own feelings into a work, and while art can exist without acute emotion—as with an artwork of ideas or of politics, like ancient sculpture—Angelico’s was the kind of art that might make us weep or yell or find within ourselves beliefs and thoughts and depths that we did not otherwise know we had. His contribution is perhaps the most important contribution ever made to art: the transmission of emotions from the mind of the artist to the mind of the viewer.


The cells in San Marco are tiny with low ceilings. The walls are white, like powdered clay, and the floors are a cool terra-cotta. Walking through the monastery, with its modern bathrooms and the bus stop outside, it is difficult to remember that the building is over eight hundred years old—and that Angelico put his brush to its walls more than half a millennium ago. Even more difficult to square is looking at Angelico’s artworks and seeing in them both an artist and an entire society who had no doubts about this alternate universe of angels and demons, of capital-G good and capital-E evil.


Fra Angelico, Transfiguration, cell six, 1440-1442


It is often easy to look upon European religious art, especially medieval and early Renaissance art, and find it familiar, since we are so habituated to it as a part of Western history. But there is really nothing familiar about the grotesque violence of the Crucifixion or the impossible miracles done by Christ or the brutal, God-inflicted eternal punishments of hell or even the fasting, flagellating self-inflicted punishments of the most devout in this life. Walking quietly through the corridors and cloisters is as close as I have ever felt to that level of faith. Angelico essentially created the convent along with Michelozzo, the architect, and Cosimo de’ Medici, the patron, and spun it out of his own beliefs. Imbued throughout are his views of sacrifice, heaven, hell, God, the Immaculate Conception, and all those other dogmas that seem to feel familiar, in that we’ve heard them so many times, but actually feel, when investigated more thoroughly, desperately far away.

Upon walking up the main staircase, you’re accosted and shocked by an Annunciation fresco, which forces you into spiritual reflection. In his thirties, funded by de’ Medici, Angelico painted a fresco in each of the monks’ cells, which was meant to aid in devotion. “There is no other picture of heaven that could be as great and rich and gripping,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke, while standing in front of one. Nearly every Angelico artwork is gripping, and one’s devotion to the beauty and emotional power of Angelico’s works feels achingly close to a divine devotion; the barrier between religious belief and the shock of beauty is the thinnest line. In each cell, the simplicity or complexity of the fresco’s theme was related to the seniority of the friar: for someone new to the convent, the image might simply be of a saint; for more seasoned adherents, perhaps there would be a narrative scene; and, for the most senior and educated, like a priest, the fresco would depict a metaphorical image through which the devout could derive his own interpretations.


Fra Angelico, Annunciation, 1438


In one of the best, Annunciation, in Cell Three, the Virgin Mary kneels in front of the Angel Gabriel, who tells her that she will give birth to Christ. Behind them, Tuscan cypresses, like the ones just outside the convent, rise. But on the painting’s left, a thirteenth-century saint of the Dominican Order named Peter Martyr watches them. The fresco is not depicting the event itself because Martyr, of course, was not in the original Biblical story of Mary and Gabriel. Instead, Angelico provided an invented scene in which the inclusion of a nondivine figure invites the viewer to mentally place himself within the situation.

This, too, was part of Angelico’s artistic emotional intelligence: the ability to provide the space for the viewer to put himself in the minds of the characters. To further maintain the scene’s possibility, the fresco is not opulent. Mary’s clothes are pale. There is a seriousness, an intimacy, to the scene, and there are few symbolic objects: no memento mori or crown of thorns. This is not an artwork that tells you how to feel; rather, it summons you into its world.

Just a few decades later, when Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to add gold and jewels to the robes of the apostles who dotted his Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo refused, citing Angelico. He told the Pope that the apostles were not men of means and should thus be depicted more modestly, as Angelico had done. Michelangelo went on to paint them without their usually ascribed decadence; in making these godly figures more ordinary, they also became more relatable. In turn, he inspired Rembrandt, Zurbarán, and El Greco, whose religious depictions took on an unadorned clarity, allowing their figures to convey an authenticity and realism.


Fra Angelico, The San Marco Altarpiece, 1438-1443


In the past century, Mark Rothko found explicit inspiration in the calibrated emotional effect of Angelico’s works. Rothko spent days in the San Marco monastery on his first trip through Europe in 1950. After touring nearly every major museum in Western Europe, only Angelico’s art moved him. “I looked at hundreds of Madonnas, but all I saw was the symbol, never the concrete expression of motherhood.” Angelico’s Madonna, however, was different. While the standard Gothic altarpiece is separated into sections, with a number of saints to the side and the Madonna and child in the center, Angelico collapsed the distance between Mary and the saints who surrounded her, placing them all against a more relaxed, naturalist landscape. The physical collapsing of the work functioned as a kind of emotional collapse as well. Rothko had the same goal as Angelico: to create a sense of transcendence, to inhabit a faraway world that felt like a close one. Angelico did this through the emotions of divine figures placed beside the nondivine, while Rothko achieved it by creating color portals to different emotional dimensions, breaking down ideals of abstraction and color theory.

Perhaps the greatest artists are those who are especially certain in their view toward chaos. Vladimir Nabokov kept an unframed reproduction of one of the Annunciation paintings on his writing desk. He, like Rothko, was not religious, yet he also believed in an ordered universe. Nabokov said he spent a great deal of mental time and effort convincing himself of the patterns of the world, even as he admitted that “common sense” said that the world was chaotic, godless, and entropic. “What do you call ‘genius’?” asks a character in his Look at the Harlequins! Answers another, “Well, seeing things others don’t see. Or rather the invisible links between things.” His writing was emphatically structured, every detail eventually tied together, and he was always searching for patterns and rhythms to provide a clarity of meaning. “Maybe the only thing that hints at a sense of Time is rhythm,” Nabokov wrote in Ada, “not the recurrent beats of the rhythm but the gap between two such beats, the gray gap between black beats: the Tender Interval.”



Fra Angelico, The Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, 1435


Later in the summer, I saw a small Angelico exhibition at the Prado. The enormous The Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden comes from the high altarpiece in the San Marco museum, but it belongs to the Prado now and had just undergone a years-long restoration. In it, two angels—one of whom has come to expel Adam and Eve after Eve’s transgressions, and the other who has come to tell Mary she is pregnant with Christ—are not robed in gold but are instead delicately clad in light pink, closely matching the color of Mary’s dress.

The painting glistens, freed of the grit and grime it had accrued in its nearly six hundred years in the monastery, and its cleanness underscores how subtly Angelico handled his colors and characters. Standing in front of The Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, I saw the way that Angelico was able to layer his paintings with meaning so that they are almost timed to flip a switch in the viewer’s mind. The painting is quiet and understated, but it bursts with hidden meaning: the fine gold leaf that he lays onto the painting, for instance, seems to transform the entirety of the work, the way a squeeze of citrus over food unlocks the palate. With it, his blues become velvety; his pinks and yellows look like the sunset in the night sky; all of the tiny bits of gold shine.

To look at a painting by Fra Angelico is to feel your own faith unfold. The Gothic flatness of the work belies its emotional complexity. What at first seems relatively sterile and standard—a Biblical scene: I’ve seen this before, one thinks—opens up into something so striking that, like Nabokov and James and Rilke, we’ve no choice but to stare, to feel its transcendence in ourselves.

Even more than achieving emotional interiority, Angelico’s best works demonstrate faith. To look at a work such as The Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden is akin to how one feels with a lover: to see life—suddenly, madly, violently—through her eyes. In his certainty of the world and of virtue, Angelico tells us that everything matters. In this certainty, he makes us ask, What if each movement, each story, each person is weighted with significance? What if the movements of time might be able to collapse onto one another? What if, standing in the Florentine monastery, I was seeing the world precisely as Angelico saw it, precisely as she had seen it, precisely as we would all eventually see it: perfect in its order.


Cody Delistraty is a writer and critic in Paris and New York.