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Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico

by John T. Spike, Fra Angelico

Called "Angelico" for his inimitable depictions of paradise, this artist (1400? -1455) and Dominican friar succeeded Masaccio as the foremost painter of the early Renaissance in Italy. Fra Angelico's painting has been beloved for centuries since as an emblem of the flowering genius of quattrocento Florence.
In his engaging new appraisal, John Spike reveals the


Called "Angelico" for his inimitable depictions of paradise, this artist (1400? -1455) and Dominican friar succeeded Masaccio as the foremost painter of the early Renaissance in Italy. Fra Angelico's painting has been beloved for centuries since as an emblem of the flowering genius of quattrocento Florence.
In his engaging new appraisal, John Spike reveals the unexpectedly innovative qualities of Angelico's art, including his use of linear and geometric perspective (even before the publication of Leon Battista Alberti's famous treatise). Another of Angelico's inventions was the Renaissance altarpiece known as the sacra conversazione (sacred conversation), in which the Virgin and Child and saints, formerly each rigidly enclosed in separate panels, now gesture and relate to each other within a clearly unified space.
Fra Angelico had a lifelong fascination with the written word, and as Spike persuasively demonstrates, the accuracy of his Greek, Latin, and Hebrew inscriptions reveal his participation in the linguistic studies that flourished in Florence and Rome in the first half of the fifteenth century. He created some of the most visionary and learned compositions of his century, from his Deposition for the private chapel of the humanist Palla Strozzi to the extensive commissions in Rome for the erudite Pope Nicholas v. In this volume Spike presents a major discovery: the secret program of the forty frescoes in the cells of the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence. All previous studies of this artist had concluded that the subjects and arrangement of these frescoes, the artist's masterworks, were chosen at random, or by the friars themselves. Instead, as the author now shows, Fra Angelico drew upon the mystical writings of the early church fathers to construct a spiritual exercise organized into three ascending levels of enlightenment. The San Marco frescoes can finally be seen as not only the most extensive cycle of works by any single painter of this century, but indeed the most complete pictorial expression of Renaissance theology.
With fresh insights that will influence studies of quattrocento art for years to come, Spike uses his perceptive eye and judicious readings of documents to reassess the works of Angelico, his masters, and his assistants. This essential volume contains an extensive essay on the artist's life and work, followed by large color plates with detailed discussions of individual works. Finally, a catalog presents the artist's oeuvre, as revised by the author's new attributions. With lavish details of Angelico's works and an up-to-date bibliography, this volume is not only a feast for the eyes but an indispensable resource for anyone interested in this critical period of the Renaissance.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this sumptuous, scholarly volume, the life of Dominican friar and artist Fra Angelico (1400-55) is presented in the context of his work. Spike (Massaccio, LJ 6/1/96) divides his book into three sections: life and work, color plates (with commentary), and a black-and-white catalog. He records the influences that shaped Angelico's life and work, notably the emergence of the Humanists, the Council of Florence (1440), Cosimo de' Medici, and the library at San Marco, and also presents important original findings on Angelico's fresco cycles in the cloister of San Marco, Florence. Recent investigations of others, including Georges Didi-Huberman's Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration (LJ 2/1/96), are carefully referenced in the footnoted text. While there is not yet a catalogue raisone, this difficult but rewarding book, with its many quality illustrations and fresh perspective, offers a complex overview for informed readers. Ellen Bates, New York
Art historian Spike provides fresh insights into the life and work of the Dominican friar Fra Angelico (1400?-1455) who succeeded Masaccio as the foremost painter of the early Renaissance in Italy. This splendid, massive (11x13<">) volume contains an extensive essay on Fra Angelico's life and work, followed by large color plates and detailed discussion of individual works. The large format allows for an intimate look at the friar's inspired art, and the volume is a feast for the eyes. A catalog presents his oeuvre, as revised by Spike's new attributions, illustrated with thumbnail reproductions. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

Product Details

Abbeville Publishing Group
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11.40(w) x 13.40(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt


"It was his custom never to retouch or repaint any of his works, but to leave them just as they were when finished the first time; for he believed that such was the will of God. It is said, indeed, that Fra Giovanni never took a brush in his hand until he had first offered a prayer; nor did he ever paint a Crucifixion without tears streaming down his cheeks." Thus Vasari, in 1550, following his conversations with an old friar at San Domenico, Fiesole, described Fra Angelico's method of working. Nothing that I learned about Fra Angelico has given me any reason to doubt the veracity of this account.

Vasari meant to honor Fra Angelico by removing him from the general company of painters and placing him in the direct employment of God. The distinction that Vasari bestowed upon Fra Angelico had unforeseen consequences, however. Within very few years of Vasari's writing, Fra Angelico's contributions to the art of his own time were forgotten or misunderstood: he came to be seen as a precious gothic relic who had lived on into the age of Masaccio.

This misconception has flourished in the scholarship of our century in the persistent tendency to date the artist's paintings five, ten, and sometimes twenty years too late--or to attribute his paintings to his young assistants. When the Annalena Altarpiece is assigned its more probable date of c. 1430, we realize that the emergence of the rectangular sacra conversazione altarpiece owes far more to Fra Angelico than to any other painter, including Masaccio. One of the purposes of this book is to demonstrate that Fra Angelico possessed one of the most innovative and responsive pictorial minds of the early quattrocento--and that hiscontemporaries admired him for precisely these qualities.

My other theme in this book has been an attempt to show that Christian piety and Renaissance humanism were by no means exclusive quantities in the generation of Fra Angelico and the Council of Florence of 1439. The extraordinarily creative program of his frescoes in San Marco, for which I have been able to offer the first comprehensive (but far from exhaustive) interpretation, is proof in itself of Fra Angelico's contacts with humanistic theologians and of his ability to reconcile their fascination with the immortality of the soul with the Incarnation doctrines of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican doctor of the church. It will surprise some to read that Fra Angelico was a theologian in the new humanist cast. Yet this artist's lifelong fascination with the written word and with accurate transcriptions of texts in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew place him squarely in the forefront of Renaissance philology. No other artist of his time took such care with language. Indeed, Fra Angelico's paintings contain more inscriptions--and more unique inscriptions--than those of any other artist of the fifteenth century.

It must have been his formation as a Dominican that enabled him to participate in the theological debates that animated spiritual life of Florence and Rome during the first half of the quattrocento. Certainly the Order of Preachers equipped him with an unequaled command of rhetorical techniques that no one had ever previously translated into the medium of painting--the Last Judgment he painted for Ambrogio Traversari and the Deposition for Palla Strozzi were both enormously influential breakthroughs in this regard.

Since Fra Angelico was praised by contemporary humanists such as Cristoforo Landino, and mainly employed by them--including, in addition to Ambrogio Traversari and Palla Strozzi, Cosimo de' Medici, and Popes Eugenius IV and Nicholas V--we must assume that his art responded in significant respects to their way of thinking.

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