Scholars have assigned to the 1430s such works as the Annunciation (Cortona); Coronation of the Virgin (Louvre); Deposition and Last Judgment (both: St. Mark's convent). In 1436, under the protection of Cosimo de' Medici, the Dominicans of Fiesole moved to St. Mark's convent in Florence. Fra Angelico supervised the fresco decoration of the building. Among the works considered to be by his hand are the Crucifixion with St. Dominic (cloisters) and the great Crucifixion (chapter house). In the convent also are frescoed Noli mi Tangere, Annunciation, Transfiguration, Mocking of Christ, Presentation in the Temple, Virgin and Child with Saints, and others. In 1445 he was summoned to Rome by Pope Eugenius IV to decorate the Cappella del Sacramento in the Vatican. In 1447 he visited Orvieto, where, assisted by his pupil Benozzo Gozzoli, he painted Christ as Judge and the Prophets in the Cappella Nuova of the cathedral. Returning to Rome, the following year he designed his greatest and most unified scenes—episodes from the lives of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence. However, the execution of this project was probably carried out mainly by pupils.
Fra Angelico treated none but religious subjects. Adapting the artistic innovations of his time, such as sculptural clarity of form and spatial depth, he interpreted them in terms of the greatest spirituality. Angelico endowed these new forms with his own incomparable sense of coloring and unity. In the United States he is represented by the Crucifixion (Fogg Mus., Cambridge); Assumption and Dormition of the Virgin (Gardner Mus., Boston); Temptation of St. Anthony Abbot (Mus. of Fine Arts, Houston, Tex.); and Crucifixion and Nativity (both: Metropolitan Mus.).
Known in Italy as il Beato Angelico, he was known to his contemporaries as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John from Fiesole). In Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, written prior to 1555, he was already known as Fra Giovanni Angelico (Brother Giovanni the Angelic One).
Within his lifetime or shortly thereafter he was also called Il Beato (the Blessed), in reference to his skills in painting religious subjects. In 1982 Pope John Paul II conferred beatification, thereby making this title official. Fiesole is sometimes misinterpreted as being part of his formal name, but it was merely the name of the town where he took his vows, used by contemporaries to separate him from other Fra Giovannis. He is listed in the Roman Martyrology as Beatus Ioannes Faesulanus, cognomento Angelicus—"Blessed Giovanni of Fiesole, nicknamed Angelico".
The 16th century biographer Vasari says of him:
Fra Angelico initially received training as an illuminator, possibly working with his older brother Benedetto who was also a Dominican. His illumination tutor is unknown. San Marco in Florence holds several manuscripts that are thought to be entirely or partly by his hand. The painter Lorenzo Monaco may have contributed to his art training, and the influence of the Sienese school is discernible in his work. He had several important charges in the convents he lived in, but this did not limit his art, which very soon became famous. According to Vasari, the first paintings of this artist were an altarpiece and a painted screen for the Carthusian Monastery of Florence; none such exist there now.
From 1408 to 1418 Fra Angelico was at the Dominican Convent of Cortona where he painted frescoes, now destroyed, in the Dominican Church and may have been assistant to or follower of Gherardo Starnina. Between 1418 and 1436 he was at the convent of Fiesole where he also executed a number of frescoes for the church, and the Altarpiece, deteriorated but restored. A predella of the Altarpiece remains intact in the National Gallery, London which is a superb example of Fra Angelico's ability. It shows Christ in Glory, surrounded by more than 250 figures, including beatified Dominicans.
In 1445 Pope Eugenius IV summoned him to Rome to paint the frescoes of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St Peter's, later demolished by Pope Paul III. Vasari claims that at this time Fra Angelico was offered by Pope Nicholas V the Archbishopric of Florence, and that he refused it, recommending another Friar for the position. While the story seems possible and even likely, if Vasari's date is correct, then the pope must have been Eugenius and not Nicholas. In 1447 Fra Angelico was in Orvieto with his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli, executing works for the Cathedral. Among his other pupils were Zanobi Strozzi.
From 1447 to 1449 he was back at the Vatican, designing the frescoes for the Niccoline Chapel for Nicholas V. The scenes from the lives of the two martyred Deacons of the Early Christian Church, St. Stephen and St. Lawrence may have been executed wholly or in part by assistants. The small chapel, with its brightly frescoed walls and gold leaf decorations gives the impression of a jewel box. From 1449 until 1452, Fra Angelico was back at his old convent of Fiesole, where he was the Prior.
The patrons of these artists were most often monastic establishments or wealthy families endowing a church. Because the paintings often had devotional purpose, the clients tended to be conservative. Frequently, it would seem, the wealthier the client, the more conservative the painting. There was a very good reason for this. The paintings that were commissioned made a statement about the patron. Thus the more gold leaf it displayed, the more it spoke to the patron's glory. The other valuable commodities in the paint-box were lapis lazuli and vermilion. Paint made from these colours did not lend itself to a tonal treatment. The azure blue made of powdered lapis lazuli went on flat, the depth and brilliance of colour being, like the gold leaf, a sign of the patron's ability to provide well. For these reasons, altarpieces are often much more conservatively painted than frescoes, which were often of almost life-sized figures and relied upon a stage-set quality rather than lavish display in order to achieve effect.
Masaccio ventured into perspective with his creation of a realistically painted niche at Santa Maria Novella. Subsequently, Fra Angelico demonstrated an understanding of linear perspective particularly in his Annunciation paintings set inside the sort of arcades that Michelozzo and Brunelleschi created at San’ Marco's and the square in front of it.
When Fra Angelico and his assistants went to the Vatican to decorate the chapel of Pope Nicholas, then the artist was again confronted with the need to please the very wealthiest of clients. In consequence, walking into the small chapel is like stepping into a jewel box. The walls are decked with the brilliance of colour and gold that one sees in the most lavish creations of the Gothic painter Simone Martini at the Lower Church of St Francis of Assisi, a hundred years earlier. Yet Fra Angelico has succeeded in creating designs which continue to reveal his own preoccupation with humanity, with humility and with piety. The figures, in their lavish gilded robes, have the sweetness and gentleness for which his works are famous. According to Vasari:
In their bearing and expression, the saints painted by Fra Angelico come nearer to the truth than the figures done by any other artist.
It is probable that much of the actual painting was done by his assistants to his design. Both Benozzo Gozzoli and Gentile da Fabriano were highly accomplished painters. Benozzo took his art further towards the fully developed Renaissance style with his expressive and life-like portraits in his masterpiece of the Journey of the Magi, painted in the Medici's private chapel at their palazzo.
Apart from the lineal connection, superficially there may seem little to link the humble priest with his sweetly pretty Madonnas and timeless Crucifixions to the dynamic expressions of Michelangelo's larger-than-life creations. But both these artists received their most important commissions from the wealthiest and most powerful of all patrons, the Vatican.
When Michelangelo took up the Sistine Chapel commission, he was working within a space that had already been extensively decorated by other artists. Around the walls the Life of Christ and Life of Moses were depicted by a range of artists including his teacher Ghirlandaio, Raphael's teacher Perugino and Botticelli. They were works of large scale and exactly the sort of lavish treatment to be expected in a Vatican commission, vying with each other in complexity of design, number of figures, elaboration of detail and skilful use of gold leaf. Above these works stood a row of painted Popes in brilliant brocades and gold tiaras. None of these splendours have any place in the work which Michelangelo created. Michaelangelo, when asked by Pope Julius II to ornament the robes of the Apostles in the usual way, responded that they were very poor men.
Within the cells of San’Marco, Fra Angelico had demonstrated that painterly skill and the artist's personal interpretation were sufficient to create memorable works of art, without the expensive trappings of blue and gold. In the use of the unadorned fresco technique, the clear bright pastel colours, the careful arrangement of a few significant figures and the skilful use of expression, motion and gesture, Michelangelo showed himself to be the artistic descendant of Fra Angelico. Frederick Hartt describes Fra Angelico as "prophetic of the mysticism" of painter such as Rembrandt, El Greco and Zurbarán.
Florence, Santa Trinita
Florence, Santa Maria degli Angeli
Florence, Santa Maria Novella
Each cell is decorated with a fresco which matches in size and shape the single round-headed window beside it. The frescoes are apparently for contemplative purpose. They are have a pale, serene, unearthly beauty. Many of Fra Angelico's finest and most reproduced works are among them. There are, particularly in the inner row of cells, some of less inspiring quality and of more repetitive subject, perhaps completed by assistants. Many pictures include Dominican saints as witnesses, allowing the friar using the cell to place himself in the scene.
Three segments of the ceiling in the Cappella Nuova, with the assistance of Benozzo Gozzoli.
The Chapel of Pope Nicholas V, at the Vatican, was probably painted with much assistance from Benozzo Gozzoli and Gentile da Fabriano. The entire surface of wall and ceiling is sumptuously painted. There is much gold leaf for borders and decoration, and a great use of brilliant blue made from lapis lazuli.