PAINTING IN ITALY, FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE RENAISSANCE TO THE PRESENT CENTURY.

In 1436 the great Cosimo de Medici insisted that the monks of Fiesole should again leave their convent, and remove to that of San Marco, in Florence. Most unwillingly the brethren submitted, and immediately Cosimo set architects and builders to work to erect a new convent, for the old one was in a ruinous state. The new cloisters offered a noble field to the genius of Fra Angelico, and he labored for their decoration with his whole soul; though the rule of the order was so strict that the pictures in the cells could be seen only by the monks, he put all his skill into them, and labored as devotedly as if the whole world could see and praise them, as indeed has since been done. His pictures in this convent are so numerous that we must not describe them, but will say that the Crucifixion in the chapter-room is usually called his masterpiece. It is nearly twenty-five feet square, and, besides the usual figures in this subject, the Saviour and the thieves, with the executioners, there are holy women, the founders of various orders, the patrons of the convent, and companies of saints. In the frame there are medallions with several saints and a Sibyl, each bearing an inscription from the prophecies relating to Christ’s death; while below all, St. Dominic, the founder of the artist’s order, bears a genealogical tree with many portraits of those who had been eminent among his followers. For this reason this picture has great historic value.

At last, in 1445, Pope Eugenius IV., who had dedicated the new convent of San Marco and seen the works of Angelico, summoned him to Rome. It is said that the Pope not only wished for some of his paintings, but he also desired to honor Angelico by giving him the archbishopric of Florence; but when this high position was offered him, Fra Angelico would not accept of it: he declared himself unequal to its duties, and begged the Pope to appoint Fra Antonino in his stead. This request was granted, and Angelico went on with his work as before, in all humility fulfilling his heaven-born mission to lead men to better lives through the sweet influence of his divine art.

The honor which had been tendered him was great—one which the noblest men were striving for—but if he realized this he did not regret his decision, neither was he made bold or vain by the royal tribute which the Pope had paid him.

From this time the most important works of Fra Angelico were done in the chapel of Pope Nicholas V., in the Vatican, and in the chapel which he decorated in the Cathedral of Orvieto. He worked there one summer, and the work was continued by Luca Signorelli. The remainder of his life was passed so quietly that little can be told of it. It is not even known with certainty whether he ever returned to Florence, and by some strange fate the key to the chapel which he painted in the Vatican was lost during two centuries, and the pictures could only be seen by entering through a window. Thus it would seem that his last years were passed in the quiet work which he best loved.

Fig 32 Fig. 32.—An Angel.
In the Uffizi, Florence.
By Fra Angelico.

When his final illness was upon him, the brethren of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, where he resided, gathered about him, and chanted the Salve Regina. He died on the 18th of February, 1455, when sixty-seven years old. His tombstone is in the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, in Rome; on it lies the figure of a Dominican monk in marble. Pope Nicholas V. wrote his epitaph in Latin. The following translation is by Professor Norton:

“Not mine be the praise that I was a second Apelles,
But that I gave all my gains to thine, O Christ!
One work is for the earth, another for heaven.
The city, the Flower of Tuscany, bore me—John.”

In the Convent of San Marco in Florence there are twenty-five pictures by this master; in the Academy of Florence there are about sixty; there are eleven in the chapel of Nicholas V., and still others in the Vatican gallery. The Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, the Cathedral of Orvieto, the Church of St. Domenico in Perugia, and that of Cortona, are all rich in his works. Besides these a few exist in some of the principal European galleries; but I love best to see them in San Marco, where he painted them for his brethren, and where they seem most at home.

The chief merit of the pictures of Fra Angelico is the sweet and tender expression of the faces of his angels and saints, or any beings who are holy and good; he never succeeded in painting evil and sin in such a way as to terrify one; his gentle nature did not permit him to represent that which it could not comprehend, and the very spirit of purity seems to breathe through every picture.