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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.