Michael Sangster takes a close look at

Fra Angelico – Predella of the high altarpiece in San Domenico, Fiesole (c.1423)

Fra Angelico – Predella of the high altarpiece in San Domenico, Fiesole

Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven
The Dominican Blessed- Outer Left Pilaster Panel
The Dominican Blessed- Outer Right Pilaster Panel
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs
The Virgin Mary with the Apostles and Other Saints

Date of work: around 1423.
Media: Egg tempera on Poplar
Dimensions of whole predella from left to right in centimetres:
31.8 by 21.9, 32 by 64, 31.7 by 73, 31.9 by 65.5, 31.6 by 21.9.

Current Location: Room 53, Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery London.   Date of Purchase: 1860.

‘Predella’ describes the group of smaller panels beneath the main altarpiece. The main altarpiece is still in San Domenico, Fiesole, Fra Angelico’s own friary.

The colours are predominantly blue, pink and red; radiant, soft and light suffused. None of these colours would look out of place in a depiction of a sky, or rather they are the sort of colours one observes in the sky, particularly at early morning and evening. The flesh of the faces is a gentle muted pink, reflecting the light with a transparent clarity where they are turned towards the light and moving into translucent tones of grey shot through with green and pink where they are in the shade. One is aware of the translucence of skin which reflects light but also of the presence of bone underneath which to a certain extent absorbs the luminosity.

The predella is so arranged that a central panel is flanked by two panels on either side of it. The effect is of a gradual heightening of mood and emotion starting soberly with the two panels furthest to the left and right, where nuns and friars kneel in motionless prayer and devout contemplation as they look towards Christ’s glory in the central panel. They are dressed in the austere black and white garb of their order, and apart from their pink faces there is no colour other than the gold of halos and background, and a few appurtenances to their religious order picked out in red and green. The two left and right-hand inner panels pick up the tempo with all the figures of saints and martyrs, prophets and kings now standing or moving solemnly towards the Glory, dressed in radiantly coloured garments, though a few figures in black maintain a link with the sobriety of the outer panels. Finally on reaching the central panel, angels break into a run, spontaneous and joyous, their faces lit with delight or open-mouthed in song, dancing or playing on their delicate musical instruments; and the grace, freedom and variety of movement as they cannot contain themselves any longer catches at the heart with its loveliness.

All the angels and saints are remarkably comely in face and limb. Even the elderly and bearded figures possess handsome, noble faces softened by sagacity and meditative repose, while the nuns and friars are young with pert, fresh faces. In the left hand corner of the inner left panel there are two young men in monk’s habits yet with long, untonsured hair. They have more everyday, realistic features and next to them is what appears to be a wild or ‘green’ man, long-bearded and naked but for a girdle of green leaves. These three also are rapt in adoration, their courser blend of feature soothed and calmed by an inner state of grace.

Apart from the predominant blue, pink and red of the vestments, there are quite a few figures robed in various tones of green, some greens muted with tones of violet grey, others more citrus tending toward lime and yellow. Of pure yellow there are a few instances, either radiantly yellow or redder and more gold. There are also brown robes varying from warm reddish to cool grayish, one aquamarine or turquoise, and a few rainbow effects such as lavender blue moving to pink, and a pink moving to a soft pale gold. In one case a female saint is clad in emerald, scarlet, gold and blue lavender. The background and halos are all gold, and the earth beneath the resplendent, redeeming Christ is deep ultramarine.

The modern eye usually has some difficulty in getting to grips with pictures such as these, partly because we are instinctively suspicious of triumphant manifestations of religious pageantry. Secularism has drip fed for so long into the tenor of our times that when first faced with these radiant, soaring hymns of reverence, that are both profound and yet childlike in their simplicity, we have to suppress an initial impulse to turn away in a mixture of embarrassment and exasperation – a kind of mental ‘pshaw’.  Behind this reaction it is easy to perceive fear, fear of appearing gullible, fear in fact of appearing to others as childish: sweet, simple and vulnerable. That is very threatening for the street-wise skepticism of today.

The difficulty then of these pictures is partly that we feel threatened by them. It is as if they require of us in order to enter into them, a kindred simplicity, an unclothing of the adult carapace, recognition that inside we can still be like children – naïve, believing, radiant with joy. Most children do gladly, unthinkingly believe, whether in Father Christmas or in God, but as adults we find that ‘grace’, that easy willingness harder and harder to achieve.

Grace and radiance are perhaps the principal hallmarks of Fra Angelico. The grace of a child’s ability to believe is symbolized and made visible in the running, bounding angels, with their robes fluttering and flowing from unhesitating, beautiful limbs, as they rush forward in a state of love for the revealed divinity.

The progression from the austerity of the outer panels, through a gradual heightening of colour and movement, to the final climax of love, joy and light in the central panel, may seem a strange manifestation of a religion noted for its emphasis on mortification of the flesh and general denial of the principal of pleasure. However Fra Angelico lived at a time of liberality of religious thought. ‘Far from being opposed to the Medicean contemplation of beauty the conventual atmosphere in which Fra Angelico lived was on the contrary favourable to it.’ (1) Not far from his frescoes, ‘in the garden of the great cloister of St Dominic, mutilated statues of Venus and Apollo celebrated the beauty of the body!’ (2). Cosimo de Medici founded this convent, The Convent of St Mark, and he and future generations of the Medici, the rulers and patrons of Florence, were tutored by the most eminent Neoplatonic tutors, who sought to instill the idea that joy and pleasure were proper vehicles for an experience of the divinity. Lorenzo de Medici wrote that when he sought to approach the Divine through his intellect his experience contracted whereas when he approached him through a state of love, his experience opened up, flowered, being carried by that love beyond the limitations of thought.

The buoyant optimism of these renaissance ‘Humanist’ philosophers of the Medici court, such as Marsilio Ficino, who sought to reconcile their Christian belief with the comeliness and the perceived light-filled health of the ancient world and its pagan religion, is astonishing when one first comes across it. Despite the patient intricacies of dialectic with which they built up their philosophy, intricacies of argument that they clearly delighted in, one is struck time and again by the truth of their insights into human nature and by a kind of all-pervading benevolence pertaining to man and his place in a providential world. An example of this is Ficino’s doctrine of the three-fold nature of man, divided between physical strength and courage, a developed learned mind, and a sensuous love of prettiness, grace and pleasure. Instead of seeking to be consistent to one set of virtues or one kind of path in life, such as austerity or its opposite sensuality, the Neoplatonists celebrated the contrariness of human nature and sought to reconcile and harmonize rather than oppose or suppress. They saw the plurality of human nature as part of a divinely ordered whole. A wonderful pictorial representation of this philosophy of man’s tripartite nature is Raphael’s ‘Dream of a Knight’ in the National Gallery.

It is not often in history that one comes across religion and philosophy in harmony and combining to teach such a perceptive and tolerant creed which in alerting man to a transcendent divinity also attended to man’s well-being ‘with the shrewdness of an experienced physician’ (3). In these late days of ours so full of anxiety and a consciousness of our capacity for reckless greed and self-gratification, with a resulting corrosive sense of shame and self-disgust; it is hard for us to take seriously a benevolent world view. God has been dismissed, by scientific rationalism and for allowing endless atrocities and disasters, while human beings have proved themselves capable of every imaginable abuse, against themselves and against Nature. And yet the enchantment of those Renaissance philosophers at least can be entertained as an ideal or a first dawn, like the days of early childhood before weariness and disillusion took the goodness out of the sun. If fruitfulness is still to be admitted as a virtue, it should be remembered that it requires warmth. Benevolence both of climate and of attitude of mind is necessary if anything is to flourish.

Without this calm and balanced belief in divine providence cupping the world in its fostering hand, Fra Angelico could never have painted as he did. It seems that human well-being, which manifests itself in the art we produce, flourishes under the conditions of a benign faith. The modern scientific and materialist rationale may be true in a quantifiable, provable way, but it is an inhospitable environment to be alive in. Further- more it seems to blight at its very budding, the natural imaginative impulse. Left to ourselves we would perhaps be happier and healthier if we still thought of Orion as a hunter who suffered the pangs of unrequited love for the Goddess Artemis, and wandered the world with his head brushing through the clouds, being a Titan, in his search for her; rather than thinking of it as a collection of imploding and exploding gases and minerals. Beauty is not the less beautiful for being proved not to exist in a tangible way. It lives in us and we create it because we have a need for it, irrespective of what the world may be actually like.


Biographical Notes

Fra or Beato Angelico (1395-1455) was born Guido di Pietro. ‘Angelico’ was a nickname given to him posthumously. He took the name of Giovanni on entering the Dominician order as friar in Fiesole, by which time he was already trained as a painter and miniaturist. He painted mainly in the service of his order, and by the 1430’s his work, which early on betrays a debt to Gentile da Fabriano, shows that he had taken on the bold three dimensional modeling and spatial clarity of Massaccio and had translated it into his own idiom of lyrical, meditative sweetness and solemnity. Between 1445 and 1450 he worked in Rome, for the Pope, and for a short time in Orvieto. On his death in 1455 he was the most admired painter in Florence. The role call of painters indebted to his example is impressive: Piero della Francesca, Domenico Veneziano, Ghirlandaio, Baldovinetti and Verocchio. Only one phrase of Fra Angelico’s has come down to us. Vasari writes of him, ‘He was in the habit of saying that Art demands much composure’.


(1) Germain Bazin, Fra Angelico (William Heinemann Ltd & Hyperion Press: 1949), p.15
(2) ibid., p.13
(3) Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.:1958; 1968) p.48.

© Michael Sangster 9th May 2010


Andrea del Sarto – Portrait of a Young Man

Date of work: 1517/18
Medium: Oil on Linen
Dimensions: 72.4 by 57.2 cm

Current Location:Room D, National Gallery London.  Bought: 1862

He is seated in an ideal and enviable twilight. Deep soft shadows gradually invade the hollow places of his face, like the creep of a rising tide. Those parts that are turned towards the light, like his brow or cheeks, glow with a cool blond tone and a silver fineness of texture. The mouth is cut with great beauty. Disdain would seem to be the primary sentiment of those lips, whose fastidious desires would shun all but the most exquisite fruit. Left to himself he would be ardent, rapt in adoration of some proud, untouchable beauty, and the cleft in the upper lip, cursory and slightly flattened like an imprint of impatience, is the feature that above all else gives the character of the sitter. It is the mouth of a faltering angel, reined in by some bitter amorous pain, and yet the chastening of those once too eager lips is the final achievement of their beauty.

The above description was written away from the picture from memory, but now as I approach the painting again across the gallery floor his demeanor seems not so much pained, as wary and mistrustful while the eyes of feminine softness and sensitivity channel a great depth of awareness and history. The expression of the lips also has modified, with the cleft in the lip implying not so much a lover’s disappointment as a predisposition for precision, impatience with any obfuscation or cant. At the same time the mouth is full and soft with an almost pubescent tremulousness and uncertainty.

At different viewings the face reveals contrary shades of personality, at times even sinister with a potential for malice and bitterness, particularly in the way his left eye leans down into the angular encroaching shadows of cheekbone and temple. There is even a sense of indolence in the curve of the back and shoulder that suggests that in a rather unmanly way he is not over-fond of healthy physical exertion. At other times a trace of a smile seems to pass across his face, and then at others the penetrating gaze of his eyes seems the soul of unwavering probity. The nose is strong and prominent, with a slight and proud convex curve tapering to delicately modeled nostrils, the forehead broad and clear. At times again a look of sadness seems to occupy the face as if he observes humanity with pity and compassion, and then, almost in the same breath, a mischievous quality lurks about his eyes.

This is the essence of truly great portraiture because the physiognomy is never satiated, but always mobile with fresh psychological nuance or timbre. The different veils of personality, character, mood or preference settle on and then lift from his face, supplanting themselves in turn, like weather patterns changing the aspect of the land. And this in turn bears witness to the alchemy that establishes itself between portrait and viewer, when it is not at all clear who informs the experience, the viewer or the person in the portrait. What does the portrait do when I am not here? For a moment it seems quite possible that this young man of angelic seriousness and refined discernment must continue his observant and inviolable reverie when I am gone and the gallery is deserted; waiting patiently until somebody else is drawn to him like a moth to a light. Then once more this silent communion will be renewed, between somebody alive today and the painted distillation of a person who died hundreds of years ago.

In a sense he has gained immortality. Each time he is looked at he comes alive, and down the long succession of years and centuries he will have engaged numerous souls who have been drawn to his beauty, to the penetrating gaze and enigmatic air, that seem both reluctant and desirous to communicate, to pass on something elusive yet immanent, a secret locked in the paint glazes that contain like a philtre a strange enchantment of life and time.


Biographical Notes

Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) – whose real name was Andrea d’Agnolo – was known as del Sarto because of his father’s trade as a tailor, our own word ‘sartorial’ for matters of clothing presumably coming from the same root. He was the leading Florentine painter in the 16th Century. He was trained by Piero di Cosimo and the chief influences on his work according to the National Gallery were Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Fra Bartolomeo, and Northern European Art, though I would suggest that Michelangelo influenced him as well. His output consisted in the main of altarpieces, small religious paintings and portraits.

He worked in France between 1518/19 for Francis 1st.  However he broke his contract with the French king, according to Vasari, because he missed his wife. For Vasari this was evidence of a ‘certain timidity of spirit’ but to my mind this action is consonant with the sensitive and fastidious nature that produced the portrait in question, qualities not really fitted for the splendours of international court life, but qualities ideally suited to the sort of profound scrutiny of the human spirit that a quiet, contemplative life can engender.

The artist would have been aged 31 when he began this portrait. The sitter has not been securely identified.


©Michael Sangster  1st May 2010

Michael Sangster trained at Chelsea School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. Principally concerned with the fall of light on objects,  he works from observation in still life, portraiture and landscape. He has a studio at Kensal Green. www.michaelsangster.com