The Catholic identity of Fra Angelico goes deeper than Leonardo’s. “Fra” is a shortened form of the Italian word for brother, which is what he was within the Dominican order. Originally named Guido di Piero, the friar-artist’s gentle nature led to the nickname “Angelico.”
All his known paintings are religious; many of them are in the convent of San Marco in Florence. He lived there for much of his life, painting for San Marco and other Catholic institutions. The settings present a problem for collectors, as Fra Angelico’s paintings are mostly still attached to the walls. The cells and common areas of his friary are covered with them and unlike the high-value graffiti by Banksy, nobody is prepared to hack apart a historic building to remove the frescoes.
During Fra Angelico’s lifetime, his fame spread far and wide. Two successive popes were so impressed, they summoned the painter-friar to work on frescoes at the Vatican on different occasions. It was in Rome that he died before his 60th year. He was buried there, despite his strong attachment to Tuscany.
The importance of Fra Angelico’s work was closely tied to his character. Unlike so many artists of questionable morals, it seems that Fra Angelico led a blameless life and used painting as a form of worship. He felt himself to have been divinely inspired and few viewers would disagree. He reportedly wept whenever he painted the Crucifixion.
Even in a secular age, the power of his devotion is apparent. The glistening gold ground of the painted panel at Christie’s has an otherworldly glow. There is plenty of symbolism, too, although some of this is lost amid the spellbinding colors and composition of this 25-inch-tall painting. A notable detail is almost invisible in the face of the grieving woman at the bottom of the painting. And above Christ’s head is a tiny Pelican in Her Piety, a well-known symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, chest bloodied from pecking in order to feed her young.
The atmosphere in the Christie’s viewing room for Part 1 of the Old Masters sale took on a heightened sense of the sacred with the Fra Angelico; there was a hushed awe that matched the subject matter. (In the same space three months ago there was another painting of the crucifixion that also transformed the highly commercial space into a haven of contemplation. Craigie Aitchison is one of the few 20th-century artists to have made a name by painting Christ’s passion.)