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The painter who would not pick up a brush without first saying a prayer

A painting believed to be a self-portrait by the Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico (c 1390-1444) has not been officially declared a saint, although he was beatified by John Paul II in 1982. Perhaps more tellingly, he was known as il Beato – Blessed One – even in his own lifetime.

His paintings, however, plead his cause more eloquently than any title. As John Paul II remarked at the beatification ceremony in the Vatican: “Why do we need miracles? These [his paintings] are his miracles.”

Fra Angelico’s aim was to preach through beauty. His paintings and frescoes exude such heavenly calm and spiritual depth that it is impossible to imagine their creator as anything but a fount of holiness.

Indeed, he believed that it was impossible to create a Christian image without living a Christian life.

Giorgio Vasari reported that he would not take up his brush without first saying a prayer, rather as Johann Sebastian Bach would write Soli Dei Gloria – to God alone be the Glory – at the end of his works. Both men worked with astonishing speed, as if direct beneficiaries of divine inspiration.

Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro at Rupecanina, in the countryside north-east of Florence. 

In 1407, together with his brother Benedetto, also an artist, he became a novice with the Dominicans. At this stage he worked chiefly at illustrating missals and choir books.

The early frescoes he painted at the Dominican house in Cortona have not survived, although there is a fine altarpiece depicting the Annunciation from this period.

Ordained priest in 1418 at Fiesole, he became known in religion as Fra Angelico Giovanni. 

From 1418 until the mid-1430s he lived in the Dominican monastery at Fiesole, where, among many other masterpieces, he created another celebrated altarpiece.

The bottom part may now be seen in the National Gallery. There are five panels: Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven; the Virgin Mary with the Apostles and Other Saints; the Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs; and, at each end, two representations of the Dominican Blessed.

Around 1434 Fr Angelico was invited to Florence, where he decorated the new convent of San Marco under the patronage of Cosimo de Medici.
His work there included celebrated depictions of the Annunciation and Crucifixion, as well as a series of frescoes in the monks’ cells.

By the 1440s popes were eager to engage his services. Fra Angelico’s work at the Vatican, which so impressed John Paul II, includes paintings
of St Stephen and St Laurence.

In 1449 he was sent to Orvietto, where he painted the vault of the chapel of St Brice. 

Fra Angelico lived his last three years in Rome, where he was buried in in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, where he lies close to St Catherine of Siena, who had always been an inspiration to him.