Fra Angelico
Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists


FRA GIOVANNI ANGELICO DA FIESOLE, whose secular name was Guido, deserves to be held in most honourable remembrance, both as an excellent painter and illuminator, and also as a perfect monk. He might have lived comfortably in the world, earning whatever he wished by his art, in which he excelled when still young, but being by nature good and serious, for his satisfaction and quiet, and also principally to save his soul, he entered the order of the Preaching Friars. There are in the convent of S. Marco in Florence some choir books illuminated by his hand, which are so beautiful that nothing could be better, and sorne others like them, which he left at S. Domenico of Fiesole, painted with incredible patience. It is true that in these he was aided by an elder brother, who was also an illuminator and skilled in painting.

One of the first of this good father's paintings was in the Certosa of Florence, our Lady with the Child in her arms and angels at her feet singing and playing. He also painted in fresco in S. Maria Novella. He was so beloved by Cosimo de' Medici that when the church and convent of S. Marco were built, he caused him to paint in it all the Passion of Jesus Christ, with many of the Saints. They say that for the figure of S. Cosimo Fra Giovanni drew from life his friend the sculptor, Nanni d' Antonio di Banco. Below he painted S. Domenic at the foot of a tree, and in medallions among the branches all the popes, cardinals, bishops, saints, and doctors who had belonged to the order of the Preaching Friars. In these the friars aided him by sending to different places and obtaining portraits from life.

He also painted a picture for the high altar of S. Domenico of Fiesole, but this has been retouched by other masters and injured; but other pictures there by him have been better preserved, and there are a number of little figures in celestial glory, which are so beautiful that they seem really in Paradise, and no one who sees them can ever weary of looking at them. But beyond all that Fra Giovanni ever did is a painting in the same church of the Coronation of the Virgin in the midst of a choir of angels and an infinite number of saints, which it gives one a wonderful pleasure to look at, for it seems as if blessed spirits could look no otherwise in heaven, at least if they had bodies, and they are all so lifelike and so sweet; and the whole colouring also of the work seems to be from the hand of a saint or an angel, so that it was with good reason that he was always called Fra Giovanni Angelico.

By so many works the name of Fra Giovanni became famous in all Italy, and Pope Nicholas V sent for him, and made him paint the chapel of the palace where the Pope hears mass, and also illuminate some books, which are most beautiful. And because Fra Giovanni seemed to the Pope, as he was indeed, a man of most holy life, quiet and modest, when the archbishopric of Florence fell vacant he adjudged him worthy of the rank; but the friar, hearing of it, prayed his Holiness to give it to another, because he did not feel himself apt at governing men, and said that his order had another friar, loving to the poor, learned, skilled in government, and Godfearing, whom the dignity would much better become than it would him. The Pope hearing this, and perceiving that what he said was true, granted him the favour, and so Fra Antonino, of the order of Preaching Friars, was made Archbishop of Florence, a man of such holiness that he was canonised by Adrian VI. in our days. And this great goodness of Fra Giovanni was in truth a rare thing, thus to give up a dignity and honour offered him to one whom in sincerity of heart he judged more worthy of it than himself. And would to God that all religious men would spend their time as this truly angelical father did, in the service of God and to the benefit of the world and their neighbours. Fra Giovanni was a simple man and most holy in his habits, and one day when Pope Nicholas V desired him to dine with him, he had scruples of conscience about eating meat without his prior's leave, not considering the Pope's authority. He would not follow the ways of the world, but lived purely and holily, and was a great friend of the poor. He painted constantly, and would never represent anything but the saints. He might have been rich, but did not care about it, saying that true riches are nothing else than being content with little. He might have governed many, and would not, saying it was less troublesome to obey, and one was less liable to err in obeying. It was in his power to hold dignities among the friars and elsewhere, but he did not esteem them, a~irming that he sought no other dignity than to escape hell and attain to Paradise. He was most kind and sober, keeping himself free from all worldly ties, often saying that he who practised art had need of quiet and to be able to live without cares, and that he who represents the things of Christ should always live with Christ. He was never seen in anger by the friars, which is a great thing, and seems to me almost impossible to believe; and he had a way of admonishing his friends with smiles. To those who sought his works he would answer, that they must content the prior, and then he would not fail. To sum up, this father, who can never be enough praised, was in all his works and words most humble and modest, and in his paintings facile and devout; and the saints whom he painted have more the air and likeness of saints than those of any one else. It was his habit never to retouch or alter any of his paintings, but to leave them as they came the first time, believing, as he said, that such was the will of God. Some say he would never take up his pencil until he had first made supplication, and he never made a crucifix but he was bathed in tears.