San Marco Museum in Florence is a former Dominican convent with beautiful frescoes by the early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico.
I visited this convent for the first time as a child. My memories are of tiny rooms with drawings on white walls. It was eerie and mysterious, in a good way. Since then I’ve been back time and again, and it’s now one of my favourite spots to visit in my home town. It’s so much more than a museum, it’s a place where art really comes alive.
The entrance is through an airy cloister, a product of the Medici‘s favourite architect Michelozzo. On the ground floor the Chapter house is frescoed with a huge Crucifixion, where many revered Dominicans and saints are present. It looks like a loud declaration by Fra Angelico of the importance of his monastic order. But it’s the cells upstairs that for me are the real highlight of San Marco Convent.
Fra Angelico masterpiece – The Annunciation
Climbing to the first floor gives you a real sense of anticipation. At the top of the stairs is the famous “Annunciation”, one of the most famous of all Florence’s frescoes. Critics have praised this fresco for the way Fra Angelico used perspective, and brought reality to 15th century sacred art. It was a huge step forward from Gothic one dimensional paintings.
Here the Virgin Mary and the angel are at once mystical and real. They inhabit a concrete space. The loggia, almost a replica of the one seen downstairs, has columns which unite earth and heaven. Behind Mary there’s a cell, a place of meditation and prayer. The figures look at each other, with their hands withdrawn, as if listening to one another. Mary is accepting her duty with humility, as we see from the use of the simple stool and clothing.
The intimate frescoes in the monk’s cells in San Marco
These were not grand paintings meant for the public. These frescoes were a private affair. Fra Angelico’s aim was to inspire his brother monks to prayer and meditation. To do so he depicted stories from the life of Christ. In the many crucifixion scenes we see Saint Dominic as a witness, setting an example of compassionate prayer.
I am always struck by the grace and simplicity of the scenes and the colours. On the white walls, with the light entering through the diminutive windows of the cells, these figures seem to float in space.
Fra Angelico frescoes – “The angelic painter”
It’s easy to see why critics have talked about the “ethereal light” in these frescoes. The infant Jesus’s body glows in the Nativity scene in cell 5. While in the adjacent cell Christ’s transfiguration is represented by an immense radiant light that seems to blind the apostles.
In cell 9 there is the Coronation of the Virgin. Mary makes a similar gesture to the one seen in the Annunciation, leaning forward to receive the crown. Both her and Christ are infused with white light. The saints hold their hands out in adoration but they have an air of detachment, and the atmosphere invites us to restrain our emotions.
In cell 7 is one of the most impressive of all the Fra Angelico frescoes, the eerie Mocking of Christ. An assembly of strange objects and a severed head surround a blindfolded Christ. I learn these are the symbols of the torments he suffered on the cross. At the front of the picture we see the Virgin and St Dominic. Their backs are turned towards Christ in poses of intense meditation.
We don’t know how many of the frescoes were completed by Fra Angelico. It looks likely that he had help from a few pupils, working under his supervision. Whatever the case, the spirit and inspiration behind these frescoes are consistent. When you see San Marco Museum for yourself, I’m sure you’ll agree that the effect is truly mesmerising.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out this article about the San Marco Museum in Florence.