During the years 1438 to 1440, Fra Angelico da Fiesole (1387-1455) painted one of his most important commissions, the high altar of his own monastery's church, S. Marco in Florence. The central panel of the altar is now in the museum of the church and seven predella panels are in the church museum (two), the Louvre, the Munich Gallery (three) and the National Gallery of Ireland. A few standing saints, on panels the same height as the predellas, also remain from the altar, three in the Lindenau Museum, Altenberg, and a fourth, of St. Thomas, in an Italian private collection.1
As the first use of The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has acquired a fifth panel from this group, a St. Benedict.2
A prouder use of Mr. McMillan's Fund would be hard to imagine, for Fra Angelico is not only one of the greatest painters, he is very rare, poorly represented in America, and our new acquisition is a part of one of his chief monuments.The saint is painted on a gold ground with an incised halo. He stands on a cloud of lapis lazuli blue, with his reed staff (formed into a cross) and holding a book bound in light blue, with gold studs and a darker spine. His habit is a light ochre grey, the highlights an oyster white and shadows beige. His beard is grey. St. Benedict is shown in a very quiet pose, as if a symbol of patience and abnegation—and is seen frontally, the forms of his habit turning up from their lighted left side, as he casts his eyes down to the left. He floats in glory on the cloud which would seem a frail support were he less absorbed and apart.The simple nobility and tenderness of the painting need no description: they are characteristic of this saintly artist. But the austerity of the image reminds one of a younger painter indebted to Fra Angelico. Although modern scholarship believes this altarpiece to be the unaided work of Fra Angelico,3
older scholars thought that Piero della Francesca, as a young man, might have aided in its execution. In this panel, one sees Fra Angelico quietly prefiguring Piero's accomplishment.The panel probably left S. Marco at the end of the eighteenth century. It reputedly belonged to the Iron Duke of Wellington and, until recently, to the descendants of his physician to whom he gave it.4Endnotes
Referenced Work of Art
- See John Pope-Hennessy, Fra Angelico, London, 1952, p. 176. The Altenberg panels are 39 x 14 cm.
- Inscribed on the reverse in a late eighteenth-century hand: di Fra Giovanni da Fiesole/figuri che esistono S. Marco di Firenze.
- See Pope-Hennessy, p. 174s.
- Sotheby & Co., London, 22 June, 1960, from the collection of E. F. Peregrine, Esq. by descent from Dr. Thomas Peregrine
- Fra Angelico da Fiesole, Florentine, 1387-1455. Saint Benedict c. 1438-1440. Tempera on panel, 15 3/8” x 5 3/8”. The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund, 1962, 62.9.