fra angelico san marco altarpiece
The altarpiece, one of the most grandiose of the Quattrocento altars, was executed after the decision of Cosimo de’ Medici in 1438 to transfer to Cortona the triptych which served as main altar of the convent church.
* * * * * * 3: Predella: Lives of Sts. Cosmas and Damian; plus Entombment (9 scenes)
Kent, Dale. Cosimo De’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: The Patron’s Oeuvre. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Hood, William. Fra Angelico at San Marco. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Widely regarded as one of the first forms of a sacra conversazione (holy conversation), Angelico’s compositional approach was revolutionary for the time. Instead of portraying each of the saints separately in multiple flanking panels, he created a unified space on one panel for all of the figures. Additionally, his precise construction of space, following Alberti’s theories, ensure the centrality of the Virgin and Child amidst the numerous figures. The intricate foreshortened rug draws the eye towards the throne, a small set of steps elevates the Virgin and Child, preventing them from becoming lost amongst the Saints, and the naturalistic background creates depth, rendering the enthroned the central focus of the composition. Most representative of Angelico’s experimental approach is his inclusion of St. Cosmas; gesturing towards the Virgin and Child and gazing outwards, he calls upon the viewer to direct their attention to the central pair, resulting in an engaging viewing experience that can only be described as revolutionary. The San Marco Altarpiece would become the model for other Florentine altarpieces into the early 1500s.
Positioned centrally, Christ’s body is lowered from the cross that fills the space below the middle arch, and as is traditional in these scenes, Christ is surrounded by mourners, including Mary Magdalene, who kisses Christ’s feet, and the Virgin Mary, who kneels in prayer. To the right of Christ stand John the Evangelist, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea, but there is also a contingent of men dressed in contemporary Florentine dress, one of whom holds nails and a crown of thorns, relics of Christ’s crucifixion. In the foreground, opposite of Mary Magdalene, a friar (perhaps a portrait of Alessio delgi Strozzi, Pallo’s recently deceased son) kneels before the scene and gestures towards the viewer, inviting the viewer to mourn Christ’s sacrifice.
Mr Schwinge said: “As soon as I saw the panels I realised they had enormous potential, but there is no question that credit for this amazing find should go to Michael Liversidge.”
“I researched them and concluded they came from the frame of Fra Angelico’s San Marco Altarpiece, one of the most important Florentine Renaissance altarpieces painted for Cosimo de Medici, dating from between 1439 and 1443.
Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder commissioned this artwork at a time when Fra Angelico was established as a true Renaissance master. The Medici family itself is remembered as one of the most generous donors within all of art history, with multiple generations investing some of their wealth into the arts.
It is unclear whether the work took five years of work or is simply dated and being produced somewhere in this timeframe. The latter is far more likely although it is possible that the artist and his studio was working on multiple paintings at the same time and dipped in and out at various points. There is also the added variable of political interference which did delayed the work of some other Renaissance artists, most commonly within the field of architecture, such as Filippo Brunelleschi.