In Quiet Contemplation – the Frescos of Fra Angelico

San Marco fresco1

The solitude of the convent of San Marco (now the Museo di San Marco) which is home to the beautiful frescos of Fra Angelico is a wonderful break from the busyness of many of the art collections in Florence. The calm and quietness of the convent setting makes it the most perfect environment in which to view these stunning works.

The rooms on the ground floor are situated around a central courtyard. A crucifixion amongst other frescos adorn the walls around the courtyard and the rooms running off this. The old refectory houses a large collection of oil paintings and altarpieces by Fra Angelico. It is the largest collection that I have seen hanging together by the artist. Both the clarity and expression of the paintings with their jewel like colour is simply stunning and time absorbing as you find yourself drawn into every one. A peacefulness pervades Fra Angelico’s work yet in his Giudizio Universale there is a last judgement scene of hell on the right-hand panel which has to be one of the most horrific I have ever seen.

And then, you go upstairs…

Even with the greatest of expectations nothing quite prepares you for the beauty you are about to see! At the top of the staircase is a large Annunciation scene, one of the largest and finest of the frescos at San Marco. It was one of the few occasions that I could stand really close to see the brushwork and try to understand more of the process of fresco a little better. It is a technique that I would love to try one day.

'Annunciation' at the top of the staircase

‘Annunciation’ at the top of the staircase

From the corridor running around the top of the convent are numerous small rooms or cells, in each one is a fresco for contemplation and meditation. I could have happily sat in a number of these small cells looking at the fresco for hours and hours.

'Annunciation' within one of the convent cells

‘Annunciation’ within one of the convent cells

Each image holds our gaze, it’s serenity gives us space to observe, to study, and to think. Fra Angelico’s figures are portrayed with an absolute economy, however complex or simple the composition there is always a purity and delicacy of the image.

I have wanted to see these paintings for years and I am so pleased to have finally had the opportunity to visit them. The museum is worth a trip to Florence alone to see, and is a reminder of how we should look at art; with space, respect and above all, quietness.

San Marco fresco2

San Marco fresco3

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4 Responses to In Quiet Contemplation – the Frescos of Fra Angelico

  1. They do look amazing pictures and I love the idea of being able to see them in quiet contemplation, too. I really want to go there one day myself. I hope you had a great weekend there.

  2. Anne says:

    Dear Adele,

    It’s Anne who studied on your course at the Slade this summer. I love the monastery too – I went there last summer. It is quite a different experience to see these paintings in their original context, compared to seeing similar paintings at the Uffizi, isn’t it?
    Did you go to the Brancacci Chapel to see the Masaccio Adam and Eve frescoes? This was one of the highlights of my trip, as was the Trinita at Santa Maria Novella.

    • Dear Anne,
      I hope all is well and your new course at the Courtauld has got off to a good start.
      It is wonderful to see them in situ as you say, as they were intended to be seen!
      The Uffizi is amazing but you really can’t look at their stunning paintings in those crowds. The guided tours alone marching past spoil it for everyone.

      I went to the Brancacci Chapel a few years ago, the fresco cycle there is so amazing as is the Trinita at Santa Maria Novella. I intended to visit them both again but so much art and so little time!

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