This painting was commissioned for Metz Cathedral. Said at the time to have been painted to console the artist in his grief at the suicide of his mistress and pupil Constance Mayer (1775-1821), the sincerity of this work, with its lights and shadows playing over Christ’s twisted body and averted face, is beyond doubt.
The cultural heritage of Byzantium had become very popular in the German countries north of the Alps. The frescoes in the Doppelkirche (Double Church) of Sts Mary and Clement in Schwarzrheindorf, represents an example of the new artistic style which soon became popular. The Doppelkirche is a Romanesque church in Schwarzrheindorf, an eastern suburb of Bonn. Completed in 1151, the church has two levels and medieval wall paintings of saints and apocalyptic scenes.
In the summer of 1455, the painter is back in Florence, where he executed another fresco in the church of Santissima Annunziata: a depiction of Lazarus together with Martha and Mary Magdalene, unfortunately destroyed. This fresco must also have been characterized by the same heightened realism visible in the other paintings in the church, and which we come across also in another work dating from this same period, the Crucifixion Andrea painted for the convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, today in Sant’Apollonia.
The composition is basically identical to the first Crucifixion that Andrea had painted several years earlier for this same convent, but the later work lays greater stress on realistic details. The Christ figure, for instance, is no longer the same dignified Masaccesque man he was in the first fresco: here he is shown with harsh features, almost more like a suffering peasant.
Presumably in 1440-41, Andrea painted a Crucifixion with Saints for the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, today in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. This painting shows what a strong influence the work of Masaccio and Donatello had on the young Andrea.
The influence of Domenico Veneziano’s painting is strong in the decoration of the refectory of Sant’Apollonia which Andrea painted between June and October 1447. He solved the problem posed by the height of the refectory walls in Sant’Apollonia by using the old method of arranging the scenes in two rows, one above the other, but he gave them a visual unity: the Stories of Christ’s Passion frescoed on the upper level are in fact conceived as taking place in a space behind the room where the Last Supper on the lower level is happening. The three scenes from the Passion (the Resurrection, Crucifixion and Entombment) are connected to each other by a group of flying angels all converging towards the figure of Christ in the centre, and by a common landscape background, which has been correctly judged “the most powerful interpretation, of the Tuscan landscape in the entire history of painting” (Berti).
The scene that has been most highly praised, and which is probably the best preserved, is the Resurrection, originally the first to the left.
This painting was originally the central panel of a triptych. The arms of the cross stretch right across the panel, as if intended to strengthen its frame. The upper limb takes the form of a flourishing tree, a possible reference to the popular Legend of the True Cross which claimed that the wood used for the crucifixion came originally from the tree of Jesse. In the branches of the tree sits a pelican in its piety, plucking its breast so that blood flows to feed its young, a common symbol of Christ giving of himself for the redemption of the world.
Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, a noted Dominican, kneels before the cross, his red cardinal’s hat on the ground before him next to the rivulets of blood. On either side of the cross stand the Virgin and St John. The cross is in no landscape or other spatial setting. There is only an abstract gold ground behind. At the foot of the cross is a skull representing Golgotha. Its Spartan design and intense, but quietly expressed, feeling make this a powerful image reminiscent of some of Angelico’s earlier frescoes in the convent of San Marco.
The giant fresco occupies the entire wall opposite to the entrance of the Chapter Room. The saints depicted are, from the left: Cosmas and Damian, Lawrence, Mark the Evangelist, John the Baptist, the Virgin and the pious women; to the right of the Cricifixion kneeling Dominic, Jerome, Francis, Bernard, John Gualberto and Peter the Martyr, standing Zanobi (or perhaps Ambrose), Augustin, Benedict, Romuald and Thomas of Aquino. Around the fresco, on the border, are the busts of the Prophets and Sibyls in ten hexagons; in the centre, above the Crucifixion the pelikan, symbol of the redemption. Below, in the lower frieze there are 17 medallions with portraits of the most illustrious members of the Dominican Order.
This is the fresco on the wall of Cell 37 of the Convento di San Marco in Florence.
The Crucifixion is depicted in seven cells in the corridor for lay brothers. While the friars and novices may have been moved to prayer at the thought or sight of the crucified Christ, the lay brothers required more direction in imagining the Passion. By incorporating more narrative elements, these images were able to prompt their devotion more efficaciously. In six cells Fra Angelico included the grieving Virgin and other mourners along with St Dominic or Peter martyr to cue the beholder’s response. So it was in Cell 37, the large size of which suggests it may have served as the Chapter Room for the lay brothers as they met each day under the guidance of their own prior.
The contribution of an assistant can be assumed in the execution of this fresco.
Fra Angelico painted this fresco for the refectory of the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole. He borrowed a theme from the cloister of San Marco. (see photo below)
The fresco is situated in the Northern corridor, to left of the staircase accessing the upper floor. According to the tradition (non-documented), the face of the saint is a self-portrait.
The fresco is enclosed in a later frame.
**This is the fresco on the wall of Cell 17 of the Convento di San Marco in Florence.
Over the course of the commission for decoration of the dormitory, Fra Angelico’s direct participation in painting the frescoes seems to have diminished, while that of Benozzo Gozzoli and his other assistants increased. This is especially evident in the images of the Crucifixion with St Dominic in the novices’ cells 17 an 20 of the south corridor, on which construction began in 1441. The frescoes were completed in only two days each. They seem to have been painted almost entirely by Benozzo Gozzoli, as is evident in the linear description of Christ’s idealized anatomy, especially his ribcage, and the uninflected modelling of Dominic’s habit.**
**The description applies in this fresco as well.
This is the fresco on the wall of Cell 38 of the Convento di San Marco in Florence.
One cell at the end of the corridor for lay brothers was distinguished by its occupant and size. It was intended for Cosimo de’ Medici, who belonged to the community by virtue of his patronage. His room, in fact, was a double cell (Cells 38 and 39), in which the superimposed chambers were joined by a short flight of stairs. Of all the cells along this corridor, Cosimo’s was the most spacious and elaborately decorated. On the entrance wall of the lower room (Cell 38) Fra Angelico painted the crucified Christ against a ground of costly lapis lazuli, rather than the bare plaster background found in the other cells. The inscribed haloes identify the saints kneeling alongside the Virgin as Cosmas, Peter martyr and John the Evangelist, protectors of Cosimo, his oldest son, and his father, Giovanni di Bicci.
The Adoration of the Magi and the image of Christ as Man of Sorrows in the recessed tabernacle below met Cosimo’s gaze once he ascended the stairs to Cell 39. Benozzo Gozzoli, whose style closely resembled that of Angelico, and an assistant painted these frescoes, as shown by the slightly awkward stance and proportions of some of the figures as well as by their linear, closely spaced facial features.