Florentine Journal: The Walls of the Convento di San Marco

The Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence is home to numerous Beato (Fra) Angelico frescoes, preserved in all their splendour of artistic humility and beauty. The convent was given to the Dominican Observants in 1438. Angelico was resident there between the years 1439-1444. His works might also include the hands of Benozzo Gozzoli and Zanobi Strozzi, two disciples of his. There is a profound touch of delicacy to the frescoes, and simplistic innovation: there is no attempt to create any more glamour than the bare essentials within a given space, and many of them adorn the bedrooms belonging to monks. They are perfect for contemplation.

 

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This large depiction of The Crucifixion is akin to the Moralities of 14th century Florence, urging detachment from worldly vanities, the current of Dominican monastic life at that time, and salvation through Christ alone. The founder of the religious order, San Domenico, is depicted looking up at Christ in awe whilst cradling the wooden cross, as if giving voluntary support to the uprightness of Our Salvation through Him. This exaltation of the Redeemer is painted in the cloister hall and would have provided a chance for repeated daily refection as the monks passed between their cells and the chapel for prayer. The blue sky provides a sanctified backdrop for the crucifixion and ceases to avert our attention unnecessarily to heavenly splendours, instead focusing on the beautiful aesthetic of Christ Himself crucified against the sky. The fresco is also notable for the illumination of Christ’s flesh as without decay; for it appears to be alive and thus signifies the eternal life of the body – an exceptional quality of representation in the age of Angelico.

 

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In this fresco Christ appears twice, stood on a rock, prefiguring his rising from the tomb, warding off a devil in the wilderness, and sat beneath the rock, in contemplation and sculptural prayer, directly engaging the eye of the spectator and inviting us to witness His Blessing. Chris is voluminously clad in a glowing white robe, tinted pink.

 

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Christ’s Deposition, Entombment, is shown here as a tender display of affection worthy of the glorious foresight in Christ’s Resurrection. The tomb appears almost inviting, carved in white marble and with light entering softly into the pointed-arched cave. Mary Magdalene, in her elegant red dress, welcomes the feet of Christ into her arms and washes away the blood with a cloth.

 

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This fresco is striking for its extraordinary symbolism of The Mocking of Christ and the triumph of His death and Resurrection, represented in a highly innovative form of abstraction: the disembodied hands, loutish faces, and soldiery weapons of the enemy, all appear around the blindfolded Christ who is unperturbed by their presence, free from the harm of their hate and spitting. In front of the tomb of Christ, a great slab of marble adding to the radiance surrounding Him, are the Virgin Mary and San Domenico, neither of whom regard Christ directly, but instead choose to focus on their own intense meditation – the depth of which these frescoes repeatedly announce in the hope of friars attaining such contemplative souls themselves; ascribed within to this movement of a somewhat perfect theology.

 

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This fresco of Christ’s Resurrection and Women at the Tomb is a powerful revelation of Christ Risen from the Dead. San Domenico kneels in meditation; an angel points upward at heaven and Christ triumphant, where he stands effortlessly – without the sting of death; whilst three women on the right look on with humility and praise, slightly averting their gaze in honour of the miracle.

 

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The Presentation of the Lord. The temple is depicted in the style of an Italian 14th-century rounded apse, more simplistic than the Gothic style, with the Virgin holding out her hands in awe towards the baby Jesus, whose confident and blessed smile reveals an early sign of His Divinity. San Peter of Verona, the Martyr, a most well-respected Saint by Dominican friars at the time, is knelt prostrate in admiration of the Lord, the cut through the top of his head a clear sign of the mortal blow. Altogether, there is a strong will of communion in the image, a sign of Christ’s submission to the Law, and a sure sense of the Joyful Mystery to come.

Crossing the Styx

Patinir, Joachim: ‘Landscape with Saint Jerome’ 1516-1517 (Museo Del Prado) – painting reference.

 

There Charon stirs; – by dreary rocks – 

A God of the Underworld: Crossing the Styx!

Beating his oar upward, fierce and mean;

His beard blows like fire, wild and dirty;

His eyes descend upon me, torn and hollow.

 

Oh, I, a reluctant Sinner; – enter his boat –

A man of earth: entering the Underworld!

Blessed with Hermes, as psychopomp clean;

But my Soul is weak, destiny is bleak;

My expression doubts the Spring flowing from Lethe. 

 

Looking to the left; – I see Paradise – 

Christian heaven: the hard road that leads to life!

Where an angel beckons her wings, upright;

Her smile is light, and on the promontory she stands;

In company of repentant souls, righteously abound.

 

Ah, sinuous tide; – we turn towards Hades –

Cerberus dwells in fire: the Inferno!

Bodies that sting, burnt, wretched flesh;

Hung from the black gates of a castle wreck;

Pierced with the hot rod of vice, trials awaits me. 

 

Charon roars with the tide; – crashing waves –

Cape Matapan fast approaches: the Peloponnesus!

A giant grey cave ascends towards the furnace;

An enclave leading to the feet of he who Punishes;

But in fear I plead, and hear my Guardian weep. 

 

The way home is drenched; – oh, cloudy fog –

The angels sigh: Heavens promise I’d forgotten!

Swearing Damnation, fighting Satan with fury;

My bosom startles into shape, singing with praise;

Oh, joy, I bow, smiling in deep arrest;

Whispering where only truth can rest:

“Thanks be to you O Lord Our God”.