Fra Angelico, The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs
Fiesole San Domenico Altarpiece
These panels come from the predella (lowest part) of the altarpiece made for the high altar of San Domenico, Fiesole. Fra Angelico was a Dominican friar (a member of the religious order founded by Saint Dominic) as well as a painter. The church was attached to his own convent – so although he made two other altarpieces for it, he was not paid for his work.
Predellas usually showed narrative scenes of the lives of the saints who were depicted in the main part of the altarpiece. This one is unusual: it shows Christ in glory in heaven, surrounded in the central scene by angels. This is framed by two panels showing rows of saints and Old Testament figures. These in turn are enclosed on either side by Dominican ‘Blessed’ figures who were holy and revered but not saints.
The mass of saints includes Dominicans and reflects their interest in the saints of their order and the place of the Dominicans in the broader church.
These panels once formed part of an altarpiece made for the church of Fra Angelico’s own convent (San Domenico) in Fiesole, a town near Florence. Fra Angelico painted two other altarpieces for San Domenico: the Annunciation (Prado, Madrid) and the Coronation of the Virgin (Louvre, Paris). As a member of the Dominican order, Fra Angelico would not have been paid for his work. He had a workshop of assistants helping him, including his pupil, Zanobi Strozzi. Fra Angelico seems to contributed more to certain panels than others; he appears to have painted the central panel with very little assistance, for example.
The main part of the altarpiece remains in San Domenico in Fiesole. It shows the Virgin and Child seated on a throne surrounded on either side by adoring angels and Saints Thomas Aquinas, Barnabas, Dominic and Peter Martyr. Apart from Barnabas, the apostle, the other three were Dominican saints.
The three horizontal rectangular panels in the National Gallery’s collection formed the predella, the lowest structural element of the altarpiece. They show Christ, resurrected, surrounded by angels in the central panel, the Virgin Mary and saints to the left and Old Testament figures and martyr saints to the right. Two panels (left and right) show members of the Dominican Beati (‘Blessed’), those who were venerated but had not yet been made saints. These last two panels most probably formed the lowest part of the two pilasters that supported the altarpiece on either side of the predella. They would have been on the same level as the predella, framing it on both sides.
Although there are a few examples of paintings and frescoes showing Dominican saints and ‘Blessed’ in the court of heaven, the imagery is unique for a predella – but it clearly relates to the order and its mission. Although there is no known or surviving visual parallel for the images, we know from written sources that the Dominicans were deeply interested in the saints of their order and many lists of Dominican saints – ordered according to their importance – were compiled. Fra Angelico himself made a series of frescoes including portraits of Dominican friars for the chapter house of San Marco, Florence. Another idea is that the predella reflects scenes of the Last Judgement where the saints are arranged in neat rows surrounding Christ.
Surviving documents tell us that Barnaba degli Agli (d.1418) left money in his will for the completion and furnishings of the convent church which was founded in 1406. Some of this money might have been used to pay for this altarpiece and the predella in its original frame.
The altarpiece was originally a polyptych (made up of lots of separate panels) joined together by an elaborate frame. In 1502 the Florentine painter Lorenzo di Credi removed the framing elements and repainted the main tier of pictures so that all the holy figures were shown together in a single image. At this stage the predella and the panels that topped the main tier were removed. Two of these upper pinnacle panels have been identified in other collections including the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Annunciate (both in the Von Tucher collection, Vienna). Between them was the Blessing Redeemer (Royal Collection, London). The pilasters probably also included roundels with bishop saints; one of these, Saint Romulus, is now in the National Gallery’s collection. In front of the predella was a tabernacle (Prado, Madrid) which held the Host – the bread of the Eucharist.