Fra Angelico: the San Marco Altarpiece

The San Marco Altarpiece by Fra Angelico is one of the many highlights of the San Marco Convent, now a museum, in Florence. It was painted between 1438 and 1443. Art historians are particularly impressed with the use of perspective; the raised Virgin and Child draws the eye on and into the depths of the scene. I will, however, focus not on style and technique, but on the intriguing content of the painting.
    A scene showing the Virgin and Child surrounded by saints and angels would, reasonably enough, be usually seen as a devotional work. But there is another powerful theme here: a celebration of the Donors of the reconstruction of the Dominican convent, 1437-1443: The Medicis, in particular Cosimo di Medici, 1389 - 1464.
  Let’s look at the content in detail. The first thing that needs to be said is that originally, the work had an extensive predella and images of saints on either side of the main panel: I will be looking at that on the next page.
 At the front, on a beautiful carpet, are the kneeling figures of Saints Cosmas and Damian: Cosmas is looing out of the picture towards the viewer. To the left are the figures of Saints Lawrence, John the Evangelist, and Mark. Lawrence is looking out of the picture, while John and Mark are in conversation. Eight angels surround the throne, then reading from rear are Saints Dominic, Francis and Peter Martyr. In the background is a screen decorated with pomegranates; behind that an emotive image of trees, fountains and a cloudy sky. 

  So why these saints?
Each one is included for a purpose, mostly Medici related. St Lawrence represents Cosimo’s brother Lawrence. John the Evangelist stands for Cosimo’s father, Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, and his son, Giovanni de' Medici. St Mark is there as he is the dedicatee of the church, San Marco.
  On both sides of the throne are four angels. They are rather characterless, and not a particularly special element of the painting. The group on the right seem to be a mirror image of the group on the left – done by the workshop?
  The saints on the right are friars. Nearest the throne is St Dominic, founder of the Dominican order. Next to him, perhaps surprisingly, is St Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans. Why him? Probably a reference to Cosimo’s Nephew, Pier Francesco, son of Lorenzo. St Peter Martyr represents Cosimo’s eldest son, Piero.
   Now the important two; St Cosmas and St Damian, patron saints of the Medici family. Why are they their patron saints? Cosmas and Damian were legendary doctors, curing their patients without charging like fees, unlike members of the profession today. Although it seems the Medici never were members of the medical profession, their name does suggest it: and, of course, the most important doner was Cosimo di Medici.
  Cosmas is on the left, looking towards us. Here’s a close up of him – and an image of Cosimo. Is there a likeness? It would seem so.

On to the predella and the side panels

  Home page - explore  the site