Fra Angelico | The Mocking of Christ 1437-1446May 16, 2011
(Adapted from casasantapia.com):
Just before 1423, Guido di Pietro donned the habit of the Domenican friars in the convent of San Domenico at Fiesole, taking the name Fra Giovanni. The appellation “Fra Angelico” became current only in the nineteenth century; it derives from an abbreviation of the epithet “pictor angelicus,” which was first applied to him in early Dominican sources and has been common since Vasari’s time.
By the 1430s Fra Angelico was already one of the leading artists in Florence.
In 1438 renovation of the Dominican convent and church of San Marco began, commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici and directed by Michelozzo. The new church was consecrated by Pope Eugenius IV on 6 January 1443. Fra Angelico, who had by then moved to the order’s headquarters in Florence, was entrusted with the execution of an altarpiece for the high altar (the majestic Sacra Conversazione, now also in the Museo di San Marco) and the decoration of various areas of the convent. From the vast Crucifixion in the chapter house to the small frescoes in the cells, rich narrative is restrained in favor of a sublime spiritual and poetic message, dominated by an analytical vision that owes much to contemporary Flemish models.
The Mocking of Christ was created in 1440 by Fra Angelico in the convent of San Marco in Florence. This fresco, painted in the private space of a monk’s cell, was intended to enable the praying monk to envision the scene.
Fra Angelico shows Christ on a raised dais and seated on a red box, a mockery of a throne. A green curtain, usually used to display figures in glory, provides the backdrop of this travesty of the lordship of Christ. Christ is blindfolded, as he was when taunted by the high priest, but through the transparent veil we can see His eyes closed in humiliation. Wearing a crown of thorns, Jesus holds the reed and stone in place of the scepter and orb while disembodied hands buffet and slap His head and a scorner spits in His Face. [Close-up above] The full view here:
On either side of the platform, the Virgin Mary and St. Dominic sit on the ground. Mary looks away, her sadness revealed by her expression, the droop of her head and the hand pressed to her cheek. By contrast, she raises her other hand in a gesture of obedience to the divine will. We viewers are meant to take our cue from Mary; even if our hero and Savior is ridiculed and we are laughed at for following Him, we embrace our own sufferings and humiliation as a way of sharing in his Passion.
St. Dominic looks down as he reads the account of the story and meditates on its meaning. Although the event was long ago and far away, it holds no less significance in our daily lives. Jesus’ white robe and the cross of the Resurrection in His halo offer the promise that He will finally triumph no matter how abased he may seem at this moment.
St. Catherine of Siena, a third-order Dominican and Doctor of the Church, offered her reflection on the humiliation of Christ and its meaning for mankind. “For our salvation He ran like one in love to the opprobrious death on the most holy Cross. May any man be ashamed to raise his head in pride, seeing you, Highest Lord, humiliated on the side of our humanity” (Oration 19).
Fra Angelico’s image reinforces St. Catherine’s warning that true emulation of Christ must allow for debasement before others-family, friend and foe alike.
Fra Angelico concentrated on the simple devotional images required by his fellow monks for their meditations and prayers. The results, seen in the six cells definitely painted by Fra Angelico, represent Fra Angelico at his strongest and purest. To portray The Mocking of Christ, he painted a regal, blindfolded Christ figure crowned with thorns. The throng of jeering soldiery appear only as a group of disembodied hands and a loutish head, cap raised in sarcasm, spitting upon Christ. By abstracting all but the essential central image, Fra Angelico makes the eye travel through a curve of space to return endlessly to its starting point — the perfect movement theologians ascribe to the contemplative soul.
The contemplative restraint of the San Marco frescoes is nowhere better illustrated than in The Mocking of Christ. Rather than paint Christ’s humiliations in their full violence in a complex narrative work, they are reduced to a series of iconographic symbols. In doing this Angelico was drawing on established trecento [vocab: the beginning of the Renaissance in art history] precedents.
In a plain-walled room Christ sits on a dais in a luminous white robe and tunic. The great slab of white marble beneath Him adds to the air of radiant whiteness surrounding Him. He is blindfolded, with a crown of thorns about his head. Behind Him hanging from a plain frieze is a screen on which are painted the emblems of his indignities: the head of the spitting soldier, the hands of the buffeters, the hand and stick forcing the thorns down on his head. On a low step at the front of the picture sit the Virgin and St Dominic. Neither regard Christ but sit with their backs turned towards him in poses of intense meditation – the depth of meditation that the frescoes were designed to assist each friar to attain.
The third and final triad of cells departs from the established pattern in order to bring the hierarchy co its majestic conclusion. The Passion and the Resurrection of Christ are represented in this final sequence by the Mocking of Christ in cell 7 and Christ Resurrected and the Maries at the Tomb in cell 8. The Coronation of the Virgin in cell 9 symbolizes union which God, the goal of every hierarchy, according to Pseudo- Dionysius the Areopagite.
The violence and humiliation that Christ suffered from his jailors before he was crucified is evoked in cell 7 in an atmosphere of unearthly stillness. Angelico’s depiction of only fragmentary details of the spitting, slapping tormentors was probably inspired by a famous Man of Sorrows, 1404, by Lorenzo Monaco (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence). The earlier picture could also have suggested to Fra Angelico the triangular arrangement of the two meditative witnesses: the Virgin, left, and Saint Dominic, right. In all other respects the comparison with Lorenzo Monaco underscores the striking originality of Fra Angelico’s conception. The space in this undefined place is rendered with a Renaissance clarity and coherence that accentuates the strangeness of the mocking symbols suspended in air. Christ’s eyes are closed by a blindfold — his expression is untroubled. He sits upright with regal bearing; the orb in his hand symbolizes his dominion over all the world.
The insults of his captors do not distress him: they are the necessary fulfillment of the prophesies of redemption (Isaiah 50:6). The finely portrayed expressions of the Virgin and of Saint Dominic convey the same understanding. The Virgin averts her face, but she is not tearful as in a Mater Dolorosa. Saint Dominic attentively studies the scriptures. In Isaiah 53:5 Saint Dominic could read, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities . . . and with his stripes we are healed.’
Pictured in cell 8 are Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and the Virgin
Mary, who brought spices to the tomb to anoint the body of Christ. Upon entering, they saw an angel, who said to them, “He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.’ (Mark 16:1-6). The composition of this fresco conforms closely to a fresco by the Giottesque artist, Giusto de’ Menabuoi, except in two important respects: the depiction of the risen Savior in a glorious mandorla, center, and of Saint Dominic in contemplation at left. The unconventional insertion of an image of Christ’s risen soul provides a critical transition into the final painting of the cycle, in the adjacent cell 9, which does not represent the Incarnation in accordance with the triad pattern established in cells 1 through 6, but achieves instead the fruits of Christ’s Redemption: union with God.
Enthroned upon clouds, the Son of God crowns his mother Queen of Heaven. This ritual is a mystical marriage between Christ and his church, which Mary symbolizes. The invisible and indescribable architecture of heaven is depicted as radiant clouds and rings of circles symbolic of unity, perfection, eternity. Below them on celestial clouds the spirits of Saints Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Dominic, Francis of Assisi, Peter Martyr, and Mark are united in their contemplation with the infinite and eternal God. They are not blinded by me edesrial brilliance. as the Aposdes were at the Transfiguration, because they raise “the immarterial and steady’ eyes of their minds to that outpouring of Light.’
The Mocking of Christ is one of 41 panels depicting images from the New Testament executed about 1450 by Fra Angelico. The panels were commissioned by Piero de Medici for the doors of a cupboard (called Armadio degli Argenti) at the San Marco convent in Florence, Italy.
Over the centuries, six panels have been lost, but this one and the others remain at the convent, known now as the Museo de San Marco, where they can still be seen.