Fra Angelico, whose real name was Guido di Pietro, was born in 1395, in Vicchio, a small town near Florence. He lived in the early years of the Renaissance, when, unlike later during the High Renaissance, artists hadn't yet achieved the elevated status where every notable personal trait was recorded for posterity. This is the reason the fine details of his life still remain shrouded.
In Giorgio Vasari's 'Lives of the Artists', Angelico is depicted as a rather unworldly, saintly personality, who cared for religion and religion alone.
As a young man, Angelico was a successful and rather well-known painter. According to Vasari, he was so in demand with art patrons that he could have made a mint and lived on happily in the secular world. However, he was strongly inclined towards religion and entered the Dominican Order and devoted his talent to the Church without any expectation of personal compensation. He worked first at the San Domenico Monastery in Fiesole and later at the San Marco Monastery in Florence. He took on the name of Fra Giovanni da Fiesole. The title 'Angelico' was bestowed upon him posthumously for his angelic temperament and the angelic beauty with which he infused his paintings.
Most of the paintings by Angelico are based on Biblical themes. Back in those times, paintings were meant to celebrate Christ and the Christian religion. However, Angelico's works show a keen interest in earthly existence as well―his figures are realistic and show a remarkable study of perspective and chiaroscuro. His painting 'The Deposition' is the first painting of the Renaissance to incorporate a well-composed foreground with a realistically receding background landscape.
After he joined the Dominican Order, Angelico initially worked on illustrating holy manuscripts and then progressed to painting triptychs for Church altars and frescoes for the Church and the Monastery. The fresco paintings were usually undertaken with a large group of assistants who worked under his strict supervision and direction.
The frescoes at the Monastery of San Marco, showing scenes from the New Testament, were started in 1441, and are considered to be some of his finest works―realistic and spiritual at the same time and with magnificent coloring. He was summoned to Rome by Pope Eugenius IV in 1445, and then later by his successor Pope Nicholas V in 1447. His work first caught the attention of Pope Eugenius IV when he was in exile from Rome and stayed at the San Marco Monastery for a while. The Pope liked the paintings so much that, when eventually he returned to Rome, he invited Angelico to paint frescoes in the Capella del Sacramento of St. Peter's. These frescoes have since been destroyed.
Pope Nicholas V, a man who did much to encourage humanist principles, commissioned Angelico to decorate his study and private chapel. Around this time, Angelico also painted two large frescoes for the vault of the chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio at the Orvieto Cathedral.
During his sojourn in Rome, Angelico's steady, calm temperament won him the admiration of Pope Nicholas V, and he was offered a position as the Archbishop of Florence. Angelico turned this offer down. He was already Prior of the San Marco Monastery. All he wanted was a simple, uncomplicated life and the chance to paint in the service of the Church. He returned to the San Marco Monastery in 1450. But two years later, after his term as Prior ended, he went back to Rome to paint more frescoes for the Pope. He died on 18 February, 1455, in the monastery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. He was in his mid-fifties.
The Annunciation, 1433-34, Museo Diocesano, Cortona
The Annunciation, 1450, Monastery of San Marco, Florence
The Deposition from the Cross, 1443, Museo di San Marco, Florence
Massacre of the Innocents, 1450-53, Museo di San Marco, Florence