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Brother Angel He grew up in a time in many ways like our own, a time of material progress and economic development, of small wars, intellectual and artistic ferment, and a growing sentiment among educated people that the world was going breakneck to hell. The Latin church itself was torn in two. One Pope was in France and another in Italy. The two pontiffs held court, appointed cardinals and excommunicated anyone who followed the other. It took a strong faith to survive, and his faith was rewarded: when he was about 17, the Lating church was reunited, the rival Popes were swept away and new hopes for reform spread over Europe.
He was born around the year 1400 and namedGuido, son of Piero, who was probably a farmer near the village of Vicchio in Tuscany, about ten miles from Florence. When he took holy orders in his early 20s in a Dominican convent in Fiesole, he chose the name of Fra Giovanni, Brother John, of Fiesole. It was only after his death in 1455 that he became generally known, "because of his utmost modesty and his religious life," as Fra Angelico ("the angelic brother").
Nothing at all is known of his early life. He musthave started as a boy learning the arts of manuscript illumination and of painting intempera on wood. He would naturally have gravitated toward the effervescent artistic community of Florence, where there were 41 painters officially registered, each with his workshop and his staff of assistants, 138 sculptors and stonecutters, 44 goldsmiths--as against 70 butchers. Florence was a great city for its day, but it was small enough, 50 to 70 thousand souls, so that every one of any consequence could share in the excitement of the intellectual and esthetic upheaval beginning there.
He name first appears in the records when he waspaid 12 florins for an altarpiece for the church of San Stefano al Ponte when he was about 18. Vasari in his Lives of the Painters, written about 125 years later, says that his talents were recognized as exceptional at a very early age and that he could have made a fortune from his paintings as a layman. He preferred to become a friar, of the order of Preaching Friars, or Dominicans, whose 600 houses were spread throughout Europe. He might have been expected to enter the large and prestigious monastery of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Instead he went to San Domenico in Fiesole to join the Observantines there, the strictest and most ascetic friars of all, observing to the letter the original Rule of the Order and striving to re-create the all-consuming religious fervor of the primitive Church. All his life, brother John was to be a faithful member of this house, in Fiesole and later in Florence when it took over the convent of San Marco.
Although one of the great painters of all times, he wasfirst and above all a Dominican friar. His calling was his life, and his life, totally devoid of external dramatic incidents, was spent in being a good Dominican, bound by his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He never allowed his painting to interfere with the regular schedule of his ecclesiastical duties. He prayed and read sacred texts and …