The predella panel of Fra Angelico’s Perugia Altarpiece envisions the humble yet heroic life of Saint Nicholas, also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. This painting conjures characteristics that Guido di Pietro, later christened Fra Angelico– the “Angelic Friar”– was familiar with: sacrifice, devotion and allusions to the miraculous. The Perugia Altarpiece, painted from 1447 – 1448, followed his famous tenure at the Convent of San Marco in Florence where he painted frescoes with monetary support from the Medicis in the prayer rooms and meditation cells. Considered the intermediary between the Gothic and Renaissance eras, Fra Angelico teetered assuredly on the threshold of both. This is evinced in his work by his theatrical stage sets, generalized features, and glittery details as well as his advanced perspectival renderings and naturalistic weight of forms.
Paintings in the 1400’s were like billboards for Catholicism – burdened with the task of acting as persuasive progenitors of moral acts – as well as early cinema, entertaining society at large with stories of salvation. Under the watchful eye of church and government, it is indeed astonishing that Angelico expressed a reservoir of calm, creating images that tap into the sublime as well as his personal vision of life’s idiosyncrasies. His geometric structures, embellished with orbs and bulbous shapes convey both the warmth of domestic charm and the cool elegance of grandeur.
In the bottom left panel of the altarpiece, Saint Nicholas is pictured three times, haloed in gold, like cliff-notes to his early existence. The first scene, one of two open interiors, reveals his birth. Stories circulated that Nicholas, during his first bath in a wash-basin, stood upright, unassisted. An elderly woman watches him rise to life from her deathbed. The second frame, an open quadrant, highlights his vocation. He is pictured amidst a seated crowd, again standing, attentive to the bishop, arms in reverence over a jasmine field symbolic of amiability and grace. The third moment features the Saint’s charity as he anonymously reaches through a barred window to deliver bags of gold to a father of three poor girls, consequently saving them from prostitution. The hooded Father is seen at the foot of the bed wearing slender black shoes, hands folded over in prayer, head hung in genuine sadness. Enveloped in the covers, his girls seem frail and innocent like three pale doves tucked into a cloud.
Perhaps great paintings, like great lives, hold in equal measure chaos and order? Employing repetition, Fra Angelico offers both symmetry and surprise in his use of the color red, raised arms, and rectangles. Red is a primary hue and the first color of the spectrum. Red tunics dance throughout, rhythmically. In the third scene a red cloth hangs overhead in a square of dark absence, like a slab of raw meat or a pair of tired lungs, reminding us of mortality. The horizontal line of the wooden dowel connects with a thinly strained cloud shooting rapidly across the expanse, akin to the speed and weight of one’s life passing.
Raised arms move across the landscape in a syllabic pace like a heartbeat. The gesture of pointing upwards can be seen as ecstatic delight, reaching for something outside one’s own body, a blessing or a warning. The buildings on either side reach out towards us, the viewer, as if to offer an embrace — to envelope our existence. The central rectangular door acts as the heart of the painting. In this passage a man’s silhouette is barely seen as he exits, tantalizing one to wonder what is inside or on the other side. He seems to be beckoning us to another realm or simply going backstage – a reminder that the painting itself is a rectangle, conscious of its objecthood, a corporeal entity.
An accordion of rectangles fold onto one another. Cypress trees, recognized as symbols of sorrow, are restrained by the fortress wall. Rectangular windows and door frames populate the painting. The bed is another rectangle. We enter and exit the painting as in life, through beds. The distant brume is pierced only by what appears to be a singular rocket or a lone candle on the top of a decorated cake. Nature is personified and misbehaves, operating on its own laws: a groomed tree leaning over as if to take a snooze or listen closely to the bishop. And below the tree, the central building like a camera – the oval window its lens, who is the half-rendered mysterious figure looking back? Could it be Fra Angelico watching us? We wonder and wander.