Angelico’s Agony in the Garden

Fra Angelico, a Dominican artist, was baptized as Guido di Piero in c. 1395 in Italy. He died in Rome in 1455 after making a career as an extremely popular fresco painter and sometime vicar of his monastery of San Dominco in Fiesole, Italy. He painted most of his frescoes in Florence but was also commissioned to paint several frescoes in Rome by successive popes. He was beatified in 1984. 72 of his paintings can be seen here including the painting of Mary Magdalene in the Garden on Easter morning in the post on the Mary Magdalene chaplet. His paintings of the annunciation are also very famous.

Angelico's Agony in the Garden
Angelico's Agony in the Garden, Museo di San Marco, Florence, Italy c. 1450.

I came across this painting while looking at paintings of Mary Magdalene earlier this week. It is a really unusual painting because it depicts the women of Jesus’ following while he is in the Garden of Gethsemane. To be sure we know who is who, Angelico has painted the names of each of the figures in their halo. We have from left to right, James, John and Peter asleep in the garden. Within the house, we have Mary and Martha awake and at work. So is he making the point that the women were vigilant and awake while the men sleep? Perhaps. Lets look at what the women are doing…. Mary is dressed in gray-blue and reading a book, while Martha, this time in red, is praying. Interesting. He seems to accept that Mary Magdalene = Mary of Bethany, so logically he puts Martha there too.  He has painted Mary continuing her study as implied by Mary of Bethany learning from Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. As Mary continues her study, a contemplative behavior, while Martha is actively praying.  Is he trying to show Mary and Martha in the common medieval juxtaposition of the contemplative life and the active life.

angelico62 This painting is from the same church and Mary and Martha are there again. Martha in the green cape. Here we see Mary’s gray cape again, but behold there is the red dress underneath afterall. Well it is a rational assumption if you equate Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene, then you would assume that Martha would be one of the unnamed women there also. Looking at the rest of Angelico’s paintings from the same church he paints all of the women at the flogging, the way of the cross, crucifixion, and entombment in red (including the Blessed Mother). In the cell of Jesus carrying the cross, he is dressed in red as well. All of his paintings seem to use a lot of red, so maybe the color isn’t very significant. It really is odd there there are women in scenes like the flogging where they wouldn’t usually be seen.

These frescoes are more interesting than individual medieval paintings because these frescoes are intended to be teaching tools. Frescoes on the walls of churches are how most of the common people learned the bible. They are story boards first and art second.


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