PICTURING THE PASSION: ‘The Mocking of Christ’ by Fra Angelico (1441)

 The Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Mumbai brings to you the fourth article in the series titled ‘Picturing the Passion’

‘Upon His precious head they placed a crown of thorns

They laughed and said behold the king

They struck Him and they cursed Him and mocked His holy name

And all alone He suffered everything’

The lyrics of this beautiful hymn by Loretta Lynn find a deep rooted expression through today’s painting. It is titled ‘The Mocking of Christ’ by Fra Angelico. The honorary epithet ‘Fra Angelico’ or ‘the Angelic Brother’ was attributed to the painter after his death in 1455. Baptised Guido di Piero, his love for Christ led him to enter the religious order of the Dominicans in 1420.

Vasari, the great author of the ‘Lives of Artists’ (1550), describes Angelico as a ‘simple and most holy man who painted with facility and piety.’ Vasari goes on to describe his saintly life stating, ‘Fra Angelico never set his hand to a brush without first saying a prayer. He never painted a crucifix without tears streaming down his cheeks. He befriended the poor and now is befriended by Heaven.’ Truth as these words hold, in 1982, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the beatification of this ‘Blessed’ painter, recognising him as the ‘Saint of all Artists.’

But where and when did it all begin? In 1435 Cosimo de Medici, the rich banker and Gonfalonier of Florence, donated a sumptuous amount to renovate the Dominican convent and the Church of San Marco. Fra Angelico was given the task to paint the altar piece and decorate the walls of the Church and of the Convent.

Of all the religious orders, the Dominicans attributed great consideration to visual images as mediums of prayers, meditation and study. The cell of each friar was furnished with not only a bed, desk and kneeler but also a contemplative fresco representing an episode from the Story of Christ.  These paintings often depicted the Virgin Mary and Saint Dominic as witnesses of the scene, therefore serving as intermediaries between the Dominican friars who lived in the cells and Christ Himself.

One such Gospel synthesized fresco is the ‘Mocking of Christ’ situated in the East Corridor, also known as the Corridor of the Elderly clerics. The bitter humiliation that Christ suffered before being crucified is evoked through this painting in an atmosphere of divine stillness and mystical emotion.  

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