FRA FILIPPO LIPPI: The Shades of Sanctity

Seven Saints, c. 1449–1459, Fra Filippo Lippi - photo by Web Gallery of Art

Fra’ (Brother) Filippo Lippi, also known as Lippo Lippi, was born in Florence in 1406. The family was large but poor; his father Tommaso was a butcher, and his parents both passed away when Lippo was a small boy. He was sent to live with an aunt, Mona Lapaccia, but she too did not have the financial means to raise the child. In 1420, when he was eight years old, he was sent with one of his brothers to the Carmelite convent at Santa Maria del Carmine. He took his vows in 1421, at age sixteen, and was ordained as a priest around 1425. He remained at the convent until 1432 but did not renounce his vows; this despite being deemed unfit for holy orders.

Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin, detail (Self-Portrait), Filippo Lippi – photo by WikiArt

It was here that Lippo was inspired to create art, by watching the artist Masaccio creating frescoes in the convent; these were to be viewed as highly influential works of Renaissance art. Masaccio began the Early Italian Renaissance movement, painting nudes and life-like figures which appeared three-dimensional. He is credited with being one of the first painters to use foreshortening and perspective in his work, including using techniques such as vanishing points. Lippo went on to paint his own frescoes in the church and the cloister.

The art historian Giorgio Vasari noted of Lippo in his “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” (also known as The Lives – Le Vite in Italian) that: “Instead of studying, he spent all his time scrawling pictures on his own books and those of others.” However, the priory recognised his talent and allowed him to pursue his artistic interest.

In 1432, he returned to Florence, where Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned him to paint The Annunciation and The Seven Saints; his patron had the painter kept in ‘protective custody’ at his Medici palace, to encourage the artist to complete the behind-schedule commissions. However, Lippo escaped using a rope made of sheets. He was a rogue, being featured regularly on court rolls for charges including embezzlement – for which he was tortured on the rack – and forgery, which he attempted in order to rescue himself from regular financial predicaments.

Madonna with Child and Saints, 1493, Fra Filippo Lippi – photo by useum

A letter dated 1439 has Filippo describing himself as “the poorest Friar in Florence, charged with the maintenance of six marriageable nieces”. A story is related that whilst on a visit to Ancona and Naples, he and some fellow travellers were kidnapped by Barbary pirates in the Adriatic and kept as slaves for 18 months, only being released after he painted the leader’s portrait.

Between 1437 – 1440, he painted Madonna and Child Enthroned (1437), tempera on panel 151 x 66 cm (60 x 24in); now held in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome. In 1438, he created Madonna and Child with Saints, 208 x 244 cm (82 x 96in); now held in the Louvre, Paris. In 1439, he painted the tempera on panel (54 x 37cm – 21 x 14in) St. Jerome in Penance, now held in the Lindenau Museum, Altenburg, Germany. In 1440, he painted the oil on panel (155 x 144cm – 61 x 57in) The Annunciation with Two Kneeling Donors, also held in the Galleria Nazionale, Rome and Martelli Annunciation, tempera on panel (175 x 183cm – 69 x 72in) now held in San Lorenzo, Florence.

Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement, c.1440, Filippo Lippi – photo by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1440, Lippo painted Portrait of Woman with a Man at a Casement (tempera on wood (64 x 42cm – 25 x 16in). The piece is significant for two reasons; it is the first Italian portrait to incorporate a landscape background and is the first to feature a double portrait. The landscape may refer to the Netherlands and features a view through a window of a country road that leads past villas to distant mountains.

The couple is probably Lorenzo di Ranieri Scolari of a prominent family of Florence, identified by the coat-of-arms he is touching, and his wife Angiola di Bernado Sapiti, who married in about 1439. Her splendid outfit comprises a dress woven with gold and the sleeve embroidered with pearls spelling lealta (faithful) and covered by an overdress lined with fur. Her headdress is also decorated with pearls. They are both featured in profile, a favoured interpretation of Lippo’s.

In 1441, he began The Coronation of the Virgin, tempera on panel (220 x 287cm – 87 x 113in), for the Prato Cathedral. The Procuratore (State Attorney) Francesco Maringhi, had bequeathed funds to the church for a painting on the high altar and Lippo was pointed to undertake the work, which he completed in 1447. Bills of payment until this date have been conserved; it is recorded that he was paid a total of 1200 Florentine lire, a large sum for the times.

The Coronation of the Virgin, 1441-1447, Fra Filippo Lippi – photo by Traveling in Tuscany

It comprises one panel which is divided into three sections by the arches of the church. Lippo employed six assistants, including Fra Carnevale, Fra Diamante and one Piero di Lorenzo dipintore (painter). The work would have originally included a predella; in artistic terms, a painting on the frame on which the altar stands. However, this and the original gilded frame have been lost, except for a small panel of Miracle of St Ambrose, currently in the Berlin State Museums.

The remainder of the original work was stolen from Sant’Ambrogio in 1810. It was sold to the Galleria dell’ Accademia in Florence and subsequently relocated to the Uffizi Gallery, where it remains today.

English poet Robert Browning immortalised the painting in his poem Fra Lippo Lippi (lines 344-389) which was included in his collection Men and Women, published in 1855.

Either side of the central arch are two tondos (“a Renaissance term for a circular work of art”), which feature the Virgin Mary and the Angel of Annunciation. The Annunciation is the Angel Gabriel telling Mary that she would conceive a son, who would be named Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, to which Mary willingly consents.

Apparition of The Virgin to St Bernard, 1486, Fra Filippo Lippi – photo by Web Gallery of Art

The main setting of the painting is in Heaven, the sky depicting the seven sectors of Paradise. Christ and the Madonna are centrally posed, with Mary Magdalene and various saints and angels encircling them. Amongst these prominent figures, the painting includes Francesco Maringhi who faces an inscription with the words “Iste perfecit opus” (“this one finished the work”), as well as a self-portrait of Lippo as a monk, and St. Ambrose and St. John the Baptist.

In 1447, Filippo was commissioned by the influential humanist, lawyer and patron of the arts, Germiniano Inghirami, to paint the Vision of St. Bernard. It is held in the National Gallery, London. The patron also commissioned Filippo to paint the Funeral of St. Jerome. It was originally dated to 1440 but later accepted to have been created around 1452, more in keeping with his painting style at the time. It is housed in the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo adjacent to the Prato Cathedral.

In 1452, Lippo became a chaplain at the Monastery of St. Mary Magdalene in Florence, but he often travelled to the nearby and vibrant city of Prato.

The Funeral of St Stephen, 1460, Fra Filippo Lippi – photo by Web Gallery of Art

He and his long-time friend, associate and Carmelite friar, Fra Diamante were commissioned to create frescoes for the chancel of that city’s cathedral. These comprise the four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as depicting scenes of the lives of St. John the Baptist and St. Stephen. The Funeral of St. Stephen (1460) is in two parts, the left depicting him being stoned to death, with his laying out on the nave of a contemporary church being depicted on the adjoining wall. St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr and one of the first seven deacons ordained in Jerusalem by St. Peter. [The other six deacons were St. Philip the Evangelist, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicholas]. The duties of the Seven, as they were known, included ministering to the Believers in Jerusalem, thus allowing the Apostles to focus on prayer and spreading The Word. The Greek-speaking disciples were concerned that their widows were excluded from the daily ministry. St. Stephen was fluent in Greek, and he ministered to these widows. He also held debates with the Sanhedrin (a tribunal of rabbis) in the local synagogues. One half of Lippo’s work depicts this interchange, while the other shows a group of women listening to him in the open. St. Stephen was accused of blasphemy and Saul of Tarsus, or St. Paul as he became after his conversion, consented to St. Stephen being cast out of the city gates and stoned to death. The saint is believed to have seen a vision of Heaven opening as he was dying. The paintings of St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist are aesthetically balanced; with their births, lives and deaths facing each other.

The Feast of Herod: Salome’s Dance, c.1460-1464, Fra Filippo Lippi – photo by WikiArt

Another section of the work, the Feast of Herod, depicts Salome, the daughter of King Herod and Herodius. Salome danced for the King and his high-profile guests at his birthday party. Pleased with her performance, King Herod promised her anything she wished, up to half his kingdom. She asked her mother what she should request, and her mother advised her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. She did so, and the king could not go back on his oath. John had been imprisoned by Herod for admonishing the king for divorcing his first wife in order to marry Herodias. Herod ordered John to be beheaded, and the gruesome remains were carried into the feast on a platter.

This depiction of Salome has indications that Lippo’s most famous pupil, Sandro Botticelli, worked on the piece. These frescoes at Prato are considered to be Lippo’s most important works and can be seen in the Great Chapel of the Cathedral of Prato.

In 1457, Filippo was appointed rector at San Quirico in Legnaia, Siena in Tuscany.

The Nativity, probably c. 1445, Fra Filippo Lippi – photo by National Gallery of Art

In 1458, while still occupied with the Prato commission, he began work for St. Margherita. Here he met the beautiful novice nun Lucrezia Buti, whom he requested permission to use as a model for the Madonna. When Lippo was 52, the couple began an affair and he and Lucrezia fled, living together in his house, despite the nuns’ attempts to return her to the monastery. Cosimo de’ Medici intervened and Lippi renounced his vows, before Pope Pius II granted permission for Lippo and Lucrezia to marry. They had a son, Filippino Lippi, who became a recognised artist in his own right.

In September 1467, Lippo was commissioned to paint frescoes for the Spoleto Cathedral, which comprise the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Coronation of the Virgin and the Death of the Virgin.

Death of the Virgin, 1467-69, Fra Filippo Lippi – photo by Web Gallery of Art

Lippo, his son Filippino, good fried Fra Diamante and assistant Pier Matteo d’Amelia worked on the Storie della Vergine (Scenes of the Life of the Virgin) in the apse of the cathedral, where they can be seen today. In the Death of the Virgin, a group of mourners at the funeral includes a self-portrait of Lippo as well as featuring his son and the two assistants.

Filippo Lippi died on 8th October 1469, before the frescoes were completed. Fra Diamante and Filippino Lippi finished the work in December 1469, for which Diamante was paid 200 ducats. Lippo had arranged for his friend to care for Filippino, and at the age of around seventy – he died circa 1498, but the exact date of his death is unknown – he took the twelve-year-old boy back to Florence, where according to Georgio Vasari, he bought a tract of land with his proceeds.

The ruling de Medici family in Florence, originally represented by Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici, known as ‘The Elder’ and after his death ‘Pater Patriae’ or ‘Father of the Fatherland’, and his son Lorenzo (The Magnificent), were staunch patrons of Filippo’s art. Lorenzo commissioned Filippino to design the sepulchre in the cathedral, where Filippo Lippi is buried on the right-hand side. The manner of his death was never confirmed; it was rumoured that he was poisoned by Lucrezia or another woman who had replaced her, before the Pope’s dispensation for marrying Lucrezia could be granted. However, this has been deemed unlikely, due to some 11-year time lapse between his marriage in 1458 and his death.