Sacred vision

In 1436 Cosimo de’ Medici gave the Dominicans the church and convent of San Marco. Michelozzo was charged with the radical restructuring of the buildings and Fra Angelico with their decoration. Without doubt the frescoes at San Marco are Angelico’s crowning work. Each cell contains a meditative image relating the events of the Lord’s passion and resurrection to the members of the order. The pictures are simple, devoid of any unnecessary embellishment. The Mockery of Christ, in cell seven, is the most ambitious of the series in the way in which it adapts the techniques of the illuminated or printed book to the painted panel.

Christ is shown blindfold and wearing the crown of thorns. He holds in his hands a stick and a ball – the sceptre and orb of the Ecce Homo image. But here Christ is seated, reminding us of the Last Judgement or the Pantocrator. Behind him is a raised panel on which are painted his tormentors in abbreviated symbolic form. These symbols, as in the traditional image of the Man of Sorrows (cell 26), derive from the conventions of medieval books of hours (see Eamon Duffy’s recent book, Marking the Hours, pp 132-133).

On a step below the central figure two others are in meditation, neither of them regarding the image behind them. The Virgin looks away, lost in contemplation. St Dominic is looking reflectively at the very Book of Hours from which the picture is taken.