Fra Filippo Lippi

Italian Painter

Born: c. 1406
Died: October 8, 1469

Summary of Fra Filippo Lippi

Fra Filippo Lippi was perhaps the most important Florentine painter of the second half of the fifteenth century, and one of the great masters of the Early Renaissance. He was an artist of tremendous skill and dexterity who manged to strike a fine balance between the traditions of devotional art and current humanist influences. Notwithstanding a reputation for sexual scandal and eccentric living, he produced intricate religious parables that brought an element of psychological realism to compositions of irregular perspective and fine coloring and detailed ornamentation. Lippi painted Florentine masterpieces such as The Annunciation and the Seven Saints before moving to the cities of Spoleto and Prato where he produced his career defining monumental works, respectively, Stories of St John the Baptist and St Stephen and Scenes of the life of the Virgin Mary.


The Life of Fra Filippo Lippi

The twentieth century art critic Bernard Berenson said of Lippi that his "strongest impulse was not toward the pre-eminently artistic one of re-creation" but rather "toward the expression of the pleasant, genial, spiritually comfortable feelings of ordinary life".

Progression of Art



This panel is thought to be part of an altarpiece executed by Lippi for private devotion and is perhaps better described as a Lamentation more than a Pietà (meaning pity or compassion) given that the grieving Mary and the dead Christ are already being counselled by a red-robed saint.

In either case, the Virgin Mary, clad in her customary blue, supports Jesus's body at the mouth of his tomb in the foreground of a rocky scene bereft of any greenery. Mary and Jesus form an inverted triangle as their heads and upper bodies lean away from each other. This triangle marks the centre of the composition and is framed by the background which forms a natural recess or niche. This is telling inasmuch as there is a sophisticated sculptural character to the figures thanks to Lippi's subtle and detailed sense of shading, especially in the weeping face of Mary and the folds of drapery in the lap of Jesus. These details reveal the linear influence of Lippi's idol Masaccio, and perhaps also Donatello.

Further linking the figures of Mary and Jesus, are their right hands that rest on each other's shoulders; his pale and lifeless; hers warmed with colour. Despite remaining united in this way, there is contrast between life and death, Mary's grief and Jesus's sacrifice; her individual loss and the world's gain (from salvation). The saint bears the expression of shocked grief but is also occupied in his action. Lippi has painted Mary with an expression of grief, but because she looks out at us, her grief is mixed perhaps with an element of empathy and compassion which she also elicits in the viewer. The rocky landscape (a common setting of Lippi's) rhymes with the flesh of Jesus and alludes to the pain of his Passion as well as the ultimate futility and barrenness of the earthly world. Mary's face, by contrast speaks of a redemptive spiritual love.

Tempera on panel - Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan

c. 1437

Madonna and Child with Saints

This picture is part of the altarpiece commissioned by (the childless) Gherardo di Bartolomeo Barbadori who, having died in 1429, bequeathed his fortune to the Church of Santo Spirito for an altarpiece to be painted in dedication to Saint Fridianus. Lippi accepted the commission around 1437. The interior scene is packed with the figures of angels, two saints, and the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus.

The two saints are oriented by Lippi in different ways: Augustine, while venerating on his knees, is half-turned towards the viewer; Fridianus, the sixth-century Irish pilgrim and hermit, is turned towards the Madonna and Child. This alerts us to Augustine's role in the early church as promulgator of the Christian faith. Fridianus is, by contrast, exclusively concentrated on devotion, reflecting his life of solitary asceticism. The Virgin is a powerful figure in a painting which is divided architecturally in the form of a triptych. In the central arch, Mary stands above all other figures, as if about to give her blessing to the kneeling saints. It was unusual at the time to portray Mary standing and, in what would have been a Virgin Enthroned picture, Lippi paints a commanding femininity striding away from the obscured throne in the niche in the background.

Almost impossibly rich in its interior detail - from the streaked marbling of the columns, the warm texture of the floor to the gilt floral patterns in the spandrels of the arches - the scene opens out through the left-hand window onto a landscape. This is noted to have been a borrowing from contemporary Flemish painting, but it also offers a connection to the faithful. That is, piety is achievable in the real world and that the people of the real world can strive for and attain the state of beatitude exhibited on this panel. Leaning backwards in the humble habit of a monk on the extreme left is said to be the likeness of Lippi himself. He looks out at us disengaged from the scene around him. This could be an invitation to us to pay attention to this scene of sanctity or, perhaps, it could relate to his own waywardness as he had left the Carmelite order without being released from his vows.

Louvre Museum, Paris


Annunciation with Two Kneeling Donors

The Virgin Mary has been interrupted in her prayers and has risen to receive the visitation of the Archangel Gabriel who offers her a sheaf of lilies. The two unidentified men in contemporary dress kneel in the right foreground. The room is richly adorned and replete with architectural details such as arches and Corinthian columns. Mary is painted in her ultramarine robe and with her right hand keeps her place in her missal. She is shown at this moment to accept the lilies from Gabriel which implies that the latter has already delivered the news that she will bear the son of God. The lily in Christian theology symbolised (among other things) Easter and therefore Lippi here is conflating the birth and death of Jesus, as well as the resurrection after his crucifixion. To mark the moment, the holy spirit flies in from the left in the guise of a dove.

From the gesture of the gift, our eye is led out through the windowed arch to a serene natural woodland crowned by an azure sky that assures the concord between heaven and earth, and the blessing of God. The scene is segregated formally between the sacred and the banal. Gabriel and Mary occupy a region of immaculate purity, while the donors and the two women ascending the stairs in the right background are placed in the positions of pious, if uncomprehending, devotion to the mystery on the one hand, and dutiful concern on the other.

The nexus of the picture is framed by the dove, the lilies and the head of Mary, all of whose white purity contrasts with the sallow, flesh-coloured countenances of the donors and the servant-women. The painting is coherent in perspective, with regular recession via the prayer benches, bed, columns and window towards the benevolent sky. This is a feat on the part of Lippi because studies in mathematical perspective were at an early stage in Italy at the time.

Tempera on panel - Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome


The Feast of Herod

According to Paul G. Komody, the fresco cycles of Prato Cathedral "constitute [Lippi's] greatest claim to immortal fame". The Feast of Herod was painted by Lippi and his assistants as part of a life of John the Baptist over the course of a decade and a half. It is in fact part of a fresco cycle accompanied by another, that of a life of St. Stephen (also in the cathedral at Prato). The crowded composition is peopled by merrymakers at the birthday banquet of King Herod, Antipas, here standing authoritatively and tall in a crimson robe to the left. Herod looks out at us at the liminal moment between the festivity of his step-daughter Salome dancing to his right and the macabre realisation that Salome's demand of the beheading of John the Baptist has been carried out.

According to the New Testament, Salome was granted a favour from Herod for her dancing and, under the influence of her mother, Herodias, made her demand. To relate the story visually, Lippi has conflated different episodes in this single fresco. The central section shows the dance of Salome, wearing the white dress, on the tiled floor. To our left (to the right of Herod) we have a second depiction of Salome, here receiving the plate on which sits the severed head. Both the head and Salome are coloured in dark umber, perhaps signifying the merely physical death of the saint and the spiritual death of Salome for her mortal sin. There are also two Herodias figures. The first Herodias is seated at the centre. She is looking towards the second Herodias who is seated on the right with an expression of deep sorrow or shame as she receives the grisly presentation from a kneeling girl. She looks to us as if knowledgeable of her perdition, hued as she is, in an umber tone that symbolizes moral and spiritual darkness.

Lippi's tableau is packed with symbols and gestures of disorder, from the expressions of the figures, the discord of the young couple on the extreme right, to the melancholic dancing of Salome. The picture itself seems to be an allegory on the joylessness and futility of terrestrial power and the ultimate accountability of tyranny and evil. Because Herod was aggrieved by Salome's request, Lippi paints him in a somewhat equivocal moral position. His gaze outward could be a dissociation from the deed but it could also be a register of his shock, or even a surrender to the moral judgement of the viewer. The figure in black with outstretched hands looking with disgust at the queen is striding away from the company. This figure has been held to be Lippi's young self-portrait. It signals revulsion and the sole point of sympathy in the whole fresco.

Fresco - Prato Cathedral


Adoration in the Forest

In this unusual scene (that is also known as Mystical Nativity) Lippi confounds conventional depictions that place the Adoration in a stable surrounded by animals and the wise men. The setting is a deep pine forest with five figures. This is a tribute to the monastery of Camaldoli located outside Florence on a steep forested hillside, to which the Medici family had connections. The composition has two structural elements linking the figures. A standing ovoid links Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist, St. Romuald, and God the Father who is common to both compositional devices. The second structural element runs downward from God the Father in a straight line that bisects the oval, through the Holy Spirit to the new-born Christ.

Mary dominates the picture frame and as usual is bedecked in ultramarine. Her expression and demeanour is one of awestruck devotion. Jesus lies amongst the grass and blooming flowers of the forest floor, gazing out at us and inspiring in the contemporary devotee a similar adoration to that of Mary. John the Baptist is identifiable by his animal skin hidden beneath his robe. He too looks out at us with his staff's ensign bearing the inscription "Ecce Agnus Dei" or "Behold the Lamb of God". God the Father, with his splayed arms and hands, releases the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove on its path to the infant. This path is marked by Lippi with golden lines that sweep laterally with exquisite skeins of gold that make these lines nebulous, and seem to make even more miraculous the immaculate conception. It is the doubling of this "path" - the lines stretching downward and the sideways obscuring of them - that simultaneously makes the biblical story comprehensible to the believer and makes it mysterious, a matter of faith.

Secluded as the scene is, and therefore humble, God the Father is girded in the heavenly stars of the spheres of the universe. This makes all of time and space converge on this remote place and epochal event. As art historian Paul G. Komody wrote of Lippi's art: "Fra Filippo loved the world in which he found so much beauty. For all that, his art reveals neither sensuality nor worldliness". Only Jesus and John the Baptist break the illusionistic spell of the painting's world by looking to us. Jesus seems to invite faith while John's expression is troubled, seeming to the viewer to bear a foreboding of his own fate and the sacrifice of the Lamb.

Oil on panel - Gemäldegalerie, Berlin


Madonna and Child with Two Angels

The Virgin Mary in the deep shadow of her seated lower half, is only withheld from the viewer by the sumptuous arm of her chair; she is unapproachable; her saintliness beyond question. She gazes lovingly, with her hands in the gesture of prayer, on the smiling angel who offers up the infant Christ to her.

It has been said that Lippi's picture here had a profound effect on the Madonna and Child paintings of his pupil Botticelli and certainly the soft and placid femininity of this Mary can be detected in much of Botticelli (in his Venus for example). A possible further note of influence is in the background landscape and shore which Lippi likely borrowed from the Flemish tradition. In Lippi's particular rendition of the landscape with its dark irregularity, we could even project forward by half a century toward Leonardo's Mona Lisa. The present picture of Lippi's itself has an enigmatic quality of its own and a delicately balanced allegory.

On the face of it, we see the haloed Virgin with an elaborate and translucent headdress that speaks of the spirit. She is receiving her child Jesus who reaches for his mother. This is the Holy Family. Beneath this surface are elements of another story, however. It has been speculated that the model for this Mary was Lucrezia Buti, Lippi's lover, and that the jovial angel of the foreground is actually a portrait of their son Filippino. Indeed, the Virgin's gaze and bodily disposition is angled towards the angel whose gleeful expression humanises him. The Virgin's body is also heavy and darkly and solidly coloured which leaves no doubt that we are looking at an earthly woman. At the same time her headdress and halo are so delicate that they seem to melt. This tells us of the Madonna's otherworldly spirituality and status, and Lucrezia's terrestrial and real maternal love. The painting amounts to both a veneration of the Madonna and Child and of the Lippi family which explains our proximity to the figures. Filippo extols and idealises his family by association with the devotional image but also makes them natural and human.

Tempera on panel - The Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Biography of Fra Filippo Lippi

Childhood and Education

Fra Filippo Lippi was born into a large and poor family on the street of Ardiglione in Florence around 1406. At the age of just two, Filippo, whose mother, it is thought, had already passed, became an orphan after the death of his father, Tommaso, and was taken in by his paternal aunt, Mona Lapaccia. He was such an unruly and headstrong child that Mona consigned him (and a brother) to the care of the monks at the Santa Maria del Carmine convent which he attended between the ages of eight and seventeen, this despite it becoming increasing obvious that Lippi did not possess the temperament for life as a friar (although, in 1442, "Fra" Lippi was appointed rector of the Church of San Quirico in Legnaia).

The famous Renaissance biographer and artist, Giorgio Vasari, recorded that Filippo was "dexterous and ingenious" with his hands from an early age but had a "great distaste" for books. Indeed, such was that distaste he covered his schoolbooks with cartoons. However, the Prior of the convent recognized his latent ability for drawing and directed Filippo towards learning how to paint. In the nearby Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, the famed painter Masaccio had recently produced a series of frescoes which were destined to become some of the most celebrated and influential of the Early Renaissance. Lippi greatly admired these works and went regularly to study Masaccio's technique. Practising in the chapel, and exceeding the efforts of his own peers in art, Lippi's reputation began to grow. He left the convent leaving behind frescoes in the church and in the cloister. On the evidence of these pieces, Vasari noted, "it was held for certain that one day he would do marvellous things".

Mature Period

Vasari wrote of a strange occurrence in Lippi's life that, although the story has been discredited, serves nevertheless as an example of an "origin story" for an ingenious artist that stressed the almost preternatural talent he was said to possess. According to Vasari's fanciful tale, Lippi was abducted from the city of Ancona by a contingent of Moors and brought to North Africa where he was held captive for 18 months. While there, he was said to have drawn a full-length portrait of his master with a humble shard of coal. Such was the master's astonishment at the uncanny realism of the picture, he ordered Lippi's release, and he was freed at the port of Naples. Though details of this period remain sketchy, the art historian Valerio Mariani notes that "It is known that in 1434 the artist was at Padua [and while none of] the works executed while he was at Padua are known [...] the effect of his presence may be recognized in the paintings of others there, such as Andrea Mantegna".

By the mid-1430s, Lippi was back in Florence where he secured the patronage of the all-powerful Cosimo de'Medici who employed him to execute frescoes and altarpieces for several Florentine convents and churches. Mariani explains how "the qualities he acquired during his years of travel are affirmed with clarity in two works of 1437, immediately after he returned from Padua: The Virgin and Child Between SS. Frediano and Augustin and the Madonna and Child". Mariani adds that in these works, "the colour is warm, toned down with shadings, approaching the limpid chromatics of his great contemporary Fra Angelico".

In 1439 Lippi produced Saint Jerome in Penance, in which he blended his picture plane into spatially and temporally distinct (what we might call a "split screen" technique) areas featuring two stories of an older and more youthful Jerome. Confirmation of Lippi's genius soon followed with the Annunciation (believed previously to be a more mature work but now dated between 1441-43). It was innovative in its use of irregular perspective and wonderful contrasts between colour and form and, in Mariani's reading, "the suggested movement of the light garments of the two frightened girls at the door is rendered with such sensitivity as to anticipate Sandro Botticelli".

In 1442 Lippi was made rector of the Church of San Quirico in the Legnaia district of Florence. It was an inspired time for Lippi who produced the Coronation of the Virgin for the Church of Sant'Ambrogio. Such was the scale of the task, Lippi had to call on a team of six external painters to complete the predella (stepped) altarpiece which Mariani called "a historic point in Florentine painting in its success in uniting as one scene the various panels of a polyptych". It what might be considered a subversive act, and one that certainly adds and extra dash of realism to the altarpiece, comes in the shape of a self-portrait of Lippi in the right corner. This inclusion was confirmed by the artist himself who wrote: "Well, all these / Secured at their devotion, up shall come / Out of a corner when you least expect, / As one by a dark stair into a great light, / Music and talking, who but Lippo!"

Late Period

In 1452, Lippi had been invited by the City of Prato to paint frescos for the main chapel of Prato cathedral. They depict the Stories of St John the Baptist and St Stephen on the two main facing walls and are considered Lippi's monumental works. The figure of the dancing Salome is generally thought to show a clear lineage to the later works of his pupils, Sandro Botticelli, and Lippi's own son, Filippino. Lippi's perspective is again informal while he places most importance on theatrical effects and story continuity. Of these scenes, Vasari made special mention of the "beautiful folds" in the draperies and in general the "excellent design, colouring, and composition". Vasari spoke also of Lippi's "very merry life" and that all of Filippo's escapades and misdoings "were passed over in silence" due to the quality of his painting. Vasari was moved enough, in fact, to cite Lippi as the precursor to Michelangelo.

Following his rise to fame, Mariani describes how Lippi became "dominated by love affairs and impatient of methodical or tranquil conduct". Also commenting on the artist's licentious conduct, Vasari wrote: "It is said that Fra Filippo was so lustful he would give anything to enjoy a woman he wanted if he thought he could have his way, and if he couldn't buy what he wanted, then he would cool his passion by painting her portrait and reasoning with himself. His lust was so violent that when it took hold of him he could never concentrate on his work. Because of this, when he was doing something for Cosimo de' Medici, Cosimo had him locked in so he wouldn't wander off. After he had been confined for a few days, Fra Filippo's amorous, or rather animal, instincts drove him one night to seize a pair of scissors, make a rope from his own bedsheets, and escape through a window to pursue his own pleasures for days on end!"

Vasari's account may or may not be absolutely accurate, but it is accepted fact that in 1456 Lippi abducted a nun, Lucrezia Buti, from the convent in Prato. After painting Buti as the Virgin Mary, the pair absconded together and, Vasari suggested, "Francesco, the girl's father, never smiled again". Buti bore Lippi a son and daughter, the former named Filippino who would later study in his father's workshop with Botticelli.

In 1467 Lippi, Filippino, and Fra Diamante headed for Spoleto Cathedral, where they were commissioned to paint decorations and frescoes. These included the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Death of Mary, and, in the semidome of the apse, the Coronation. Lippi died while working on the Storie della Vergine (Scenes of the Life of the Virgin Mary) in the apse. Amongst the painted bystanders one can see a self-portrait of Lippi, and portraits of Filippino, Fra Diamante, and Pier Matteo d'Amelia.

Lippi died in 1469 and Vasari even conjectured that he was the victim of poisoning by a relative of one of his lovers. After his burial in the cathedral at Spoleto, Lorenzo de' Medici sent correspondences to the town requesting the removal of Filippo's body to Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. This request was declined, citing the dearth of famous burials in the town in comparison to Florence. In response Lorenzo commissioned Filippino to design a marble tomb for his father in Spoleto. It contained the following excerpt from the Latin epitaph by Angelo Politian: "Nature herself, as I revealed her, own'd / In wonderment that I could match her arts". Writing in the early twentieth century, the art historian Paul G. Komody stated effusively of Lippi: "Always ready to learn and to assimilate new principles, he never stooped to the imitation of mere mannerisms. From any such inclination he was saved by his temperament, his human sympathy, his artistic curiosity".

The Legacy of Fra Filippo Lippi

Mariani writes that "Posthumous judgments of Filippo Lippi were often coloured by the traditions of his adventurous life [and that] his works have been criticized from time to time for their borrowings from other painters" However, Mariani asserts that it is more widely agreed that Lippi's art was not diminished but, rather, "enriched and rendered more balanced by what he took from Masaccio and Fra Angelico. He was constantly seeking the techniques to realize his artistic vision and the new ideas that made him one of the most appreciated artists of his time". He adds that critics have come to appreciate in Lippi "a 'narrative' spirit that reflected the life of his time and translated into everyday terms the ideals of the early Renaissance".

Through Lippi's fluid, but complex, narrative compositions, he introduced a humanist and psychological aspect to religious imagery which brought an unprecedented level of realism to devotional art. Lippi is also considered a pioneer in striking a balance between mathematical and irregular perspective in the pictorial sphere - producing what the art historian Michael Baxandall called "uncanny but completely composed worlds" - and, as such, his influence can be seen in many of the greatest Renaissance masters, not least Botticelli (his pupil), Michelangelo and Piero della Francesca. His legend was further cemented by the Victorian poet Robert Browning whose 1855 dramatic monologue, Fra Lippo Lippi, used the Vasari's biography of Lippi as a vehicle for posing the question whether art should be naturalistic or idealistic.

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