Filippo Lippi was born around 1406 in Florence. He died 1469 in Spoleto, in the Papal states, where he was working on a commission.
The artist, also referred to as Fra Filippo Lippi, was an influential second generation Renaissance artist. He painted some of the most iconic religious images of the Renaissance. It is no exaggeration to say that he lived an unusual life. In parts, it reads like a tragedy. In other parts, it reads like the plot of a farcical comedy. Orphaned at two years old, he was cared for by his aunt, Mona Lapaccia. He was sent to live with the Carmelites at the age of eight years. This was to take care of his education.
He took his vows as a member of the Carmelite Order at the age of 16, in 1421. He left the Carmelite monastery in 1432, but he wasn't immediately released from his vows. There is a fantastic story narrated by his biographer, Giorgio Vasari that Filippo Lippi, along with some companions, was kidnapped by pirates and was released after Filippo painted a portrait of their leader. This appears to be a bit of romanticising on the author's part. Lippi was allegedly in Padua in 1434. In 1437 returned to Florence. His brilliance as an artist had begun to be recognised and he was patronised by the Medici family.
His Development as an Artist
Filippo Lippi's development as an artist began when he joined the Carmelite Monastery of Santa Maria del Carmine. At the time, the Brancacci Chapel of the monastery was being painted. The artist Masaccio was hard at work creating frescoes. This was the young boy's first exposure to art. According to his biographer Giorgio Vasari, he preferred drawing to academics, so he was given the chance to study painting. He began to study the craft of painting and helped to create some of the frescoes in the monastery. The influence of Masaccio is seen in his later work. His leaving the monastery, subsequent travels and return to Florence helped his art to develop. There are definite signs of growth and development in the work painted after his return. However, a period of difficulty followed.
When he was painting a picture for the Convent of St Margherita, he requested a young woman, Lucrezia Buti, either a novice or a student, be permitted to sit for him so he could base an image of the Virgin Mary on her. However, he had sexual relations with Lucrezia and she became pregnant. He was often late in fulfilling his contracts. To make him work, Cosimo de'Medici locked him up. Filippo escaped. He got into financial difficulty and got out of it by forgery. He was released from his holy vows by 1458 by Pope Pius II and allowed to marry Lucrezia Buti. They already had already had a son by then, who, in time, became another great Renaissance painter, Filippino Lippi.
Fra Filippo Lippi's Artistic Style
Fra Filippo Lippi's work consists of many frescoes for the walls of churches and also altar pieces. His paintings are usually religious and adorned religous buildings. For painting pictures, he usually used tempera and sometimes oils. Many of his paintings were painted straight onto wooden panels so they could adorn places of worship. He appears to have learned his craft from Masaccio. During the four years of his career for which he was allegedly in Padua, his style showed more depth and skill, but it never changed substantially. He was considered to be one of the great colourists of his time.
He didn't work alone all the time. For the larger works he would collaborate with fellow Carmelite Fra Diamante and his students. His may be the name behind the frescoes, but in reality, they were a team collaboration. These included his own son Filippino Lippi and others such as Sandro Botticelli. Apart from his work in Florence, much of his work is to be found in Prato, a small city close to Florence. It had a lively and energetic atmosphere and Fra Filippo Lippi was very happy there.
Influences on the Artist Fra Filippo Lippi
As mentioned, he appears to have learned his craft at the feet of Masaccio, the fresco painter. He also emulated the style of Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar who was also a painter. The two friars were contemporaries. Quite apart from his colourful and rather amoral life, Fra Filippo Lippi was a religious friar and his paintings reflect that. There are many beautiful Madonnas in his body of work, as well as Biblical scenes and scenes from lives of saints.
His paintings became quite epic, decorative and ornate. He would incorporate contemporary figures into historically and religiously significant scenes. Not only important contemporary figures, but himself also. His altar pieces and church frescoes had a lofty, magnificent quality. Many of his Madonnas, however, are endearingly human and vulnerable. He approached religious art in a human way, rather than a lofty and grandiose way, although his church pieces are strikingly formal and magnificent.
His Crowning Achievements
It has been said that Fra Filippo Lippi was temperamentally unsuited to the life of a monk. This may be the truth. His sins and crimes were many, yet apart from the deprivation of a benefice, he was rarely punished for them. It really says something about his extraordinary talent that he created his most magnificent works when he was going through one of the most tumultuous phases of his unusual life. One art historian remarked that even though he belonged to the world of the flesh, his genius lay in the fact tht he understood and depicted the world of the spirit in such a perfect way. His finest work and crowning achievements are said to be the work in Prato Cathedral.
There are two magnificent frescoes in the choir area of the cathedral depicting scenes from the lives of two saints, St John the Baptist and St Stephen. One of his great talents was the fact that he could unify a polyptich in such a way as to make it appear as if it was a single painting. Which, in effect, it was. The works in Spoleto are said to be just as magnificent as the Prato works, but as Lippi passed away while working in Spoleto, they owe a lot to Lippi's workshop companions, such as his son Filippino Lippi, and other assistants who were his students.
Fra Filippo Lippi's Lasting Legacy
This was the most unspiritual friar ever, with his feet firmly on the earth and a love of the pleasures of the flesh. He didn't seem to be troubled with a conscience. Yet his body of work was inspired. His Madonnas, saints and Biblical figures are admired even in the modern world, 600 years after the quattrocento period in which he lived. This painter had true genius - his unspiritual and turbulent life didn't stop him from visualising the sublime and the divine. As if his professional side took over while painting and his talent was a gift from some other realm.
It is true to say that his work was truly a labour of love, because he put such hard work and effort into producing his beautiful paintings. His son, Filippino Lippi carried on that tradition, bringing beautiful visions before the public, bringing images to a people who had no access to photography. Fra Filippo Lippi passed on his legacy not only to his son, but to his students also. The world of religious art is a richer place for this friar having been in it.