Are you ready for a deeply strange and problematic painting of tremendous beauty? This is “The Thebaid” a masterpiece from Florence in the very early 13th century (it was probably completed in 1410 AD). For centuries, art historians have argued over who painted this epic monastic landscape. For a long time it was believed the painting was by the enigmatic Jacopo Starnina. Then, for many years, art experts thought the painting was by Lorenzo Monaco, a gothic painter who moved to Florence from Sienna and excelled at painting brilliantly colored saints (although he eschewed the great artistic innovations of his time—such as perspective and painting from life). Finally, historical consensus has settled on none other than the matchless Fra Angelico as the painter–which seems fitting since this work is so thoroughly a celebration of monastic life (Fra Angelico was a friar…although so was Lorenzo Monaco). Fra Angelico is famous for bridging the styles of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. With its angular mountains, stylized churches, and gilded sailing ships, “The Thebaid” is appropriately gothic and old fashioned to be one of his early works. Yet it also has the first flowering of the flowing rhythm and deliquescent grace which have made Fra Angelico such a famous name in art.
Whoever painted it, the painting is a mythological depiction of the Egyptian desert in the Fifth Century AD—a time and place synonymous with hermits and monasticism. The story goes that Saint Horus, an early Christian ascetic, wandered into the desert outside of Thebes to live as a hermit. Although initially illiterate, Horus learned the Holy scriptures on his own (or through divine intervention). So many devout men were inspired by his life of solitude, renunciation, and piety that they too moved into the empty desert. Thus a thriving community of monastics gathered around the famous anchorite. The one became many and the once barren desert became a verdant model for monasticism.
The picture is certainly a celebration of the cloistered life which a Florentine monk would have known. The architecture, dress, and agricultural equipment is of the same era as the painter. Yet the painting also has a timelessness befitting the subject. Within the narrative flow of a community of monks assembling, one can discern beautiful humanizing details such as the infirm elderly monk being carried on a dais by his brothers or the monk in the center preaching to a black dog. Indeed animals abound within this work and one of the monks seems to be riding a deer while another rides a chariot pulled by lions. There is a lot going on in this magic gathering of holy men communing with nature!