Born Guido di Piero, the artist known as Fra Angelico acquired his nickname not long after his death, when he was referred to as “Angelicus” by a fellow Dominican monk for his pious life and artworks. He was already an established painter and illuminator of manuscripts in Florence when he entered the Observant Dominican Order as Fra Giovanni sometime between 1418 and 1423.
The subject of the picture is taken from the thirteenth-century Golden Legend, which relates how Saint James the Greater ordered the Christian convert Philetus to free the repentant magician Hermogenes, who had been bound by the very devils he sent to vanquish Saint James. A haloed Saint James taps Philetus with his staff, empowering him to unloose the cords of Hermogenes, metaphorically absolving his sins.
This painting originally formed part of the predella of a dismantled altarpiece. Recently, the Pontassieve Madonna (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) has been proposed as its central panel. The four other extant predella panels are devoted to the lives of the Virgin and various saints. Using rational perspective and lighting, Fra Angelico was among the first Florentine artists to adopt the younger artist Masaccio’s pictorial innovations.
The panel is exceptionally well preserved. The refinement of Fra Angelico’s technique is apparent in his use of pure pigments, such as vermilion and lapis lazuli, and in his masterful use of gilding in the decorative borders of the drapery.