Exercise #4 – Answers

The Miracle of the Black Leg (1438-1440) by Fra Angelico (c. 1387-1455), Monastery of San Marco, Florence, Italy; Tempera on panel

Q.1 Describe what you see in this painting.

A. The painting shows a man lying asleep in a wooden bed while two saints, distinguished by golden haloes, operate on his right leg by transplanting it at mid-thigh with a black transplant. The patient, wearing a white gown and hat, lies on his right side with arms crossed on two white pillows and bedclothes with a red cloth lying across the upper body. There is no sign of blood or any distress on the patient’s face. The two saints are dressed similarly with red hats and blue, red and white clothing. One is bending over the patient’s left side while the other, in three quarter view from behind, assists from the righthand side on a wooden platform supporting the bed. The front part of a white curtain surrounding the bed has been folded onto a rail which is horizontal to the bed and the picture plane. There is light coming from a small window on the upper left of the picture and an open door on the right reveals a lighted corridor outside the bedroom. A black three-legged stool is placed beneath the window with two shoes beside the bed. A container hangs from a nail at the side of the bed while a glass and decanter are seen on the upper part of the bed.

Q.2 Where might the scene be taking place?

A.2 It is in the bedroom of a small, modestly furnished room. Given the clothing of the figures and the limited items shown, it could be the room of a single religious person. There is no indication that it is a family home.

Q. 3. Can you identify the main sources of light?

A. 3. There is small square window visible on the top left of the painting which shines light onto the reveal as well as the folded curtain left and right and on parts of the unfolded curtain, the side of the bedhead and the patient’s face. There is also a light source to be seen through the open door in the corridor outside of the bedroom. Finally, there is another light source outside of the painting on the front left which throws a broad shaft of diagonal light onto the wall on the right of the painting.

Q. 4 Do you think this is a real scene? Why do you think so?

A.4. The scene is more like a dream given the lack of distress shown by the patient who remains asleep throughout the operation. The scene may represent what he is dreaming. There is no evidence of the reality of such an operation by the lack of any sign of blood on the bedclothes or the saints’ clothing and no surgical instruments are visible. There are also the wisps of cloud around the saints which imply that they have just floated miraculously into the room.


The title tells us that this is the depiction of a miracle. It was described by Jacobus da Voragine in his The Golden Legend (1275) and was the subject of numerous paintings thereafter. The scene takes place in a room similar to that of the Monastery of San Marco where Fra Angelico was a friar. Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned the San Marco Altarpiece in 1438 of which this is one of nine predella panels (small painted panels beneath the main altarpiece that relate stories connected to it). It tells the story of the lives of Saints Cosmos and Damian, patron saints of the Medici family.

The twin Christian doctor saints (born in Arabia in the 3rd c.) who were persecuted and executed by Diocletian, are also the patron saints of physicians and surgeons.