Sunday, April 17, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 16 ~ Beato Angelico

Years ago, when I was an undergraduate earning a physics degree, I had a rare elective on my slate and I decided to fill it with a course on medieval art. I don't know that I could have articulated to anyone at the time why, of all the courses I might have chosen, I chose that one, but in retrospect I see it as an initial step into the beauty and mystery that eventually led me to the Catholic Church. I remember sitting in the dark classroom looking at a wall-sized screen onto which painting after painting of the Virgin and Child were projected -- the same figures, the same postures, the same clothing, even the same foldings in the clothing! -- and feeling, against the odds, that there was something there for me. I finished that course with the seeds of a love of medieval art planted in my heart, a love that has never ceased to grow, and one of its flowers has been a love for Fra Angelico.

Technically, Angelico is not a saint -- not officially recognized as one by the Church -- but only a Blessed. Nonetheless, I believe he warrants inclusion in this series on saints, mostly because when I suggested him Janet didn't say no.

There is relatively little surviving written evidence about the life of Fra Angelico. Instead, we have his paintings. I suppose it is a matter for debate how much a man's art can tell you about his inner life -- I think of Ralph Vaughan Williams as a counterexample to the idea that it's easy to draw out the latter from the former -- but, not having other options, in this post we'll look admiringly at a few of Angelico's paintings.

Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro, in the small Tuscan town of Vicchio, most likely in the last decade of the fourteenth century. About his early life we know little. In about 1425, when he was likely in his late 20s or early 30s, he moved to Fiesole, just on the outskirts of Florence, and joined the Dominicans, taking the religious name Giovanni.

He was already an accomplished painter at this time. His extraordinary Annunciation, which resides today at the Prado in Madrid, dates to within a few years of his entry into the Order. Following a well-established iconographic tradition, the painting depicts the Blessed Virgin giving her consent to the angel, while in the background, in the garden, we see Adam and Eve evicted after the Fall. Mary, the new Eve, undoes by her obedience the damage wrought by the disobedience of the old Eve, or, as the medieval writers liked to say, the 'Ave' reverses the 'Eva'. It's a wonderful painting, full of luminous colours. 

A personal favourite of mine is his Coronation of the Virgin, which he painted for the Dominicans of Fiesole about a decade after joining the community. Today, on account of the redistribution of goods occasioned by the Napoleonic wars, it is found in the Louvre. In his Life of Fra Angelico, Giorgio Vasari singled this painting out for special praise, saying it "gave supreme proof of his talent". Here is the painting:

Vasari describes it this way:
[In it] Jesus Christ is crowning Our Lady in the midst of a choir of angels and among an infinite multitude of saints, both male and female, so many in number, so well wrought, and with such variety in the attitudes and in the expressions of the heads, that incredible pleasure and sweetness are felt in gazing at them; nay, one is persuaded that those blessed spirits cannot look otherwise in Heaven, or, to speak more exactly, could not if they had bodies; for not only are all these saints, both male and female, full of life and sweet and delicate in expression, but the whole colouring of that work appears to be by the hand of a saint or an angel like themselves; wherefore it was with very good reason that this excellent monk was ever called Fra Giovanni Angelico.

He exaggerates a little -- the number of saints is certainly less than infinite -- but I can understand his enthusiasm. 

At around the same time, he painted a Last Judgment, a large-scale work that includes all of the usual elements in a medieval judgment scene: Christ in glory, with the blessed on his right and the damned on his left. I bristle a little at the common view that the damned are usually the more interesting -- what with the pitchforks and the molten metal and the various forms of torture on display -- but I will grudgingly admit that it is, in many cases, true. It is no doubt preferable to feel a beatific glow of happiness, but it is not always preferable to look at someone else feeling a beatific glow of happiness. This is why this painting by Angelico is so dear to my heart, for the eye is drawn to the garden of the blessed where the angels and the saints dance a lilting circular dance, the very picture of grace and delight, as glory streams from the entrance to the celestial city. When I think of Angelico, it is this that usually comes to mind first:

He returned to the theme of the Annunciation for an altarpiece commission in Cortona. (I believe that he painted this scene five times.) [See all five here. jtc] This is truly one of his most magnificent achievements: the composition is, in its essential elements, the same as the one we saw above -- we again see the scene set in an enclosed garden (a symbol of virginity), with the expulsion from Eden in the top left, and Our Lady discovered at prayer -- but it glows with a special beauty. Also notable is that Angelico has written the words of the angel's greeting in a streaming line from his mouth, and her answer, upside down and backwards, streaming back to him. I've seen this done in other paintings, but according to my book on Angelico it was original with him. I've always liked it.

You can see, at the bottom of this painting, a series of smaller predella paintings, in this case showing other scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin: her betrothment to Joseph, her visitation to Elizabeth, the adoration of the Magi, the presentation of Jesus in the temple, and her dormition. Many of Angelico's major works have these adjunct predella paintings, and, although I'm not dwelling on them here, they are often of great interest, and beautifully executed.

The locus mirabilis for lovers of Angelico's art is probably the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where, in addition to doing a number of frescoes in the public areas of the monastery, he did a fresco in each brother's cell. Today one can visit the site and walk from room to room, admiring them, but I've often wondered what it would have been like to actually inhabit one of those rooms, living in the constant company of one of these masterpieces of sacred art. Could I have had my pick of rooms, I'd have chosen the one with this scene of the Resurrection, which I look at every Easter:

The last painting I'll mention is his Lamentation, which was made for a confraternity in Florence dedicated to consoling prisoners condemned to death. In the final hours before being executed, prisoners were chained to a spot where they could view the painting. Perhaps it was consoling for them, in some measure, to see such a beautiful picture of holy men and women lamenting over the death of a condemned criminal.

Vasari, writing about a century after Fra Angelico died, gives us some insight into the sort of man he was. We learn, for instance, that at one point the Pope offered to make him the Archbishop of Florence, but that he refused "for the reason that he did not feel himself fitted for ruling others", a refusal that in Vasari's mind made him a model for church leadership:
Let the churchmen of our own times learn from this holy man not to take upon themselves charges that they cannot worthily carry out, and to yield them to those who are most worthy of them. Would to God, to return to Fra Giovanni (and may this be said without offence to the upright among them), that adll churchmen would spend their time as did this truly angelic father, seeing that he spent every minute of his life in the service of God and in benefiting both the world and his neighbour.
Vasari also tells us that he was reputed to be both a friend of poverty and of the poor:
He shunned the affairs of the world; and, living a pure and holy life, he was as much the friend of the poor as I believe his soul to be now the friend of Heaven. He was continually labouring at his painting, and he would never paint anything save Saints. He might have been rich, but to this he gave no thought; nay, he used to say that true riches consist only in being content with little. He might have ruled many, but he would not, saying that it was less fatiguing and less misleading to obey others. He had the option of obtaining dignities both among the friars and in the world, but he despised them, declaring that he sought no other dignity save that of seeking to avoid Hell and draw near to Paradise.
Late in life he was called to Rome to paint for the Popes, and he died in Santa Maria sopra Minerva on 18 February 1455. Originally he was interred in that church's Thomas Aquinas chapel, as was fitting for a son of the Dominican Order, but he was later moved to a position just to the left of the main altar (beneath which lies St Catherine of Siena), where a modest monument was erected to mark the place. I discovered his tomb on my first visit to Rome back in 2001, and I have returned to the spot to honour him each time I have been to the city. In my experience, there are always fresh flowers there.

Fra Giovanni was called 'Angelico' soon after his death, and the title has stuck. In fact, it is more than just an enthusiastic rhetorical flourish, for he was called pictor angelicus on analogy with Aquinas' title doctor angelicus, a recognition of his preeminent place in the Dominican Order, and indeed in the Church. He was also called 'Beato Angelico' beginning shortly after his death, but only in 1982 did Pope St John Paul II make the designation official, and the same pontiff named him the universal patron of all artists in 1984. This title is a source of joy to me.

A man may be a saint and be completely unknown to history. Being a great artist, even a great maker of sacred art, doesn't in itself move one any closer to being a saint. This is the work of grace, and is hidden from outsiders. I can only say that for me, in my own spiritual life, as I try myself to cooperate with that hidden work of grace, the art of Beato Angelico has been a consolation and an encouragement, for it has given me a vision of that glory toward which I aspire. Perhaps he would now say, like St Thomas, that his work is as straw compared to the true glory he has seen, but for those of us still on the way, his work is enriching fare for the journey. I am thankful for it.

-- Craig Burrell blogs at All Manner of Thing and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.


  1. Third attempt to comment. Not sure why the system has suddenly taken against me again.

    It was about the Cortona Annunciation (which I had the joy of seeing a few years ago) - but I can't remember what any more after all the fuss with the comments system!

    1. Well, I hope you remember and are more successful next time.


  2. I remember going to San Marco as a college student, back when I was overwhelmed with too much to see and document. It was such a gift to return there a few years ago with lots of time and no checklist for a teacher's requirements--to simply linger there and look and soak it in. What I remember most is the sense of light--a soul-stirring experience of light and color--that came from his work there. (And my disappointment that, of course, I could not take pictures....) Thank you for this lovely post.

  3. There's something remarkably luminous about his work.

    I wanted to ask something about the upside down / back-to-front writing, but I can't seem to formulate the question any more. It's very frustrating.

    1. That's the way Mary's answer is on the Ghent altarpiece also, and I'm betting it was widely used. I always figured it was that way so God could read it.


  4. Gosh - when I comment in Chrome there's a step less in proving I'm not a robot than in Firefox. In Safari it just won't let me comment at all.

    1. Well, Chrome and Blogger are the same company, so they are more likely to be compatible.


  5. Those are wonderful, Craig! I am happy that you signed up for that medieval art course, and that Janet did not say no.