Fra Angelico: The Saint Thomas of Artistic Painting

In the cloistered silence of St. Mark’s Convent, perched on a scaffolding and whispering prayers, a friar traces drawings on the wall with a steady hand and paints them with tints of breathtaking colour.

Newsroom (21/02/2022 09:30, Gaudium Press) His right hand configures Angels, Madonnas, Saints and biblical characters, composing scenes that edify and arouse admiration.

His confreres cannot ignore the value of his inspiration, nor of his predilection for Angels, whom he can paint with perfection. For this reason, they affectionately call him by the nickname with which he would go down in history: Fra Angelico.

Religious and artistic vocation

Guido di Pietro Trosini – that was his name before he entered the religious life – was born in the farming village of Vicchio di Mugello, near the capital of Tuscany.

The chronology of the venerated painter is rather uncertain due to the scarcity of documentary sources, which is why scholars place his birth between the years of 1387 and 1400.

His childhood was spent in his native town, and at a certain point in his youth he moved with his family to Florence. Before his twentieth birthday, he enrolled in the artistic workshop of the Company of St. Nicholas, where he soon learned the secrets of illumination and painting on canvas from the famous Lorenzo Monaco.

Along with his artistic inclination, his religious vocation soon revealed itself, which he clearly felt during a sermon given by Blessed John Dominici in the Church of Santa Maria Novella.

Shortly after this sermon, he went to the Convent of St. Dominic in Fiesole, asking to be admitted. He took his brother Benedict with him, and both were welcomed with jubilation by the community.

Having a fond memory of John Dominici, he also wished to be called John in the consecrated life, and in this convent he experienced the springtime joys that usually fill the soul of the novices.

The charism of the Order projected onto canvas

Years of philosophical and theological studies followed, which would make of him a profound connoisseur of Christian doctrine, an ardent Thomist, and a priest of solid piety.

During this period the prior of the monastery, the future Archbishop of Florence, St. Antoninus, had an intuition, certainly inspired from on high, when he realized that Friar John’s artistic talents were an effective aid in preaching the Word of God.

He encouraged him to project onto canvas the richness of the charism of his Order. And Friar John knew how to do it better than anyone else.

Indeed, Fra Angelico’s existence and all his artistic work are rooted in Dominican spirituality. Convinced that the same breath of the Holy Spirit that animated the brothers in the pulpit should drive his brush, he embraced the ideal of preaching through images, as the others did through words.

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In the harmonious alternation between the obligations of community life and the apostolate through art, the work developed by the friar painter was very broad and fruitful. It can usually be divided into three main phases, relating to the years spent in the cities where he lived: Fiesole, Florence, and Rome.

The first years in Fiesole

The Fiesolean period (1420-1438) is the most extensive. The significant list of works completed in these eighteen years ranges from commissions for famous churches, and for the Dominican convent itself, to requests from wealthy families wishing to decorate the chapels of their palaces with splendour.

Among the most important works of this period are The Descent from the Cross, made in collaboration with the master Lorenzo Monaco, which today is in the Museum of San Marco in Florence; The Annunciation, kept in the Prado Museum in Madrid; and The Coronation of the Virgin, currently in the Louvre, in Paris.

Fra Angelico was three times prior of the Dominican convent of Fiesole, which was founded by Blessed John Dominici with the express purpose of promoting the reform of the Order encouraged by St. Catherine of Siena.

His work, therefore, whether as religious Superior or painter, tended to value the essence of Dominican spirituality, the observance of the Rule, and contained a note of austerity that would never be absent from his compositions.

Even in canvases of great magnificence, where gold and palatial surroundings abound, the characters remain sober, unpretentious and oblivious to material attractions.

Fiesole, however, represents only the first stage of Friar John’s journey, and certainly the one he would have the fondest memories of.

The Lord had other and greater plans for him, plans that were no longer to be fulfilled in the seclusion of a small Tuscan village, but in the turbulent heart of the City of the Red Lily.

The frescos of the Convent of St. Mark

To speak of Florence at the time when Angelico lived there leads, sooner or later, to the Medici family. And it also crossed through the life of our Blessed and of the Dominican community when one of its leaders, the powerful Count Cosimo, insistently asked Pope Eugene IV to entrust to these virtuous friars a certain abandoned convent, with the aim of revitalizing a space that seemed to him very useful.

The Pontiff agreed and in 1438 several friars of that order arrived from nearby Fiesole to begin the work of reconstruction and to establish in Florence a spiritual reform that was sorely needed. Fra Angelico was among them.

 Little remains of the old convent – rebuilt under the patronage of Cosimo de Medici – except the name of St. Mark. As the new walls were being completed, they became a field of action for the friar painter.

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Dazzled by the gifts of the young artist, the potentate was prepared to finance the not insignificant material expenses of the frescoes; and since giving alms did not cost him any financial sacrifice, Friar John was able to complete a magnificent work without difficulty.

Fra Angelico’s Florentine period (1439-1445) was entirely devoted to the painting of the Convent of St. Mark, which constitutes his magnum opus and the greatest treasure he left us.

Even the Supreme Pontiff came for the dedication of the convent church, and was amazed when he visited the friars’ cells, which were all decorated with magnificent mural paintings depicting scenes from the Gospel.

Astonished at such talent, Pope Eugenius IV summoned Friar John to embellish the Vatican.

In Rome, summoned by the Pope

Thus began the Roman period (1445-1455), interspersed with a three-year stay (1450-1452) in his beloved Fiesole and a few short stays in Orvieto.

We owe to his incomparable genius several works in the Apostolic Palace, such as the frescoes in the Nicoline Chapel – so called in honour of Eugenius IV’s successor – depicting the lives of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence and constituting one of the greatest treasures of the Vatican Museums.

Unfortunately, the paintings in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and in the office of the Supreme Pontiff were torn down in the 16th century.

Fra Angelico was preparing to adorn the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, adjacent to the convent in which he resided in Rome, when the Lord called him to Himself on 18 February 1455.

His death was as serene as his life, and his contemporaries not only praised his paintings and frescoes but also appreciated his virtue, to the point of inscribing on the painter’s tombstone: “He deserved glory more for his charity than for his art“.

To contemplate his painting is, in short, to receive a high and sublime lesson of the Catholic spirit, in which we discover a representation of the human race that is perhaps far from what it is, but very close to what it should be.

Medieval soul in the middle of the Renaissance

Like a rosebud which, when cut from the rose bush still gracefully opens its petals far from the roots, it can be said that the Blessed of Fiesole possessed a medieval soul when the Middle Ages had already ended.

Indeed, one does not see in his diaphanous paintings that exaltation of the human element which was characteristic of the Renaissance notables, much less the intemperance with which they sought to express at all costs, in unassuming works, very intense earthly pleasures that produced both delights and lacerations.

No, Fra Angelico did not share this spirit, because his union with God made him understand that man is great only when he is humble, and that every human joy must reflect the supernatural joy that comes from the state of grace and a virtuous life.

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A prodigious and daring technique

On the other hand – and here the paradox highlights his genius even more – Fra Angelico was at the forefront of all the pictorial progress achieved up to that time: “He was not insensitive to the great artistic innovations and to all that was happening outside the monastery walls. He drew in perspective with more quality than all the other followers of Giotto, and even dressed his Angels beautifully according to the patterns of the famous fabrics produced in Siena.

Those who study his paintings find traces of a growing assimilation of the stylistic innovations of the time.

Several of his paintings are masterpieces of the Early Renaissance and largely influenced subsequent generations of painters, as they embody the best that had been achieved so far. The Last Judgement, a fresco in the Convent of St. Mark, boasts prodigious technique and is the most daring work in perspective of the period. His privileged ability to express religious sentiments is also taken as a point of reference.

We should also mention the beauty of the paints, made in circumstances quite different from today’s, which are abundant in technological resources. Products of Angélico’s ingenuity, they present a ravishing chromatic variety, used with boldness and good taste. His predilection for the blue is manifest, and he knows how to explore it in its various shades. The raw material of this paint was lapis lazuli, a very rare and valuable element in that region, and ennobled even more by the unique use that the artist knew how to put it to.

The Saint Thomas of painting

If he had not been a Dominican“, Fra Angelico “would not have been the artist he was”.

The consonance between the paintings of Fra Angelico and the thought of the Angelic Doctor is really palpable, to the point that one can say that the former transposed into the artistic field the doctrine of the latter. This reversibility, a marvelous synthesis of Christian spirit, earned Br. John of Fiesole the title of the St. Thomas of painting, since the painter achieved, in his specific field of activity, a genius similar to that of the theologian.

Today, almost six centuries after Fra Angelico’s departure for Heaven, the best way to know him is still to contemplate his canvases and frescoes and to perceive in these artistic works the levity of his faith, the innocence of his soul and the purity of a heart that loved God above all things.

Text taken, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 112, April 2011. By Sr. Carmela Werner Ferreira, EP

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

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