Brother John

Tomorrow is the 565th anniversary of the death of the Early Renaissance artist Fra Angelico*.

He was born (c. 1395) Guido di Pietro and grew up in the Rupecanina neighborhood of Vicchio, a town within the Republic of Florence. We don’t know who taught him (or his brother, Benedetto) the craft of painting and manuscript illumination (Benedetto’s specialty). But Guido was already a well-established artist by the time he entered the Dominican monastery in nearby Fiesole sometime in the 1420s, at which point he took the religious name Fra Giovanni, i.e. Brother John.

Only after his death would he become, as the Martyrologium Romanum has it, “Blessed Giovanni of Fiesole, surnamed ‘the Angelic,’” thus Fra Angelico, angelic brother. Even to secular art historians, he is Pictor Angelicus, akin to that earlier Dominican, the Doctor Angelicus, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Note that “Blessed.” Brother Giovanni was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 1982. His cause will not advance, of course, unless people offer prayers to him and his intercession results in miracles. But his piety was such that, even as he lived, he was known by the sobriquet, angelic. St. John Paul also declared Fra Angelico the patron of Catholic artists in 1984.

When New York’s Metropolitan Museum mounted an exhibition of his work in 2005, it gathered in the painter’s work from some sixty museums and private collections, which – unsurprisingly – did not include any frescoes. And as the MET’s director wrote at the time, new research into the man and his work has tempered the pious image of Fra Angelico as merely “a saintly friar who never picked up his brushes without praying first.” Angelico, you see, was “a competitive intellect and active participant in the cultural revolution of early-fifteenth-century Florence.” No doubt. But this does not mean he wasn’t devoutly Christian. Wise as a serpent he may have been (in Church politics, artistic trends, and even Renaissance economics), but he was gentle as a dove too.

In 1436, a group of the Fiesole Dominicans relocated to the convent of San Marco in Florence, recently renovated by the architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi, and Fra Giovanni was put to work decorating the monastery, which he did with some of the greatest brushwork of the Early Renaissance. He also took commissions in Rome (see the Vatican’s Niccoline Chapel) and elsewhere, leaving behind a legacy nearly unequaled in the patrimony of Catholic art.

As St. John Paul wrote:

Angelico was reported to say, “He who does Christ’s work must stay with Christ always.” This motto earned him the epithet “Blessed Angelico,” because of the perfect integrity of his life and the almost divine beauty of the images he painted, to a superlative extent those of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The most famous among his Marian paintings is the Annunciation fresco, painted on one of the walls surrounding the cloister at San Marco and about which artist James Patrick Reid wrote so beautifully here several years ago. As Mr. Reid notes: “A great painting reflects divine providence. As nothing escapes the divine governance of creation, so nothing in the painting escapes the artist’s mastery; nothing is merely incidental.”

In his The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (published in two editions, 1550 and 1568, and reprinted many times since), Giorgio Vasari wrote that the figure of Gabriel in the Annunciation is “so devout, delicate, and well-drawn that it looks not like the work of a mortal hand, but as if it had been painted in Paradise. . . .[H]ence most rightly was this good Monk ever called Frate Giovanni Angelico.”

And one sees this in nearly everything Fra Angelico painted – I’m hedging only because I’ve not seen his entire corpus – and you see it especially in two other works, both now at his former monastery, now the Museo Nazionale di San Marco: Deposition from the Cross (above) and The Last Judgment (below).

The magnificent Deposition was actually begun as a triptych for the Strozzi Chapel at Santa Trinità in Florence by painter Lorenzo Monaco, who died (c.1425) after finishing only the pinnacles above the three arches. A full decade passed before Fra Angelico took on the task of finishing the work. Triptychs have three panels, each of which typically presents distinct but related scenes. Angelico took his Deposition in a different direction, creating a crowded tableau in which the entire work shows a single panorama.

As was often the case in art created in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – eras without much historiography and no archaeology – the people and the place depicted were contemporary to 15th-century Italy.

This link will take you to the Wikipedia article about Angelico’s The Last Judgment. I love his Deposition from the Cross, but The Last Judgment is possibly an even more marvelous composition. The image at the top right of the Wikipedia entry is expandable several times by clicking and allows careful examination (and I urge you to look) of the detail the artist put into the painting (on a wooden panel), including the horror of those (including clerics) driven by demons through the gates of Hell, but also the prayerful, joyful community of the saved, embracing and holding hands, “their faces radiant with the love of God.”

But, honestly, to contemplate the faces of those descending into the abyss is truly to feel terror at the prospect. Some seem to shield their eyes, others to chew on their hands and figures, still others press their palms against their ears, hoping to drown out the din of the wailing tormented. Some are being dragged, while others seem simply to be sliding to their doom. It’s all panicky regret. If there is a shred of hope in any of them, it’s about to be extinguished. Forever. And they know it.

Fra Angelico captured all this because he was guided by the Holy Spirit.


*The image below, from the center of Deposition from the Cross, is thought by some to be a self-portrait. (Others believe it’s Fra Angelico’s friend, the aforementioned architect Michelozzo.)

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.