When I used to give tours at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, The Adoration of the Magi by Fra Angelico was a must-see stop.
I have always loved this painting by the celebrated fifteenth-century Dominican friar, and I enjoyed sharing it with visitors to the gallery. I’ll never forget the time that one visitor excitedly took over the tour when we stopped at this painting. She couldn’t wait to tell the group how much Fra Angelico had meant to her.
Later, she explained to me that she had left the Catholic Church in her thirties. Rather than attend Mass on Sundays, she began to visit the museum, where she could ponder the gallery’s many fine examples of Christian art. The exquisite beauty and deep faith expressed in the paintings of Fra Angelico stood out for her. Slowly but surely, his work touched her heart deeply enough that it inspired her to return to the Church.
In 1982, Pope John Paul II declared Fra Angelico “blessed.” Two years later, he named him “patron of artists.” Perhaps it’s because of how faith animated this friar’s art and how his paintings serve as tools for evangelization then and now. That makes sense to me, because Fra Angelico’s paintings evoke profound spiritual truths. What’s more, with a bit of context, these paintings can also reveal how the gospel touched his heart.
Faith Intersects with Art. Much of what we know about Fra Ange-lico comes from Giorgio Vasari, a renowned biographer of Renaissance artists. Angelico was born and given the name of Guido di Piero around 1390. He grew up near the small town of Fiesole on the outskirts of Florence, Italy. His older brother, Benedetto, was a gifted manuscript illuminator, and it’s likely that the brothers received their artistic training together. Little else is known about their family, although some historians guess they became orphans at a young age.
Around 1423, Guido entered the Dominican community at his hometown of Fiesole, taking the name Fra Giovanni (Friar John). Life with the Dominicans was simple and devout. Day after day, he heard the Scriptures proclaimed at Mass, prayed in the rhythm of the Divine Office, and contemplated in sacred reading and study. By all accounts, it suited him. Although his extraordinary artistic talent set him apart in some ways, Fra Giovanni’s brother friars found him to be a gentle and pleasant person.
Giovanni’s art, however, was bold and intense. It was as if he had a personal encounter with Jesus and then painted the prayerful visions he was having. Perhaps this is what makes him stand out among the Renaissance artists. Faith and art came together in his life in a unique way.
To Paint the Spiritual Life. Fra Giovanni’s Dominican brothers noticed how deeply invested he was in the spiritual themes he was painting. They would see him deep in prayer before he took up his brushes. Painting was more than an occupation for him; it was meditation. When he painted the Lord’s crucifixion, for instance, tears of love and gratitude streamed down his face.
Eventually, Giovanni’s sincerity and deep spirituality earned him a reputation. His brother friars began to call him Fra Giovanni Angelico, or the “Angelic One.” Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, says he imagines that Angelico’s subjects “must appear in heaven just as [he] painted them.” He goes on to say that the rich colors rendered could be the work of one of the angels or saints.
Although Vasari exaggerates, Fra Angelico did tell his Dominican brothers that anyone who occupies himself with the things of Christ should cling to Christ. So if someone is trying to portray spiritual images, he needs to be immersed in the spiritual life. Angelico’s motto echoed this simple yet profound truth: “To paint the things of Christ, one must live with Christ.” For years, Ange-lico did just that, painting, praying, and living out of the way, in Fiesole.
A Visual Homily. A new chapter in Angelico’s life began when his Dominican community moved to the Convent of San Marco in Florence. It was a newly built monastery, and one of Florence’s wealthiest art patrons, Cosimo de Medici, often came there to pray. There was even a small room set aside for the Medicis to make retreats there.
As the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Florence was unequaled in cultural, literary, and artistic achievements. Its wealthiest merchant families, such as the Medicis, paid artists large sums of money to decorate churches, chapels, and altars with elaborate frescoes, paintings, and sculptures. Cosimo de Medici was always looking for promising artists, and he took interest in the arrival of Angelico. Perhaps the friar could decorate the monastery’s walls with his sublime art!
Commissioned by Medici, Fra Angelico began painting spaces in the friars’ cloister, in the corridors of the convent, and in the cell rooms of his brother friars. Each gospel scene he painted became a channel for the friars’ prayer and contemplation. It’s as if he were offering his brothers visual homilies.
For instance, upon seeing the angel Gabriel stand before Mary in the Annunciation, the friar in one cell might have been touched by Mary’s openness to God’s word. Kneeling, she has the Scriptures in her hand as the angel tells her that her child shall be “holy” and be called “the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Fra Angelico seemed to be saying that from obedience to God’s word, the Word of God came to dwell in Mary. What a beautiful sermon to wake up to every day!
Putting Yourself in the Gospel. The Dominican community included lay brothers whose spiritual formation was less intense than the friars’. As a way of directing their meditation more closely, Fra Angelico painted seven scenes of Christ’s crucifixion in the cells along their corridor. He put his own spiritual insights into them, adding and subtracting characters and details to send different messages. The largest and most revealing is in the cell that might have been the lay brothers’ meeting room.
This painting, which is reproduced on the next page, shows two of Angelico’s spiritual fathers, St. Dominic and St. Thomas Aquinas, on Calvary, facing Jesus and the two thieves. From his days as a novice, Angelico had studied St. Dominic’s way of simplicity and poverty and read the writings of Aquinas, one of Dominic’s most influential spiritual sons. The fresco gives a glimpse into the artist’s own meditation: how he imagined these saints’ love for Christ and Christ’s love for them. It’s a personal expression of his heart, placing his spirituality at the feet of Christ.
Angelico depicts St. Dominic (the figure with a star above his head) praising the mercy of God with arms uplifted as Jesus tells the criminal beside him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). St. Thomas kneels in awe, book in hand, as if to acknowledge that all his great philosophical ideas take on their fullest meaning in the crucifixion, where God gives us himself. The beauty of these two saints’ encounter with Jesus doesn’t eclipse the reality of his suffering; blood trickles down the wood of the cross as a painful reminder of that.
It was common for artists in Angelico’s day to paint their wealthy patrons into biblical scenes. But it’s surprising to see an artist putting his spiritual heroes, from different historical moments, into a scene like the crucifixion.
A Path to God. In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis reminds us to “attend to the ‘way of beauty.’” He tells us that proclaiming Christ means showing people that his way is just as beautiful as it is true. Through beauty, God is capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. For this reason, “Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus” (Evangelii Gaudium, 167). Fra Angelico is no exception: he has helped millions of people encounter Jesus through the beauty of his art.
The Renaissance artist Michelangelo so admired Angelico’s work that he carved a statue of the risen Christ for the friar’s tomb, noting that the artist had “gone to meet those he painted.” English art critic John Ruskin said Angelico’s paintings were “not works of art, but visions.” The enthusiastic National Gallery visitor and anyone who takes a moment to contemplate his paintings today would agree wholeheartedly.
Using art as a means of meditating on the gospels is a time-honored way to let the salvation story move us closer to Christ. Today, you don’t have to go to Italy or Washington, DC, to do it. You can go to the nearest library, museum, or computer. There, with the help of Blessed Fra Angelico, you too can join the saints at the foot of the cross.
Jem Sullivan, PhD, is the author of The Beauty of Faith: Art and the Spread of the Gospel (Our Sunday Visitor).