When you entered the rear door of Rome’s Gothic church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, you used to see a gravestone set into the floor, bearing the ancient sculptured relief of an elderly Dominican friar. This was Fra Angelico, the Dominican priest who, in the 15th century, had become one of Italy’s most noted painters.
Even those artists who deal with sacred subjects are not usually saints and are rarely priests. Fra Angelico was an influential and talented painter who by choice painted only holy subjects, and made practically his whole priestly career one of preaching visually through line and color.
His baptismal name was Guido da Vicchio, and he hailed from Mugello in Tuscany. At age 20, Guido entered the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) at their house at Fiesole just outside Florence, taking the religious name Giovanni (John). Entering on the same date was Fra Benedetto, supposedly Giovanni’s brother. Both had artistic talents, and they first honored their skills in lettering and illustrating books and manuscripts.
Not much is known in detail about Giovanni’s retiring life, but his sojourn in the convent of Fiesole did not remain undisturbed. These were the days of the so-called “Great Schism of the West”, when three bishops were claiming to be pope. Because the Dominicans of Fiesole sided with Gregory XII, the legitimate pope in Rome, the da Vicchio brothers were obliged in 1409 to escape their enemies by taking flight to their convent in Foligno. The outbreak of plague at Foligno five years later prompted the friars to transfer to the Dominican convent of Cortona. Only in 1418 were Giovanni and Benedetto able to return to Fiesole. Meanwhile, Fra Giovanni had been working at his trade, notably improving his pictorial style. He had apparently educated himself in the skills of the Byzantine tradition and then learned much more from the contemporary artists of the Sienese School. Thus, in his turn, he played an important part in the development of the early Italian Renaissance painting of the “Quattrocento.”
The best-known body of Angelico’s work is the series of fresco paintings he and his pupils executed in the Convent of St. Mark, Florence (now a “Fra Angelico Museum”). Here one finds his familiar “Annunciation”, his “Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalen”, his “Crucifixion with Thieves”, and his “Madonna Enthroned with Saints.”
Each friar’s cell was provided with its own masterpiece painted on the wall. Angelico drew well the human face and figure. What is most interesting about the persons he depicts is that their faces have a gentle, otherworldly religious quality. (When he tried to portray sinners, he had great difficulty. He just didn’t know how.) Those he painted are pictured as suffused in light. His landscapes are paved with rich grasses and flowers. He never painted deep shadows–only a heavenly brightness. It is said that he began his artistic work each time with a prayer, and this rumor is entirely plausible.
Fra Angelico turned out many other paintings, especially in his last ten years. Some were mural works in other Italian cities; some were small framed pictures that have easily found their way into the leading galleries of the world. The friar’s last commission was in the Vatican. Engaged by Pope Nicholas V to paint scenes in the life of SS. Stephen and Lawrence in a small chapel of the Vatican palace, he demonstrated by his work that he had reached the peak of his skill. It was while living in Rome that Friar John died and was laid to rest, as we have said, in the Dominican Fathers’ church of the Minerva.
Long revered among the Dominicans, he was commonly referred to as “Blessed Angelico”, although that was his nickname and he had never been formally beatified. On October 3, 1983, Pope John Paul II, praising the “heavenly” traits of this great artist’s pictures, solemnly declared that, by reason of his longstanding veneration, he merited to be considered “equivalently beatified.” Since 1983, therefore, Fra Giovanni of Fiesole is officially “Blessed Angelico.” His feastday in the Dominican Calendar is February 18.
–Father Robert F. McNamara