Bl John of Fiesole OP (Fra Angelico)
Feast Day: 18th February
According to the contemporaries of Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, popularly known as “Fra Angelico”, he often used to say- “Whoever does the work of Christ should always remain with Christ!”.
While this saying of his can certainly be said to summarize Fra Angelico’s life of Preaching though his art as a Dominican friar, it also sums up the task of Dominicans in general, and is similar to the Dominican motto “Contemplata aliis tradere”- “to hand on to others the fruits of one’s contemplation”. For if a dominican is to do the “work of Christ”, he must remain with Christ in prayer and study, in order to be able to carry out the “work of Christ”, which for us is to Preach the Word of God.
But Fra Angelico is speaking to everyone, not just Dominicans! For all of us are called upon to do “the work of Christ” in the reality of our own lives, and to pursue the vocation God has chosen for us. Within Fra Angelico’s vocation to be a Dominican priest, he had a “vocation”, to preach through sacred art. Before he even entered the Dominican Order at Fiesole around 1420, he was a naturally talented artist, working under the name of Guido di Pietro, his baptismal name.
God used Fra Angelico’s natural talents as an artist, to do the work of God. Fra Angelico would move to Florence and live there from 1436- 1445, until he was summoned to Rome by the Pope to do more sacred art there until his death in 1455. God built on the nature he gave to Fra Angelico, and perfected it over his lifetime. What St Thomas says is apt here: “Grace perfects nature”. If we “remain with Christ”, he will give us the grace that we need to do His work. In doing his work, God will use the gifts he gave us, and bring them to perfection through His grace.
But Fra Angelico speaks to us, first and foremost, through his art. In his art, we can see something of His inner life. Looking at the works of Fra Angelico we see a soul utterly transfigured by its encounter with divine Truth and Beauty. Beauty is the form of the Good it is said. In our world today, where even the very notion of there being a “Truth” or “Beauty” or “Goodness” are called into question, Fra Angelico’s sacred art is more important than it ever was, because it points towards He who is Himself Eternal Truth and Goodness.
In His ‘letter to Artists’ promulgated on the 8th of December, 1965, at the close of the Second Vatican Council, His Holiness Pope Paul VI writes “This world…in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration!”
The sacred art of Fra Angelico draws us to adoration, to prayer, to love of God and to admiration. It lifts us up to the things of God and dispels despair. As we go about our days, let us remember the sacred art of Fra Angelico, and the Inifine Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that his paintings strive towards, and be inspired to strive towards them ourselves.