Dominican Saints 101: Bl. John of Fiesole (Fra Angelico)
February 18, 2012
No one could paint like that without first having been to heaven.
These words of St. Antoninus well describe Bl. John of Fiesole (Fra Angelico) (1386-1455, feast – Feb. 18, patron saint of artists). He was formed in an atmosphere of deep prayer and contemplation. It in this combination of contemplation and painting that we see the reality behind Fra Angelico’s sanctity. Bl. Angelico entered the Dominicans during the time of the reform movement. Some of the friars wished to live a more austere Dominican life, and so they were allowed to live together in certain priories set aside for this purpose. Fra Angelico was one such friar. He entered into the priory in Fiesole with his brother Benedetto at the time when St. Antoninus and Blesseds John Dominici, Peter Capucci, and Lawrence of Ripafratta were also living there. It was in this atmosphere of rigorous observance of the religious life and amongst men of great sanctity that Angelico came to his own intimate prayer life. Already a well trained artist, he once again took up his paintbrush, but with an even deeper reality behind his canvas. This life of a profound and intimate relationship with the Lord, the Blessed Mother, and the saints aided Bl. Angelico to see all that he painted from a unique perspective. Not only did he refuse to use living models to paint the Blessed Mother (in his day, models were often beautiful women of ill repute), but he even painted his frescoes on wet plaster with clay colors, which meant that he wouldn’t be able to see how the colors interacted until they dried. Yet, none of these “practical” characteristics affected Fra Angelico more than his contemplative prayer. He is said to have done with art what St. Thomas Aquinas did with the Summa Theologica: convey the beauty of Truth. In this way, his art became not only an example of great skill, but it also became an instrument for preaching Truth. One might wonder whether Bl. Angelico was beatified because of the beauty of his art or the holiness of his life. In his Apostolic Letter declaring Fra Angelico a Blessed, Bl. Pope John Paul II has this to say:
His painting was the fruit of the great harmony between a holy life and the creative power with which he had been endowed.
In other words, his preaching stemmed from a life of holiness and the best use of his God-given talents. May we too imitate Bl. Angelico and allow the Lord to transform our prayer life so that it might manifest a beautiful and truthful proclamation of the Gospel. O God, in your providence you inspired blessed Fra Angelico to portray the beauty and sweetness of heaven. By his prayers and the example of his virtues, grant that we may manifest this splendor to our brothers and sisters. Through Christ our Lord.