Happy Feast of Bl. John of Fiesole (a.k.a. Fra Angelico)! All Dominican hearts are filled with joy and, yes, familial pride today, as we celebrate the great gifts the Holy Spirit bestowed upon our humble brother, and how magnificently he responded to them. His prior, St. Antoninus, who commissioned John to paint the cells of his brethren at San Marco (imagine living in such surroundings!), says it best, "No one could paint like that without first having been to heaven."
The incomparable Bro. Lawrence Lew, O.P. has posted an exquisite exposition of Fra Angelico in a "triduum" on his blog, Contemplata aliis tradere, which we invite you to read: Part I, Part II, Part III.
The recent exhibit of Fra Angelico's artwork at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City caused much media attention. All his commentators had to acknowledge (some grudgingly, some squirmingly) that , yes, he was a Dominican friar, and, that, yes, his faith and his religious life did inform and transform his art, that his genius was indeed God-given (or, given by some "Higher Power").
One reviewer commented that several of the artworks, especially the altar panels, suffered from being separated from their companion pieces. Despite the beauty and power of the painting, it was obvious to him that something was missing, something was incomplete.
That caused me to think upon one aspect, perhaps forgotten, of Fra Angelico's art. With the exception of the Priory of San Marco (now a museum) and the chapel of Pope Nicholas V, most of his artwork has been removed from his intended (and, yes, natural) setting, from the sacred space of churches and chapels to the "profane" space of museums.
What would our brother think of all this? No doubt he would be more than a bit heartbroken and surprised at where most of his artwork now resided. "San Marco?! A museum?" Yes, we can see him shaking his head... Of course, now enjoying the Beatific Vision, no doubt he is smiling at our incomprehension in the face of the mystery of Divine Providence...
The late Sr. Mary Jean Dorcy, O.P. (in St. Dominic's Family) provides more than a little insight here, "(Fra Angelico) is the best example we have of someone who preaches with a brush as eloquently as his brothers do with voice or pen. Today he still preaches, in places where no other would be heard. Perhaps his mission is still alive, to help bring into the fold those who love art but know nothing of God."
Yes, his mission is still alive. And, I am certain that many hearts are still touched and moved (even converted!), when gazing upon the paintings of Fra Angelico, enjoying the peace and freedom of "(setting their) minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (Col 3, 2)...
We conclude this by sharing a hymn in honor of our artist-brother, composed by our Sr. Mary Rose Dominic of Jesus. For the organists who may be reading this, the hymn tune is Common Meter.
Oh God Most High, Creation's Lord!
Whom Father we acclaim,
We bow in awe before They throne,
To laud and bless Thy name.
They word which called Creation forth,
And set each star in space,
Appoints each soul its destiny,
Its life, its work, its grace.
Oh wondrous grace! that Thou shouldst give
As gift to Man alone,
The record of Thy works to trace
On canvas, wood, or stone.
Such grace was to the blessed John
In fullest measure given--
In art Thy glory to reveal,
Delighting earth and heaven.
Salvation's story, by his grush
He silently proclaimed,
The story of Thy love which bides
From age to age unchanged.
He mirrored in artistic forms,
Reflected in the lives of men,
And Nature's symmetry.
Angelic in both mind and heart,
His name is now entwined
With choirs of bright angelic hosts,
As here in art enshrined.
To Thee the Giver of these gifts,
We therefore sing in praise;
Oh grant that by the prayers of John,
We may behold Thy Face.