The Saint of the Day
Fra Angelico or Blessed Giovanni de Fiesole,
Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
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Giovanni Pietro was born around 1387 in the Mugello region to the north of Florence. At age 20, after hearing a sermon on Christmas of the great Dominican Fray Manfredo da Vercelli, he decided to enter the Order of the Preachers. He was admitted as a novice at the Monastery of San Domenico in Fiesole.
The young man already showed great artistic aptitude, but he judged it his duty to sacrifice it for God. His brothers in the Order, however, dissuaded him from this idea and encouraged him to continue developing his skills. To that end, the Prior ordered him to illustrate the manuscripts and choir books in the Monastery library. The tranquility of his early years in religious life was broken by changes in the Monastery occasioned by the Western Schism. Since the Superior of Fiesole did not accept the pope that the Republic of Florence supported, he and his monks were obliged to abandon Fiesole in 1409.
This change added to the spiritual and artistic enrichment of Fray Giovanni, especially during the time that he spent in Foligno, close to Assisi, which the holy monk visited often. As a good Dominican, he had a great enthusiasm for the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, which he knew quite well. With it he nourished his piety, and over it he constructed the foundation for his own future work. It was in the Summa Theologiae that he discovered the correct reasoning for his aesthetic ideas.
Three elements are needed for beauty, said St. Thomas: first, integrity in the perfection, since things that are not complete lack form; second, proportion and harmony among the parts, and third, clarity and splendor; things considered beautiful also have clear, bright colors. Fray Giovanni made this reasoning his golden rule.
In 1418, the Dominicans of Fiesole returned to their Monastery and the holy friar was able to dedicate himself to his art. His first great work was an altarpiece, the Last Judgment, for the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli of Florence. After that came others, ever more numerous.
The monks greatly admired both his work and piety. “Fra Angelico does not paint, he prays,” said one of them. His art, in effect, was a canticle of prayer. In the state of grace he placed his angels in the florid gardens of Heaven. It seemed that the angels he painted, so beautiful and pure, were actually present before him, and the crystalline notes of their singing would rise over the archways of the Monastery while he was giving life to them. Once an old friar opened the door to the cell of the painter and beheld him painting one of those marvels. He retired noiselessly, hidden in his hood.
It was that discrete and unknown admirer who gave him the name of his glory: angelico – Fra Angelico, the angelic friar.
Only one religious before him had been worthy of bearing this title: St. Thomas, his guide and master.
After that, Fra Angelico had only one care on earth – to merit the divine nickname and become the St. Thomas of the painters.
In Rome Fra Angelico received the friendship and esteem of the Holy Father. Eugenius IV even judged him worthy of the Archbishopric of Florence, which was vacant. But he begged the Pope to choose in his place one of his brothers in the Dominican Order who had great humility and learning. Thus Fra Angelico named an Archbishop who would be canonized 100 year later, St. Antoninus of Florence, who fought tenaciously against the Renaissance.
The humble friar who became one of the most famous artists of his time was still in Rome when he was taken by illness in the Dominican Monastery of Santa Maria-Sopra-Minerva. On the afternoon of February 18, 1485, the Monastery was enveloped in an intense silence. Each religious awaited the bell to sound announcing the last breaths of Fra Angelico.
At 8 o’clock, the brief and woeful bell toned. In some minutes, the cell and corridor were filled with kneeling monks. The melody of the Salve Regina broke the silence while the face of Fra Angelico was illuminated with a calm smile. It is said that at the moment of his death tears slipped down the cheeks of the faces of all the angels of his pictures, those angels that he had painted without knowing that their aureoles would stand as testimony to his inimitable genius and elevated sanctity.
Comments of Prof. Plinio:
This is a very beautiful biography, because it is a very beautiful life. And it is difficult to select only one aspect to comment on in such a life.
It is beautiful to see one of the highest principles of Catholic civilization affirmed here, that is, the principle of the reversibility of orders. Every kind of good, beauty, and virtue that exists in one sphere or order is able to revert to another sphere or order. For this reason, just as there was a Thomas of Aquinas in the order of the theology and metaphysics, there should be a Thomas of Aquinas in the order of painting. Similarly a model should exist in the order of music and all the other orders.
Just as all the different colors come from the color white, so also the different spheres of human activity result from a higher principle that rules them, summarizes them and transcends them. This higher principle is found in a sphere that is not actually divine, but close to it.
When a person contemplates the ensemble of creation, he should first contemplate the model ideals in each human sphere. Then he should transcend even them and rise to this higher monarchical unity. It would be like ascending a stairway inside each color. At a certain moment the person reaches the top stair of a certain color and has to transcend the color itself to reach the color white in order to continue his ascent. When he rises to this higher zone, he reaches the degree of harmonic reversibilities that I am talking about. That is to say, in this supreme sphere the rules that govern can apply, or revert, to other spheres. In effect, the rules that govern painting, music, art, or even the
government of people are all applications of the same general principles that have their source in this supreme order.
Angels lead the souls of the blessed to Heaven in Fra Angelico's Last Judgment
A person who is familiar with this supreme order of reversibilities is able to discern the same rules everywhere. For example, when he enters a cathedral, he can see in the cathedral the same principles expressed in its art and architecture that also are expressed in the political, economic and social order of the time. The music he hears is not only the melody that reflects the cathedral, but also the melody that reflects the political order that governed when the cathedral was built.
For this reason we have to have men who are the prototypes, the model ideals for other men in each field. This makes it easier for people to have access to this supreme order of reversibilities. Thus we had a St. Thomas Aquinas who was a model for theology and a Fra Angelico who was a model for the painting. The biographical text observes quite aptly that both were called Angelico. The Angelic Doctor and the Angelic Painter. We had the Angelic Warrior in St. Louis IX. We had the Angelic Statesman in St. Ferdinand of Castile. If the Middle Ages had not been prematurely interrupted by the crime of the Revolution, we would have had other angelicos in many other fields. We would have an angelic order that would be consistent, luminous, supernatural, and profoundly logical. This would have been the order of the world, the order of Catholic civilization and the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. This order, in a certain sense, would be more appropriate for angels than men, and in effect it would lead men to Paradise.
This is the idea I have of the virtue of wisdom. Wisdom is this harmonic and architectonic visualization that sees and loves everything in its highest aspect, and sees and loves the reversibilities of one order in the others. Omnia in omnibus, all is present in everything. The unity of these harmonies speaks to us continually of God. When one has the good fortune to live in an order that expresses these harmonic reversibilities, he is inundated in the spirit of God, and not drowning in the shocking contradictions that exist in the disorder we have today.
The Middle Ages was moving toward this virtue of wisdom when it was interrupted. By this architectonic virtue, man desires this order as a supreme good to be established on this earth during his lifetime. He desires this much more than any other thing, much more than practical things or personal matters.
In this harmony, there is an inexpressible message, a complete word, and the highest symbol of God. God is symbolized in this harmony of all things, and whosoever loves the harmony of all things, loves the symbol of God, which means that he loves God Himself.
Our Lady is connatural with this order and with this virtue. Among all the creatures, she is not only the most perfect, but also she contains within herself all the perfections below her. All the perfections are summarized in her. In His most holy humanity, Our Lord Jesus Christ is more than she is. But His humanity is united with His divinity, and this goes beyond the considerations I am making here.
At depth, this supreme order was what St. Thomas saw and mediated on. At base, this was what Fra Angelico saw and transmitted in his paintings. In synthesis, this is what persons in the future Reign of Mary will see. In all these harmonies, one will see something that makes him fanthom the most immaculate, majestic, maternal and sweet facet of Our Lady. There is no word to express what is reflected in this facet. Here no adjective suffices, and we enter into a silence of supreme veneration.
The Saint of the Day features highlights from the lives of saints based on comments made by the late Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. Following the example of St. John Bosco who used to make similar talks for the boys of his College, each evening it was Prof. Plinio’s custom to make a short commentary on the lives of the next day’s saint in a meeting for youth in order to encourage them in the practice of virtue and love for the Catholic Church. TIA thought that its readers could profit from these valuable commentaries.
|Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
The texts of both the biographical data and the comments come from personal notes taken by Atila S. Guimarães from 1964 to 1995. Given the fact that the source is a personal notebook, it is possible that at times the biographic notes transcribed here will not rigorously follow the original text read by Prof. Plinio. The commentaries have also been adapted and translated for TIA’s site.
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