Fra Angelico’s art, like his personality, is poised between the charm and grace of the Gothic and the realistic spirit of the Renaissance. That’s why he is the best model for the Christian artist, indeed any artist who is guided by higher principles and universal truth.
One of the recurring themes of Aldous Huxley’s great book The Perennial Philosophy is the importance of humility and self-abnegation (“self-naughting” in the author’s fine phrase) in the world’s religions. Particularly original is the chapter in which Huxley applies these concepts to the artistic process, a place where they rarely find a home. Huxley also ties art to divine grace. “The artist’s inspiration may be either a human or a spiritual grace, or a mixture of both.”
How often do we hear “grace” named as a source of artistic inspiration—as opposed to, say, the artist’s inner psyche or the political climate? Huxley continues: “High artistic achievement is impossible without… those forms of intellectual, emotional and physical mortification appropriate to the kind of art which is being practiced.” How often do we hear of artists practicing self-denial, prayer, or meditation as a prelude to creating their work? Art in modern times—we are speaking here of the arts in general—is more commonly a chance for self-aggrandizement, not sublimation of the self to a higher ideal. Perhaps this outlook can be traced to the Renaissance, when artists vied with each other for worldly glory. It was certainly intensified in the Romantic and modern eras. One can of course find artists of all eras who resist this trend, but one probably has to go before the High Renaissance to find most.
One artist, mentioned by Huxley, for whom spiritual preparation was second nature was Fra Angelico (1387-1455), the great fresco maker. Fra Angelico was a member of the Dominican order, whence the “Fra” or “Brother.” Many people are probably unaware that he is also a canonized saint whose feast day is celebrated on February 18. His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints has him as “Dominican priest and artist,” a novel combination. He was beatified in 1960, elevated to sainthood by Pope John Paul II in 1982, and declared the patron of artists two years later. One wonders how many artists—painters, musicians, writers, et al.—pray to Fra Angelico for help and guidance?
In the leadup to Fra Angelico’s canonization, Pope John Paul II is said to have pointed to the artist’s Vatican frescoes and remarked, “Why do we need miracles? These are his miracles.” This serves as a good reminder to look for the divine presence in human art.
Fra Angelico combined artistry and saintliness, a rarity. And he was no marginal figure in the history of art either. A Metropolitan Museum scholar asserts that this friar was “at the forefront of artistic innovation” and helped develop such basic tools of Renaissance art as realistic perspective and modeling of figures in space. This importance was not widely recognized until the 20th century, while his saintly character was acclaimed not long after his death. Those who knew him while alive dubbed him “Fra Angelico” (“angelic brother”; his birth name was Guido di Pietro and he took the monastic name Fra Giovanni). Some think of this title as a complement to the “Angelic Doctor,” Thomas Aquinas, and it’s interesting to pair the church’s great theologian with the church’s great artist: rationality and beauty, science and imagination.
Both Aquinas and Fra Angelico were, in a real sense, modern men of their time. Already as an apprentice artist, Angelico was showing his tendencies to innovation. Floral decorations added to some of his master’s pictures show a grasp of truthful depiction far beyond the then-current late Gothic style, moving toward what we think of as Renaissance realism. Angelico’s embrace of naturalism anticipated the Renaissance love for classicism. He joined together figures in the formerly rigidly partitioned Gothic altarpiece, creating more unity in the picture and even giving a hint of a love for the landscape—a verdant, cypress-adorned central Italian landscape—in which the human figures lived and moved. He was one of the first artists to house his people in architecturally accurate spaces, thus advancing the art of perspective. Along with other early Renaissance Italian artists, he began to go beyond symbolic types and conventions and encompass the wealth of specific detail in the world around him. In contrast to much earlier Christian iconography, we connect with his human beings on an emotional as well as on a spiritual or mystical level.
Yet at the same time Fra Angelico had something of an anti-classical, anti-humanist outlook. We know, for instance, that he was a devotee of a Dominican reformer who urged a rejection of humanism and a return to traditional spirituality. Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century biographer, tells us that Fra Angelico always prefaced his art-making with prayer, and one finds elsewhere ascribed to him the belief that to picture Christ one must be Christlike. Certainly, the Dominican lifestyle was austere and gave no leeway to personal vanity or sensual indulgence. Fra Angelico and his confreres would have had to get up very early in the morning to pray their office, subsist a bare minimum of food, and live in sparsely furnished cells. (When you compare this to the wayward lifestyles of a Caravaggio or a Benvenuto Cellini, the contrast is stark indeed.) The frescoes the artist did for his convent at Fiesole, and later for the Dominican priory of San Marco in Florence, were intended to be seen only by his fellow friars, to delight their senses with holy scenes and thus move them to meditation and prayer.
This mystical attitude is reflected in his paintings, for Fra Angelico’s people have been described as being “cleansed of any human passion” and bearing a supreme serenity of spirit. Fra Angelico retained the medieval feature of shining gold backgrounds that seem to place the figures in a space beyond this world—a style similar to eastern icons. His work has a luminous freshness and charm typical of late medieval and early Renaissance Italian art. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes his angels as “robed in the hues of the sunrise and sunset”—some of their wings seem literally to have been tinged in the rainbow. When the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the Romantic era wanted to return to the spirit of art before Raphael, Fra Angelico’s work is a prime example of what they were aiming at.
The builders of the Gothic cathedrals are all anonymous while their work is eternally soaring and eloquent. Very few, in fact, of those who created art in the Middle Ages had their names preserved by history. They were humble craftsmen who served God and the community. All this changed with the dawn of the Renaissance. The artist was now an individual, a known entity, a “creator” who hopes to achieve renown for his work. Coming at the very beginning of the era before the more worldly aspects of the Renaissance came to the fore, Fra Angelico represents the perfect balance of qualities. We know his name and his achievements (not what he looked like, however—vanity apparently did not impel him to paint his self-portrait); yet he stands for values that are to some extent alien to both the Renaissance and the modern world. Only one of Fra Angelico’s extant works—a Crucifixion—is signed. He refused an offer to become archbishop of Florence and, after going to Rome at the behest of the pope to adorn the Vatican, he died there as the simple monk he always was, at the Dominican priory.
His art, like his personality, is poised between the charm and grace of the Gothic and the realistic spirit of the Renaissance. He was a man with one foot in the Middle Ages and one foot in modernity, and as such he speaks to us powerfully. Fra Angelico realized that “You have made [man] little less than the angels… have given him dominion over the works of your hands,” (Ps 8:5) yet he could equally say that “my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me; But I have calmed and quieted my soul” (Ps 131:1-2).
Fra Angelico’s wisdom was to unite these two frames of mind. That’s why he is the best model for the Christian artist, indeed any artist who is guided by higher principles and universal truth—the artist who sees himself as part of something greater than himself.
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The featured image and first in-text image is “The Annunciation” (between 1430 and 1432) by Fra Angelico (c. 1395–1455), the second in-text image is “Noli Me Tangere” (between 1440 and 1442), and the third is “The Death and the Assumption of the Virgin” (c. 1432). All images are in the public domain, have been brightened for clarity, and appear here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.