Fra Angelico, Artist and Evangelist | By Bert Ghezzi
Fra Angelico (c. 1390-1455) may have been one of the greatest evangelists of the late middle ages. But he proclaimed the Gospel with his art, not with words. “The best evangelical strategy,” says Bishop Robert Barron, “is one that moves from the beautiful to the good and finally to the true.” With magnificent works depicting Gospel scenes, Fra Angelico drew people to meet the Lord and to give themselves to him. And he used his art evangelistically to encourage his brother Dominicans to live as faithful disciples and to declare the Good News to others.
Young Fra Angelico
As a young man, already established as a painter, Fra Angelico entered a Dominican community, taking the name Fra Giovanni (later identified as Fra Giovanni of Fiesole to distinguish him from many other Fra Giovannis). From 1408 to 1436 he lived at Dominican friaries, first at Cortona and then at Fiesole, where he created striking altar pieces and frescos. Then, in 1436, Fra Angelico moved to the friary of San Marco in Florence. There under the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici, he and his assistants decorated the convent with more than 50 works.
The Virgin of the Annunciation
At San Marco, each time friars ascended the stairs to their cells, The Virgin of the Annunciation, one of the saint’s most famous frescos, demanded their attention. It seems likely that Fra Angelico situated it there deliberately to remind his brothers that, like Mary’s fiat, they had surrendered to God. He also painted devotional frescos in the friar’s cells to encourage them to keep Christ at the center of their lives, to pray, and to celebrate the spiritual disciplines. A tour of the cells shows that the saint seemed to have a message tailored to each of his brothers: a depiction of the Sermon on the Mount to support a brother in Christ’s new way of living; crucifixion scenes attended by Sts. Dominic and Mary Magdalen to help friars take up their cross and follow Christ; portrayals of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection to encourage brothers to anticipate their glorification with Christ in heaven.
San Marco Altar Piece
In 1439, Fra Angelico produced another of his most celebrated works. The San Marco Altar Piece at Florence featured the Madonna and the Christ Child surrounded by a gathering of saints. Unlike the depiction of saints in similar pieces, who seemed to be more heavenly than earthly, his saints were realistic, standing in groups that appeared to be conversing about their being in the presence of Mary and the Child. Giorgio Vasari acclaimed Fra Angelico’s achievement: “In their bearing and expression, the saints painted by Fra Angelico come nearer to the truth than the figures done by any other artist.”
At different times after 1445, popes summoned Fra Angelico to Rome to create frescos for papal chapels. In 1447 the pope offered to name him Archbishop of Florence, but he declined to accept the office. “I can paint pictures,” he said, “but I cannot rule men.” But he did govern men from 1449 to 1452 when he returned to the Dominican house at Fiesole to serve as prior.
In 1455, Fra Angelico died at a Domincan friary in Rome where he was working at a papal chapel. He is buried in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in the heart of Rome. This is his epitaph:
When singing my praise, do not say I was another Apelles.
But say that, in the name of Christ, I gave all I had to the poor.
Part of my work remains on earth and part is in heaven.
The city that bore me, Giovanni, is the flower of Tuscany.
Beatification by Pope John Paul II
Saint John Paul II beatified Fra Angelico as Blessed John of Fiesole on October 3, 1982. “Why do we need miracles?” he said. “These (his paintings) are his miracles.” And on February 18, 1984, he declared him patron of artists.
The body of Fra Angelico’s work testifies to his holiness. The luminous beauty of his frescos of Gospel scenes glow with a divine presence. It is said that he never took up a brush without praying first. And he never redid or retouched any of his works because he believed the Lord had inspired them. Fra Angelico lived by this axiom: “He who wishes to paint Christ’s story, must live with Christ. He who does Christ’s work, must stay with Christ always.” So, he patterned his life on the Gospels, Catholic teaching, and the Dominican way. He lived simply. He served the poor. He was always cheerful. He loved the Lord above all and he loved others by laying down his life for them.
Fra Angelico, the Evangelist
Fra Angelico was an evangelist without words who attracted people through his art to the Lord and the church. But he also practiced one-on-one, friendship evangelization. Recall the way he took care to design frescos in the San Marco cells to encourage his brothers in their discipleship. There is also evidence that he used wisdom and beauty to communicate the Good News. Consider this Christmas letter he sent to a friend in distress:
The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach is joy. There is radiance and courage in the darkness could we but see; and to see, we have only to look.
Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their coverings, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, and wisdom, and power. Welcome it, greet it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it.
Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there, the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing Presence. Our joys, too, be not content with them as joys.They, too, conceal diviner gifts.
Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage, then, to claim it, that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims wending through unknown country our way home.
So, as we lead with beauty in our evangelization, we can call upon Fra Angelico—artist, evangelist, and saint—to pray for us as our patron
Bert Ghezzi is the author of books about faith, spirituality and saints, including most recently an updated edition of Saint at Heart published by Paraclete Press. This article appeared first in Evangelization and Culture, Vol. 1, July 2109. Copyright © 2019 by Bert Ghezzi
1 Bishop Robert Barron, “Evangelizing through Beauty” at https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/evangelizing-through-beauty/459/; consulted 4/1/19.
2 You can view a slide show of Fra Angelico’s frescos in cells at San Marco at https://aleteia.org/slideshow/slideshow-fra-angelicos-frescoes-at-san-marco/13/; consulted 3/30/1 9.
3 Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists. Vasari is recognized as the first historian of art.
4 https://www.thewayofbeauty.org/blog/2018/5/the-wisdom-of-fra-angelico from an article at www.DeaconLawrence.org; consulted 3-22-19.
5 https://www.catholicireland.net/saintoftheday/blessed-fra-angelico-1387-1455/; consulted 3/22/19.
6 Apelles of Kos (4th century BC) was a renowned painter of ancient Greece.
8 https://www.thewayofbeauty.org/blog/2018/5/the-wisdom-of-fra-angelico from an article at www.DeaconLawrence.org; Consulted 3-22-19.