Fra Angelico— Painter as Preacher
At eighteen years of age Guido di Piero, after a rigorous training from about the age of 14 or 15, was an accomplished artist, and ready to receive commissions. In the next two or three years he received several commissions, to become a rising star in the artistic constellation of Florence. But God was calling him to higher things and he responded willingly. He was in his early twenties when, with his brother, he wended his way up to the convent of the Order of Preachers at Fiesole, not far from his home village of Vicchio in the valley of Mugello, knocked at the door and asked for admittance. The brothers were sent to serve their novitiate at Cortona, under Fra Lorenzo di Ripafratta, a wise and holy friar. Guido took the name Giovanni and his brother, Bernnadetto. With great foresight Lorenzo told them to send for their painting equipment so that they could continue their artistic work, for the glory of God.
In the 1420s, there was an explosion of artistic experimentation and discovery in Florence. The science of perspective was causing a sensation and knowledge of anatomy of the human body was growing, so that figures were presented more and more realistically. Fra Giovanni, who came to be known as Fra Angelico, kept up with the current trends, but technical formula and realism had no meaning for him in themselves. He used or rejected them, as he thought fit, to give greater meaning to his message and to make his preaching more effective. His paintings are traditional, yet curiously modern, a few almost abstract in their simplicity.
One painting, for me, expresses this very forcefully. With reverence I open the door to cell 3 in the convent of San Marco in Florence (now a museum). There on one wall is a prayer rather than a painting! The angel Gabriel, in the guise of a young man, stands before the Virgin Mary, who is kneeling on a little stool. This Annunciation differs greatly from the many others from the hand of Angelico. Mary’s simple dress and the pale rose, full-fluted gown of the angel are subdued in colour, with a conspicuous absence of gold. We are in the cell of a poor friar preacher, so simplicity is the keynote. Even the architectural features are pared back to essentials, forming beautiful abstract shapes at ceiling level. This economy of detail and extreme simplicity is an exhortation to practise poverty. It also helps to create calmness, peace and profound mystery. The blank wall at the back, instead of an opening into a loggia or garden, limits our vision, cutting our distractions. A painting such as this must be felt rather than analysed. It was painted as an overflow of an ascetical and contemplative of life, the fruit of long study of the truths of faith, of one attuned to the inner voice of the Spirit.
Here are thoughts too deep, emotions too pure, love too all embracing to be expressed in any other way than by simplicity and understatement. Its power as preaching is its immediacy. It is the perfect sermon.
Maureen MacMahon O.P