Fra Angelico – Masters Of Painting

UNLIKE Cimabue, who lies in Florence, the city of his birth, the “Angelical Painter” rests in Rome, far from the mountain ham-let of Vicchio, where, less than a score of miles from the ” City of the Lilies,” he first saw the light. Beneath the high altar of the church of Sta. Maria sopra Minerva, lies the greatest of the sisters of St. Dominic—St. Catherine of Siena, who died only seven years before Fra Angelioo was born, whom he has several times portrayed, and near her tomb he sleeps. The insoription over his remains, unlike many epitaphs, does not lie. It was composed by Pope Nicholas V., for whose chapel in the Vatican Angelico painted some of his latest and finest works.

Professor Norton has thus translated it:

“Not mine be the praise that I was as a second Apelles, But that I gave all my gains to thine, 0 Christ ! One work is for the earth, another for heaven, The city, the Flower of Tuscany, bore me — John.”

But though buried in the Eternal City, “he lives,” as Mrs. Oliphant says, “in Florence, within the walls he loved, in the cells he filled full of beauty and pensive celestial. grace, and which now are dedicated to him, and hold his memory fresh as in a shrine.”

The blessed painter, whose life and art were worthy of each other, is set before us with a loving touch by Vasari, who says :

“Fra Giovanni Angelico da Fiesole . . . was no less preeminent as a painter and miniaturist than as a religious. . . . He might, in-deed, had he so chosen, have lived in the world in the greatest comfort, and, beyond what he himself already possessed, gained whatsoever he wanted more, by the practice of those arts of which, whilst still a young man, he was already a master ; but he chose instead, being well-disposed and pious by nature, for his greater contentment and peace of mind, and above all for the salvation of his soul, to enter the order of Preachers. . . . Rightly, indeed, was he called ‘Angelico,’ for he gave his whole life to God’s service, and to the doing of good works for mankind and for his neighbor. . . . He was entirely free from guile, and holy in all his acts. . . . He kept himself unspotted from the world, and living in purity and holiness, he was so much the friend of the poor, that I think his soul is now in heaven.

“He labored assiduously at painting, but he never cared to work at any but sacred subjects. Rich, indeed, he might have been, yet for riches he took no thought. He was wont to say that true riches consist in being content with little. He might have borne rule over many, but he did not choose to do so, believing that he who obeys has fewer cares, and is less likely to go astray. It was in his power, too, to have held high place, both within his order and without it ; but he cared nothing for such honors, affirming that he sought no other dignity than the avoidance of hell and the attainment of paradise. And, in truth, what dignity can compare with that which not only religious but all men ought to strive after, namely, that which is to be found in God alone and in a virtuous order of life. . . .

“Fra Angelico was of a most humane and temperate disposition, and living in chastity, he did not become entangled in the world’s snares. In fact, he used often to say that he who practised art had need of quiet, and of a life free from care, and that he who had to do with the things of Christ ought to live with Christ. He was never seen to show anger toward any of his brethren, . . . and when he did admonish a friend, he was accustomed to do so gently and with a smiling face. And to those who wished him to work for them, he would reply with the utmost good-will, that if they could come to terms with the prior, he would not fail them. In a word, this friar, who can never be too much praised, was most humble and modest in every word and work, and in his pictures showed both genius and piety. The saints that he painted have more of the aspect and character of saintship than any others.

“It was his custom never to retouch or repaint any of his works, but to leave them always just as they were when finished the first time ; for he believed, as he himself said, that such was the will of God. It is said, indeed, that Fra Giovanni never took a brush in his hand until he had first offered a prayer ; nor did he paint a ‘Crucifixion’ without tears streaming down his cheeks. And both in the faces and attitudes of his figures it is easy to find proof of his sincere and deep devotion to the religion of Christ.”

Three centuries after this tender tribute was published, a French Dominican, Edmund Cartier, wrote a reverent and highly sympathetic life of Fra Angelico (since translated into English), which is of great interest and value. In it Cartier quotes some of the praises showered upon the painter-monk, among which are mentioned the poetical tribute of the painter Giovanni Santi, Raphael’s father; together with encomiums from the pens of the Jesuit Lanzi, of August Schlegel, of Seroux d’Agincourt, of Rio, and of Montalembert. Here is one of Cartier’s own eulogies of the ” Angelical Painter.” He says :

“The talent of Beato Angelico was the ornament of his virtue. He knew not the ambition which lengthens the watchings of the artist, and makes him purchase success so painfully. To him labor was without sorrow. He cultivated painting as Adam did the earthly paradise ; his pictures were the flowers God produced in his soul, and he let them grow in all their freedom, fearing to mar the Master’s work by a knowing culture. Vasari tells us he never would alter his compositions, because he looked on his inspirations as favors from heaven. The least desire of glory never disturbed his heart : he would make God praised. To what good shall we subscribe his works ? Should a mirror arrogate to itself the rays it reflects ? He did not intend to make new compositions. When an image satisfied his piety, why should he not , have repeated it, like the prayers we love to say again ? Why not imitate the old masters when we have no hope to surpass them ? Beato Angelico thought only of loving our Lord and the saints, and of making them loved. He sought the kingdom of heaven before all, and the rest was added unto him.”

Cartier would have found no difficulty in believing the legend, illustrated in Maignan’s picture, which declares that the works of Fra Angelico often received miraculous touches from heavenly visitants during the painter’s absence, or when, weary from his labor, he fell asleep at his well-loved task. We may be pardoned for thinking M. Maignan’s figure of the sleeping Angelico more impressive than that of the angel, the model for whom the artist would have done well to take from some work of the blessed painter of Fiesole.