From this Facebook post by the friars of the Western Dominican Province, I just learned that yesterday, February 18, was the feast day of one of my favorite artists and Dominican saints and blesseds, Fra Angelico, or Blessed John of Fiesole. Bl. John was born in 1395 and died on yesterday’s date 1455. In his ministry as a Dominican friar and priest, he preached with color and brush, and became a master of the early renaissance who incorporated perspective and proportion into his work, innovating naturalism and realism in Western Art.
He painted many portraits of Saint Dominic and Saint Thomas Aquinas, or incorporated them among the saints in attendance in his Biblical or theological frescos which he painted in the friars’ cells in the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence.
I was excited to visit the Museo di San Marco for the first time in 2018 and to see the paintings that I have come to know from my time in the Dominican Order. I did not realize, however, that almost all of Fra Angelico’s work was painted into the convent as frescos, and so I was not prepared to see all at once two of the works most important to me, personally, to be in the cloister garden of the friary.
As soon as one enters the cloister after entering the museum, one immediately encounters the fresco of Saint Dominic contemplating the Crucifixion. I was given a post card of this fresco when I was a novice with the Dominicans, and I kept it displayed on my desk through out my years in seminary and later in graduate school, often contemplating it while studying (or idling when I was supposed to be studying). To see the larger-than-life painting on the wall of the cloister was quite overwhelming.
Also in the cloister is a portrait fresco of Saint Thomas Aquinas that is quite famous and which I use as the sort of logo of the Thomistic Philosophy Page. This image also accompanied my in my studies. Some years into my graduate studies, my uncle who was a priest, Msgr. William Magee, willed to me some of his personal effects when he died, among them a wooden statue of Saint Thomas he had acquired in Rome when he studied at the Angelicum as a young priest, and a framed copy of the portrait of Saint Thomas.
Again, to see it there adorning a space above a door out of the cloister was quite unexpected, and a little unnerving. I’m not sure where I thought these images were supposed to be, but in San Marco, Fra Angelico’s work is everywhere. I was delighted to be there, and tried to spend time contemplating all of the works, but like most museums, it can be pretty overwhelming. I certainly spent more time with Bl. John’s painting than my wife was ready to, and when we returned in 2019, she had had quite enough of San Marco, and by the end of that trip, enough of Florence.
I include below a few of my favorite images of Fra Angelico I took on our two trips to Florence including this one of his tomb I literally stumbled upon in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, near the Pantheon.