“I will sing praise to Thee in the sight of His Angels” (Ps 137:1).
At this liturgical encounter we wish to pay homage to a man who was given the name Angelico. And his life – in profound harmony with the name given to him – was an extraordinary “song” to God: “a song in the presence of Angels.”
The Thomas Aquinas of painting
With his life he sang to the glory of God, which he treasured in the depths of his heart and expressed in works of art. Fra Angelico has remained in the memory of the Church and in the history of culture as an extraordinary religious-artist. Spiritual son of St. Dominic, with the brush he expressed his “summa” of the divine mysteries, as St. Thomas Aquinas presented it in theological language.
In his works, colours and forms bow down towards the holy Temple of God (cf. Ps 137:2), and proclaim their own particular thanksgiving to His name.
The exceptional, the mystical fascination of Fra Angelico’s painting compels us to stand spellbound before the genius that generated it and to exclaim with the Psalmist: “Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.” (Ps 73:1).
Priesthood and art at the service of souls
To look at Blessed Angelico is to look at a model life, in which art reveals itself as a path that can lead to Christian perfection: he was an exemplary religious and a great artist.
Known as Angelico for the goodness of his soul and the beauty of his paintings, Fra Giovanni de Fiesole was a priest-artist who knew how to translate the eloquence of the Word of God into colour.
If from the paternal home he gained a clear and vigorous faith, from the Dominican Order, where he entered in 1420, he acquired a deep knowledge of sacred doctrine and a stimulus to proclaim the mystery of salvation through priestly ministry and painting. […]
He made true in his own life the organic and constitutive bond that exists between Christianity and culture, between man and the Gospel. In him, faith became culture and culture became lived faith.
He was a religious who knew how to transmit, through art, the values that underlie the Christian way of life. He was a “prophet” of the sacred image: he knew how to reach the apexes of art, drawing inspiration from the mysteries of faith.
In him, art becomes prayer. […]
Grace and Scripture, sources of inspiration and creativity
For Blessed Angelico the Word of God was, both for his life and for his creative work, a source of inspiration, in whose light he created his own works and, at the same time, he created himself above all, developing his exceptional natural gifts and responding to divine grace.
This creativity constituted a specific fullness of that life according to the Spirit of which the Apostle Paul speaks in the Letter to the Romans. To live according to the Spirit means: “to set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (8:5). The desires of the Spirit “are life and peace” (8:6). Unlike the desires of the flesh, they are subject to the law of God (cf. 8:7) and make man capable of this subjection. It is not something passive, but inwardly creative. In subjecting ourselves to God’s Law, that is, to truth, the human spirit becomes creative and at the same time sensitive to that creativity which the Holy Spirit works in it.
In this way, the reflection of God’s predilection, namely grace, is also communicated to man. Through grace, the Spirit of God dwells in man and man “belongs” to Him as friend and spouse.
That supernatural creativity of God’s grace finds its own reflection in man’s actions. And if that man is an artist, it is true also in his artistic work and in his creativity. […]
Light of the soul and beauty of art
Christ says: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven” (Mt 5:16).
Christ speaks of the light of good works. Going further – in the sphere of artistic vocation – one could rightly speak of the light of human works. This light is beauty; beauty, in fact, as the splendour of form, is a particular light of the good contained in the works of the man-artist.
Also in this regard, one can understand and interpret Christ’s assertion about the good tree and the good fruit, and about the bad tree and the bad fruit.
“So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:17-20).
I think that Fra Angelico felt profoundly called, by this comparison of Christ, to a double creativity: he created works and at the same time he created himself!
Agreement between beauty in works and in the soul
The Church extends to all artists the same call to meditation, saying: seek the proper proportion between the beauty of works and the beauty of the soul.
This magnificent creative process has its source hidden in the depths of man. The Evangelist exhorts us to seek the roots of the light of human acts, as well as of the works of the artist-man, in the inner light of consciousness. Behold the light that is in you! It – conscience – must first of all be light, and cannot become darkness. “If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Mt 6:23). […]
Christ, however, thinks of what is of non-transitory value before God: “lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:20-21).
Men of art! Your heart is certainly in the beauty of the works of human genius, as it is in your own creativity. My wish is that at the same time you may bring out in yourselves that evangelical sense of proportion, of which Christ, the Divine Artist, and His disciple, the artist Fra Angelico, speak to us. […]
And so that this may be easy for everyone, particularly for the category of artists, accepting the requests made by the Dominican Order, by many bishops and by various artists, I proclaim Blessed Angelico the patron Saint, before God, of artists, and in a special way of painters. For the glory of God. Amen. ◊
Excerpts from: ST. JOHN PAUL II.
Homily for the celebration of the Jubilee
of artists, 18/2/1984