instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

A few more words on Br. John

I wrote below, "From what we know, Fra Giovanni's life, by the standards of those raised to the altars, was unremarkable." That could probably do with a little expansion.

First, we don't know very much about Beato Angelico's life, and most of what is known -- dates he was in this or that city, for example, or working on this or that painting -- aren't particularly illuminating. The saying, "Who would do the work of Christ must always be next to Christ," seems to be the only words of his that have been preserved. It's a profound idea, to be sure, but it doesn't tell us much about him as a person.

The handful of anecdotes that are told of him -- that he always wept when he painted the Crucifixion, that he turned down the bishopric of Florence, that his brother Dominican St. Antoninus (whom Beato Angelico is said to have recommended for the bishopric in his place) said he was the holiest friar he knew -- confirm his piety, but aren't the sort of portable examples of heroic virtue that make saints compelling to the Catholic imagination. Even being the holiest friar in Fifteenth Century Florence might not, on reflection, be much of a boast.

Much like his master St. Thomas, Beato Angelico is best understood as through what he produced. We know that morally bad men can make aesthetically good art. Some can even make morally good art. But there's a certain integrity in the paintings of Beato Angelico that, combined with the few stories we know, offers a convincing argument that Beato Angelico really was the sort of man who would paint the sort of paintings he painted.

What sort of paintings did he paint? Paintings of beauty and of truth. Incarnational paintings. Thomistic paintings, if you can believe such a thing is possible.

From the luminous skin of the blessed -- as though the glory of God were literally shining through them -- to the implications of an ordered cosmos in the composition of background arches, Beato Angelico's paintings are a pictorial expression of the union and harmony St. Thomas recognized in creation and of the immanence and transcendence of God in and over that creation. His paintings are Catholic, not merely in subject matter, but in their implicit theology. And any man who can make theology that attractive is a man I want to learn from.