St. Patrick Catholic Church
Saint of the Day
 

March 18



Blessed Fra Angelico, OP (PC)
Born in Mugello near Florence, Italy, in 1386 or 1387; died in Rome, Italy, in 1455.

Guido da Vicchio's innate talent for art was supplemented by the natural beauty of his native Tuscany. He studied under several master artists when Italy was most conscious of the spirit of Giotto and Cimabue, and their influence was always to give a certain unearthly aspect to his paintings.

When he was still quite young, and already a recognized artist, he entered the Dominican monastery at Fiesole with his brother Benedetto in 1407. It is a tribute to the ability and sanctity of both brothers that their names stand out in such distinguished company, for some of the greatest men of the order were housed in the same priory: Blesseds John Dominici, Peter Capucci, and Lawrence of Ripafratta (f.d. September 28), and St. Antoninus of Florence. The latter, when he was appointed archbishop, was to commission some of the two artists' finest work.

Few personal details are known about Brother John of the Angels, who is known as Fra Angelico in secular history. He was a priest. His painting in Florence was sufficiently well-known and admired to merit his being called to Rome to decorate the Chapel of Nicholas V at the Vatican. In 1449, he was appointed prior of San Marco, which he decorated with his wonderful paintings, and held that office for three years.

He may have been recalled to Rome in 1454; he died there in 1455 at the Dominican friary of La Minerva. In much the same way as St. Thomas Aquinas was obscured by his writings for centuries, Fra Angelico seems to have disappeared behind his art. We know that he was the painter par excellence of the Queen of Angels and of her court.

St. Antoninus, who must have known him well, said: "No one could paint like that without first having been to heaven." The sincerity of his paintings and the depth of their theological and devotional teaching makes this statement believable.

Fra Angelico and Fra Benedetto were both artists of skill and originality. Perhaps God wished them to work together to make Fiesole and San Marco treasure houses of art, where some innocence and beauty might remain untouched by the storm of Renaissance humanism loomed on the horizon. Benedetto painted and illuminated an exquisite set of choir books, reputed to be the loveliest in the world. If he had lived out his career, he might have rivalled his famous brother, but he was accidentally killed in a street battle during one of the frequent political upheavals in Florence, and his work was left unfinished.

Fra Angelico himself did some illumination; in fact, he probably began his career as an illuminator. There is in his altarpieces a definite touch of the illuminator's talent for extracting the gist of the matter and leaving out extraneous details. His work is never cluttered, which might, of course, be the result of a mind trained in theology, as well as of a hand trained in illuminating.

His frescoes were done on wet plaster, with clay colors, which means that he could not see any exact color relationship until the wall had dried, and it was too late to touch it up. This makes it all the more remarkable that his colors are so exquisitely blended, and that they still glow with such unfaded loveliness after 400 years. Some of his best works are in the convent of San Marco, which is now a state museum.

Here in Washington, D.C., we have a wonderful wood panel enamelled by Fra Angelico, "The Madonna of Humility," which shows, much better than the prints we are accustomed to seeing, the almost heavenly radiance that glowed through his paintings. The figures of the Madonna and Child have a quaint, awkward attitude; yet no one looking at them can possibly mistake that fact that he is depicting the Queen of Heaven.

Part of the ethereal look of his Madonna comes from the fact that Fra Angelico did not use models for his pictures. This alone was remarkable in a time when painters were flinging themselves into the study of anatomy, sometimes at the cost of other qualities. Perhaps he was revolted by the practice of some of his contemporary painters who chose beautiful women with bad reputations to pose for their Madonnas. Perhaps it was simply that he saw, with the clear vision of a theologian, that nothing--painting, statue, sermon, poem, or building--should obstruct one's view of God, drawing the attention away from that vision.

Fra Angelico's greatest complete work was his "Life of Christ," a series of 35 paintings in Fiesole. They began with the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel and ended with the lovely Coronation of the Virgin, which we sometimes see reproduced in print. These pictures tell us what the records leave unsaid: that Brother John of the Angels was a capable theologian and a splendid Scripture scholar. He was also a devoted son of St. Dominic, whom he dearly loved and never tired of painting.

In America, we are most familiar with his paintings of the Annunciation, which was obviously one of his favorite subjects, since he painted it dozens of times. Most of his subjects were chosen from the life of Our Lord; the famous "angels," which one so often sees, are parts of much larger altarpieces, having much more serious subjects than the colorful and joyful angels decorating them.

Some have said that Fra Angelico in art, Dante in poetry, and St. Thomas in the Summa Theologica, have each presented the same truth in three different ways. Whether or not this is completely true, it is an indication of the veneration in which history has held this man. His motto was: "To paint Christ, one must live Christ." He is the best example we have of one who preaches with a brush as eloquently as his brothers do with voice or pen. Today he still preaches, in places where no other would be heard. Perhaps his mission is still alive, to help bring into the fold those who love art but know nothing of God.

The cause of Fra Angelico was resumed on the 500th anniversary of his death and has been active since then. Although he is usually called il Beato Angelico, he has never officially been beatified (Benedictines, Dorcy).


Anselm of Lucca, OSB B (RM)
Born in Mantua, Italy, 1036; died there in 1086. St. Anselm was named bishop of Lucca in 1073 by his uncle Pope Alexander II, who had just vacated the see. Anselm immediately became embroiled in a dispute about imperial investiture and refused to accept the symbols of his office from Emperor Henry IV. Later counselled by Gregory VII, Anselm accepted investiture, took possession of his see, but then had scruples and retired to the Cluniac monastery at Polirone, where he became a Benedictine monk.

Recalled by Pope Gregory VII, of whom Anselm was a faithful supporter, he soon became involved with his canons over their lack of observance of an austere life. When they were placed under an interdict by the pope and excommunicated, they revolted, were supported by the emperor, and, in 1079, drove Anselm from his see.

He retired to Canossa, became spiritual director of Countess Matilda and reformed the monks and canons in the territory she controlled. A man of great learning, Anselm excelled as a canonist and was a firm supporter of Pope Gregory's struggle to end lay investiture. After Gregory's death, Pope Victor III appointed him apostolic visitor to administer several dioceses in Lombardy, Italy, which were vacant because of the investiture struggle.

St. Anselm was held in high regard for his holiness, austerity, Biblical knowledge, and learning (Benedictines, Delaney, Encyclopedia).


Frigidian of Lucca B (RM)
(also known as Frediano, Frigdianus)

Born in Ireland; died 588; feast day formerly March 15.

In spite of the Italian name Frediano, by which he is usually called, St. Frigidian was an Irishman, the son of King Ultach of Ulster. He was trained in Irish monasteries and ordained a priest. His learning was imparted by such flowers of the 6th century Irish culture as Saint Enda and Saint Colman.

St. Frigidian arrived in Italy on a pilgrimage to Rome and decided to settle as a hermit on Mount Pisano. In 566, he was elected bishop of Lucca and was persuaded by Pope John II him to accept the position. Even thereafter the saint frequently left the city to spend many days in prayer and solitude. As bishop he formed the clergy of the city into a community of canons regular and rebuilt the cathedral after it had been destroyed by fire by the Lombards.

His most famous miracle is certainly legendary. The River Serchio frequently bursts its banks, causing great damage to the city of Lucca. The citizens reputedly called on their bishop for aid. He asked for an ordinary rake. Fortified by prayer, Frigidian commanded the Serchio to follow his rake. He charted a new, safer course for the water, avoiding the city walls, as well as the cultivated land outside. Miraculously, the river followed him.

Sometimes there is confusion between Saint Finnian of Moville and St. Frigidian. They could perhaps be the same person but the links have never been well established. Frigidian is still greatly venerated in Lucca (Attwater, Bentley, Encyclopedia).

In art, St. Frigidian walks in procession as the Volto Santo crucifix is brought to Lucca on an ox cart. He may also be shown changing the course of the Serchio River or as a bishop with a crown at his feet (Roeder).



About Saints of the Day
These summaries were prepared in 1998 by St. Patrick's parishioner Katherine I. Rabenstein and are reproduced on www.saintpatrickdc.org with the permission of the author. Note that the content has not been updated since that time and represents the research of the author. An alphabetical index of all saints on our site is available. Source references are also available. HTML formatting © 2007-2008 by St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Washington, D.C.