Guido di Pietro was born in Tuscany, in a small village outside Florence in 1387. Early in his life, his parents recognized their son’s artistic talent and capabilities. He, along with his brother, was sent to the Dominican monastery at Fiesole to study painting. While there, he joined the Dominican Order in 1407, taking the name John (Giovanni). He worked tirelessly, illustrating illuminated manuscripts, with John explaining his painting as a way in which he could “preach the Love of God.” Throughout his artistic career—one which art historians have labeled “perfect”—he never painted a picture that didn’t address Christian themes. It is further said that he never picked up a paintbrush without having first prayed.
As his gifts became more and more apparent, John was commissioned to do paintings and frescoes in Florence and Rome, including the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican (later destroyed). His brother, also having joined the Dominican Order, often acted as his assistant. Able to capture the adoration and sublime love for Christ on the faces of those he painted, John of Fiesole became known Fra Giovanni Angelico (Brother John, the Angelic One). His life and work were recognized to be pure, inspired, and from God. He is remembered for a pious, but simple, heart and is credited with saying: “He who does Christ’s work must stay with Christ always.”
Fra Angelico died while staying at a Dominican convent in Rome, having painted that day. His epitaph (translated) reads:
When singing my praise, don't liken my talents to those of Apelles.
Say, rather, that, in the name of Christ, I gave all I had to the poor.
The deeds that count on Earth are not the ones that count in Heaven.
I, Giovanni, am the flower of Tuscany.
John Paul II said of Fra Angelico at his beatification in 1982, that his work was “the fruit of that highest harmony which flowed from the combination of a holy life and creative power.”
Fra Giovanni Angelico painted incredibly beautiful and poignant pictures from the lives of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints (some of which are pictured below). His every brushstroke, and indeed, his every breath, came from God and glorified God. He used his talents—art—to bring the message of salvation to the world. In contemplating the life of this talented artist, we are called to look inward to our own gifts. However small they may seem to us, they are precious gifts and abilities given to us from the Lord. When we choose to use them, we do so in honor of our Maker, and through their display, glorify the magnificence of creation. How might we use our gifts to glorify the Lord and serve each other during Lent?
Crucified Christ with Saint John the Evangelist, the Virgin, and Saints Dominic and Jerome (1439-1443)
Noli Me Tangere (Do not touch Me) (1439-1443)