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Catholic Heroes… Blessed Giovanni Da Fiesole, OP

February 16, 2016 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

During the Renaissance, a return to classical interests surged with cultural, social, and educational reforms. Diplomacy and manners became popular once again, but the most remarkable accomplishments were in the art of the era. Many famous artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and da Vinci created masterpieces that are still highly prized centuries later. But there is only one of them whom the Catholic Church ever declared a blessed: Blessed Giovanni da Fiesole.
Blessed Giovanni was born in about 1395 in Rupecanina, Tuscany, just northwest of Florence. Little is known about his parents, who gave him the name Guido di Pietro at his birth. The first of any evidence about the man was recorded on October 17, 1417 when he joined a religious confraternity at the Carmine Church. Although he was only in his early 20s, they recorded his main occupation at the time as a painter.
By this time Guido was already receiving commissions for his work. Records show that he was paid in January and February of 1418 for work done in the Santo Stefano del Ponte Church. When he entered the religious order of the Dominicans in Fiesole, he took the habit and the name of Fra Giovanni.
It appears that his brother also joined the Dominicans and that they both became illuminators who decorated the choir books for churches and monasteries. Many of these artistic works can still be viewed in the religious complex of San Marco in Florence where he and his brother resided.
Sometime between 1408 and 1418 Fra Giovanni resided at the Dominican Friary in Cortona, about 60 miles south of Florence. Here he painted more frescoes. Studies of his style indicated that he probably studied under Lorenzo Monaco, another artist of the Sienese School, emphasizing great detail in human forms as well as showing reflective lighting and depth of field.
Between 1420 and 1422 he returned to the Dominicans in Fiesole, where he again pursued painting. Here he painted frescoes. (A fresco is a mural painting executed upon freshly laid, or wet, lime plaster. Water is used as the vehicle for the pigment to merge with the plaster, and with the setting of the plaster, the painting becomes an integral part of the wall). His frescoes appeared in the friars’ cells and also formed an altarpiece. This same altarpiece has been restored after nearly 500 years and can be viewed in the National Gallery in London.
It is an excellent example of his style. There are as many as 250 persons represented in such detail that they look more like portraits. Furthermore, the illuminating of the holy persons in it is infused with a light — one that demonstrates the use of lighting to express holiness. Certainly Fra Giovanni’s love of God shows through his beautiful work.
In 1425, Lorenzo Monaco died, leaving a marked impression in the art of the Renaissance. Whether or not he began the well-known altarpiece, the Deposition, for Santa Trinita in Florence, is not known for certain.
However, it is certain that Fra Giovanni finished it. Giovanni united the previously disjointed three pieces by adding landscaping and buildings in the background. He painted a vivid hill town which many believe to be his rendition of Cortona where he had spent some time. Once again the attention to detail and the use of special techniques for lighting permeate the art.
Yet another venue for his artwork was the religious complex of San Marco in Florence. It was previously a Benedictine monastery, but the Dominicans took possession of it in 1435. Largely by the generosity of Cosimo de Medici the elder, the restoration and upgrading of the monastery began.
Fra Giovanni was commissioned to paint the cells for the friars as well as some of the walls in the complex. It seems the style here follows that of Gherardo Sternina, another famous Renaissance artist.
Many of Fra Giovanni’s most famous works were painted here, such as the frequently reproduced Annunciation, the Nativity, the Transfiguration, the Mocking by the Soldiers, the Resurrection, and the Coronation of Mary.
In 1439 he began painting the altarpiece that was one of his most famous works. It was a monumental and overwhelmingly beautiful representation of the Blessed Virgin holding the Child Jesus aloft for the saints to adore. The many characters in the sprawling landscapes and the village in the background are depicted as if in conversation regarding the Child.
Other artists of the time soon began to imitate this style, which became known as the Conversations. As his fame spread, it did not affect the humble man. In fact, his holiness seemed to increase with each work he completed.
His gentleness and humble demeanor soon earned him the name Angelic Brother, more commonly known as Fra Angelico. As he picked up his brush to paint, he paused in prayer and then, believing his work was divinely inspired, he never retouched his paintings.
While working as a Dominican friar, he served the poor and never sought higher rank or recognition. His love of Christ was such that he wept whenever he painted the crucifixion or other works representing the Passion and death of Christ.
In 1445 Pope Eugenius IV called Fra Giovanni to Rome to paint the frescoes of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St. Peter’s. This work was demolished by Pope Paul III nearly 100 years later.
It is possible Fra Giovanni was offered the archbishopric of Florence, but turned it down. Instead he recommended his former mentor, St. Antoninus Pierozzi, for the office.
From 1447 to 1449 he designed the frescoes for the Niccoline chapel in Rome, depicting the martyrdom of the deacons Saints Stephen and Lawrence.
From 1440 to 1452 he lived in Fiesole to be the prior of the convent. A few years later he returned to the Dominican Convent in Rome where he stayed until he died, while presumably painting Pope Nicholas’ chapel.
He was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. His epitaph read: “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.”
Fra Giovanni, also known as Fra Angelico, was beatified on October 3, 1982 by Pope John Paul II. His feast is celebrated on February 18.
Dear Blessed Fra Angelico, what beauty you have left in the world in the works you have produced. Pray that artists will continue to portray the beauty and truth of God so that more souls will be drawn to such a loving and merciful father through His Son Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary with all the saints. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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