Each saint has a unique way of imitating Jesus. Fra Angelico’s way was as an artist. I like to think that as Jesus mixed dirt with spit and made mud to apply to the blind man’s eyes, so Fra Angelico mixed pigment with egg and applied it to canvas, opening eyes to the beauty of the Incarnation.
Art springs forth from the inner experience of the artist. When one looks at a Fra Angelico painting, we gain insight into the tremendous faith that he had. His well-known saying, “One who wishes to paint Christ’s story must remain with Christ,” seems to come alive in each of his masterful brush strokes. In his depiction of the Annunciation, for example, Mary is portrayed with such a perfect combination of pure feminine beauty, wonder, devotion, and a faith-filled embrace of the Angel’s message, that it could only have come from Fra Angelico’s own prayerful meditation. The fact that he could paint his meditation with such refined precision makes anyone who has ever picked up a brush shake their heads in awe.
Fra Angelico’s art gives testimony to the reality that all of us are called to lend our creative gifts to the glory of God. While only a few become masters like the Angelic Painter, each one’s gifts can truly move and inspire others to faith. In the Church where I celebrate Mass on Sundays, I often watch people enter in off the busy Manhattan streets, take a deep breath, sit or kneel down, and enter into prayer. The stained-glass windows, the architecture, the frescos, the statues, the choir singing—all make that pithy phrase that sums up our Catholic sacramental world-view, “The invisible is made visible through the physical” come alive for people today, thanks to artists who have lent their creative gifts to make it possible.
Fra Angelico’s art can also remind us of an important part of the Theology of the Body. Our bodies are important and God takes them seriously. It is through our bodies—our senses, to be specific—that we take in the world around us. When we open our eyes, our hearing, and our mind to God, our senses seem to widen to their largest capacity, and through beauty, through art, through music, we can have an authentic religious experience.
I think that when we find inspiration we need to pause and ask ourselves, “Why? What is this saying to me? Where is this coming from?” I like to think how Jesus himself was inspired when he looked out at the beauty of creation or the majesty of the temple. It must have been remarkable for him, as he had the knowledge that what he saw had been created by the One whom he called by that most intimate of words: Abba. While it would be impossible to experience the unique inspiration that came from Jesus’ union with the Father, I can take seriously what inspires me and points me to God, and stop to ponder and marvel at it. Perhaps this was part of Fra Angelico’s secret: “He who does Christ’s work must stay with Christ always.” Fra Angelico “stayed with” the inspirations that came from Christ, made them his own, and did his best to communicate them through his art.
Our Catholic faith is alive with a galaxy of artistic inspiration, all fruit of the encounter between Christ and the inspiration and creativity of mankind. Each person who lends their gifts to God finds that their voice, their pen, their brushstrokes, their expression, can help inspire others to seek God. Even more, that by the work of the Holy Spirit, God can encounter us through what they have created. Today, on the feast of Blessed Fra Angelico, let us pray for all who desire to use their creative gifts to glorify God.
Perhaps we would like to ask Fra Angelico to intercede for us too, that we might know how our own talents can be used to inspire others to pause before the greatest message ever: The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us!
To download a PDF version of this homily, click here: Fra Angelico
Fr. Jason Smith, LC was ordained in Rome on December 23, 2006. The first years of his priesthood were dedicated to youth work. Presently he is the director of Regnum Christi in the NY Tri-State region. On Sundays he can be found at the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral in lower Manhattan. He enjoys art, baseball, photography, the outdoors, and strong coffee, except strong coffee is first. Father Jason has attended courses and has been a chaplain for courses at the Theology of the Body Institute.