A message from Father Nick 33
San Marco, a convent in Florence (1)
We tend to think of “convents” as places of female religious life, but the word can be used for communities of either sex – in this case it describes a house of Dominican friars. In 1436, Guido di Pietro was among a group of Dominicans moved from Fiesole to the newly built convent of San Marco in Florence. Guido is better known to us as the painter Fra Angelico, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982. The chronicler Vasari, who gives us brief accounts of the great Italian artists, says of him, “The rare and perfect talent which Fra Angelico enjoyed neither can nor should be granted to anyone who does not lead a thoroughly holy life.”
Fra Angelico astonished Vasari by the number of paintings he produced and he was greatly admired by the Medici family, but among his most beautiful works are those he created for his own friary. Even today, when the friars’ cells are no longer occupied, it is profoundly moving to walk along the upper corridors and see in each room a small masterpiece of fresco illustrating a scene from the Gospel.
These were painted not simply to please the friars but as an aid to their spiritual growth, and they make San Marco a little school of theology. Take just two of the pictures, which represent two great stages of salvation: The first is large and greets visitors as they climb the convent stairs. It is the famous Annunciation scene, where a series of arches mirrors the cloister and frames the encounter between Gabriel and Mary. Two figures bow towards each other in acceptance of God’s Will. Each is framed separately, and between them lies the future of the world. Recalling it, the cultural critic George Steiner describes a “’terrible beauty’ or gravity breaking into the small house of our cautionary being. If we have heard rightly the wing-beat and provocation of that visit, the house is no longer habitable in the same way as it was before.”
The second painting is a Resurrection scene – again, an image of God’s communication to a woman. Mary Magdalene, who has remained at the tomb while her companions have rejoined their friends, is the first disciple to see the risen Lord. Like Mary at the Annunciation she becomes a privileged witness of the Good News – the news of Jesus being “born” from the dead. The arches here are formed by trees and tomb, and she kneels to embrace her Lord, who tells her she must not yet cling to him… She must carry this news to her brothers and sisters, telling them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” The great work of salvation is complete.