Sacred Icons and Sacred Images – the Nicene Debate Continues!

AyaSofya
A photo of the inside of the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) church in what is the present-day city of Iznik, Turkey. Iznik was called Nicaea prior to the rule of the Ottoman Turks . This photo shows the interior of one of the rooms in the  building complex that served as the location for the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325). Also, in the late 8th century the Seventh Ecumenical Council met in this building, too. That Council met to debate and decide the issue of iconoclasm (should sacred icons and images be prohibited and destroyed). The written arguments of St. John Damascene (Damascus) won the day and sacred icons were allowed to continue to be made. Iconoclasm was to raise its ugly head again in later years, and came to full fruition during the Protestant rebellion/reformation, the French Revolution, and worldwide Communism in all its cultural forms.  This photo of the inside of the Nicaean building is from Bryan Cross’ website: calledtocommunion.com. It was posted in May, 2010. Thanks Bryan!

I would like to thank one of my readers who identified the  contemporary icon of St. Spyridon (thanks Carol!). The iconographer is the Catholic priest William Hart McNichols. He is a very talented artist who paints traditional icons and sacred images. At times, he steps out of the bounds of the traditional approach and adds his own personal interpretation of the person he is portraying. His artistic vision is unique.

John Daly from Australia emailed me this morning to provide further grist for our mill concerning St. Athanasius, St. Spyridon, and the Council of Nicaea. One of the participants in his iconography school is a Greek Orthodox lady who is the sister-in-law of an Orthodox priest. He is coincidentally named Athanasius.

John had the opportunity to discuss with her the icons that we were analyzing in my posts of the last few days. She provided John some valuable information by explaining  that her mother had given her a beautiful sacred image of the First Council of Nicaea and specifically St. Spyridon’s role in the debate with the heretic Arius. The sacred image is below.

1555507279899blob.png
Greek Orthodox sacred image of the First Council of Nicaea. Notice St. Nicholas on the lower right about to possibly physically strike Arius who reacts by pulling away. On the left you see St. Spyridon, holding a brick with flames streaming upward and water puddling below it to the floor (confer yesterday’s post of April 16th to obtain the explanation of that imagery). The room of the actual Council, as portrayed in this sacred image is quite ornate.

Also, like the sacred icon we examined in yesterday’s post we see the Emperor Constantine, dressed in the royal robes of Byzantine reddish purple (almost a maroon) sitting on the right. On the Emperor’s right we again observe a bishop, maybe its Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, Egypt. In front of him we again see a deacon, dressed in what is either an alb or dalmatic (he would have to stand up to see all the garments).

In the above sacred image, the deacon is again seated at the scribe’s desk. This makes sense, since a deacon serves the administrative needs and report’s directly to his bishop. That is true to this day; yet, throughout the world today the local bishop has his deacons serving in parishes, hospitals, prisons, etc. rather than in an administrative capacity in the local chancery. Notice the bishop is behind the deacon scribe to facilitate accurate communication.

The above sacred  image, which I have never seen before John Daly sending it to me, is very well done. The painter has captured the meaning of the Council as a whole and two of its major participants: St. Nicholas’, in his famous interaction with the heretic Arius, and the great oratorical and mystical abilities of St. Spyridon challenging Arius, too.

Is the deacon pictured in the painting from the Latin Rite or is he Orthodox? Truly, there is no way to accurately tell because the deacon is seated, and what is showing of the deacon’s stole is inconclusive. Depending on the angle of view both the Western and Eastern Rites’ deacon’s stole placement looks the same.

In today’s painting and in yesterday’s post of the icon, the deacon is seated and the possible vertical panel on the Eastern Rite and Orthodox stole is in shadow or not detectable, yet, the panel that drapes from left shoulder and gathers at the waist is visible, and would appear, as you see below, in both Latin, Eastern, and Orthodox Rites!

Just between you and me, I think the deacon depicted in the icon, from my April 16, 2019 post and today’s, is St. Athanasius from Alexandria, Egypt. The Catholic Church, the Eastern Rites in union with Rome, and all the Orthodox Churches venerate St. Athanasius as a great saint and designate specific feast days for him. He belongs to all of us.

The deacon’s stole in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church that are in union with Rome; and, the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox deacon stoles look like this:

Unknown
Orthodox deacon’s stole in a royal Byzantine fabric (in  what appears to be a royal maroon purple) is bordered in gold thread with gold crosses. Originating at the left shoulder, gathered at the waist, with the fabric of the stole hanging vertically on the left shoulder both in the front and the back. The stole is worn on top of  the ornate gold and white dalmatic.

The cassock, alb, stole, and dalmatic all have the same meaning and functions in both the Western and Eastern Rites of the Church. In today’s Western, that is, the Latin Rite (Roman Catholic) tradition, a deacon wears the rank of his ministry and ordination, the stole, over the alb but under the dalmatic. Latin Rite deacons would wear their stole’s in this manner:

th-3
A Roman Catholic deacon’s stole running from the left shoulder and gathered at the waist, then hangs vertically under the right arm. It is worn on top of a white alb, and under a dalmatic. The dalmatic is only worn during Holy Mass. When the deacon performs baptisms, marriage and funeral services, liturgical prayer services, and formal blessings, etc. the deacon would not wear a dalmatic, so the deacon would appear as in the above photo wearing a simple white or cream colored alb and a stole in the appropriate color..  The stole’s fabric in the photo above is dyed dark purple for Lent; during the season of Advent a purple stole is used, too; sometimes, it is of a lighter purple than the Lenten penitential purple. A white stole would be used for Baptisms. Marriages, Funerals, Holy Thursday services, and during the Easter and Christmas season. Red stoles would be worn at Palm Sunday and Good Friday services, Pentecost, and on the feast days of martyrs.
th-5
A Roman Catholic deacon’s dalmatic which is worn over the white alb and the stole. The dalmatic is in the corresponding color to the stole. The color green is worn during “Ordinary” time (which is the liturgical period that borders the great seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter).

I’ve really enjoyed this lively information exchange. Thanks to all who participated in it!

May you have a blessed Easter Tridiuum of the Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Peace be with you.

Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students, and those interested, may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

Saint Nicholas Slaps a Heretic! A Reflection Appropriate for Palm Sunday

The extensive Gospel reading for Palm Sunday relates the Scriptural and historical truth that Jesus  triumphantly entered Jerusalem, yet, five days later He was arrested, put on trial, tortured, and executed.

As you know, the religious and secular leaders of Israel did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. They were adamant about the fact that Jesus was just a man and that His claims, teachings, and healings were all fraudulent.  Their disbelief took place during the first century, yet, two hundred years later there were Christians saying the same thing.

The questions came down to, “Who is Jesus Christ? Is He a man? Is He God? Is He both?”

These were the same questions that the people of Jerusalem, some of them waving palm branches, and their leaders were asking each other.

In the year 325 scholars and clerics were still grappling with those questions, too.

Many deacons, priests, and bishops of the Church had settled the question in their own mind, yet, all of Christendom was not in agreement. Emperor Constantine was worried; as a military man he knew trouble when he saw it. Religious disagreements could easily spread into civil war. Something had to be done.

Stories have come down to us through the centuries that St. Nicholas of Myra, a faith-filled bishop, decided to defend Sacred Tradition and the Scriptural interpretation of the reality of Jesus as the Son of God the Father. The story relates that he not only vigorously defended Sacred Tradition but became so worked up that during one of the debates he slapped the author of this heresy which was called Arianism.

But, was it a verbal or physical slap?

Let’s take a brief look at some of the details:

th
Partial icon of the “incident” at the 1st Council of Nicaea. Immortalized in an early icon. The Early Church was well aware of the importance of this Council in debating and agreeing to the specific dogmas of the Church that would be ultimately proclaimed in the Nicene Creed. All catechumens that enter the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass proclaim their belief in the great Sacred Mysteries and historical truths of the Nicene Creed.

Who: Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bishop, (Myra, an Ancient Greek city on the coast of present day Turkey),  vs.  Arius, priest from the diocese of Alexandria, (Alexandria, a city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline). Emperor Constantine, Roman Empire, centered in the new city named in his honor: Constantinople (present day Istanbul, Turkey). Constantine convenes an ecumenical council of bishops from the five major patriarchies of Christendom (Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome).

What: Supposed incident of Bishop Nicholas “slapping” the priest Arius, at the first ecumenical Council of Bishops: the Council of Nicaea. This was the first Council since the Council of Jerusalem (held in the first century and was attended by luminaries such as St. Peter and St. James).

When: Late Spring and early Summer of the year 325.

Why: The incident concerned the critical issue of who is Jesus Christ, and whether Jesus Christ is “the same in being and the same in essence” as God the Father. Arius was promoting the heresy that Jesus Christ was “just a creature” of God and not a divine Person of the Holy Trinity.

Where: Nicaea, an ancient city in Asia Minor; it is the present day city of Iznik, Turkey.

As it applies to sacred art, the Council of Nicaea provided a specific creed: a set of theological proclamations that impacted  sacred artists from the 4th century to the present day. It is stated clearly in this Creed that God the Father has communicated His love, mercy, and laws to humanity through His revealed word in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. This action culminated in the ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of His incarnated Word, His Son Jesus Christ.

The Nicene Creed definitively proclaimed that Jesus Christ is the same in essence, and the same in being, as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. So we have the great Mystery of the Incarnation, the nature of Jesus Christ: He is both human and divine – the Son of God – One Person with two natures – human and divine.

orthodox_icon_of_our_jesus_pantocrator_of_sinai._large
The above is a 6th century sacred icon of Jesus as Pantocrator. Pantocrator is a Greek word describing the all knowing, all powerful Son of God: Jesus Christ. The Council of Nicaea declared that Christ, as God, is consubstantial: Jesus is the same in essence (substance) and in being as the Father and the Holy Spirit. Also, Jesus possesses two natures: human and divine. This is truly a great Mystery of the Church. The sacred artist of the above icon, probably a monk, used hot pigmented wax (the encaustic method) to render this likeness. This sacred icon is currently located in St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. The face has a striking resemblance to the face on the Holy Shroud of Turin.

The day-to-day proceedings and debate notes of the Council have been lost to history, so we will never know if St. Nicholas gave Arius a physical or just a verbal “slap.” Regardless, St. Nicholas made his point and contributed to giving us the gift of the Nicene Creed.

In AD 381, the Nicene Creed was edited and amended at the First Council of Constantinople (thus, the Creed is called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Try to say that phrase fast, three times!😃).

Thanks for visiting with me. May you have a prayer-filled Holy Week.

Sources for the above post are found in my bibliography post, entitled Early Church Fathers – A Short bibliography of February 8, 2019. I relied primarily on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s works, also Aquilina and D’Ambrosio’s volumes.

Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

 

 

 

Luke: 16: 19-31 – Is Lazarus in Your House?

This passage from the Gospel of St. Luke is a parable about a destitute man named Lazarus and a rich man, who at times is called by the name Dives (the word dives in the Latin Bible refers to a “rich man”).

Jesus places Lazarus sitting day after day by the rich man’s front door. Lazarus is sick. He is at Dives’ home hoping to receive a scrap of food from his table. The food never comes.

Jesus continues to tell the story which culminates in the death of both men and their subsequent judgment.  Lazarus is welcomed into Paradise and is seen talking to Abraham, while Dives is condemned to the flames of Hell hoping for a drop of water to quench his thirst.

The parable concludes with Abraham rejecting Dives’ wish that someone from Paradise will inform his relatives of his eternal sentence in an attempt to get them to change their way of life.

Abraham says that it is fruitless: “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

You see its not just the issue of Dives, as a fellow human being, not providing nourishment and solace to Lazarus. It is the fact that Dives does not even acknowledge Lazarus. He and his servants pass him every day with no perception, no acknowledgement, no understanding, no charity.

How many times have we done that to men and women standing at intersections, asking for a scrap that falls from our table. We get uncomfortable at the thought that they are there. Irritated at bad government decisions that pushed them out on the street, supposedly to be helped by the social justice safety nets; nets filled with holes. I saw a woman today holding a sign that said “I need a miracle.” There was no exclamation point or happy face penned next to it.

Lazarus may be outside our front door, or, even in the house.

Question: are we passing by people in our own family who are in need? The neighbor who lives next door? A member of our parish? Are we passing by Jesus Christ?

Lent is the natural time to reflect on how well we remember and assist, in some small way, those around us who are in need. It may be financial help, or it might just be they need someone to talk to.

Upon reflection, we may find ourselves missing the mark, even committing sins of omission. Let’s remember that, unlike Dives, we still have time to do something about it.

300px-Meister_des_Codex_Aureus_Epternacensis_001
“Meister des Codex Aureus of Echternach” (the Master’s Golden Book of Echternach) – a page from this illuminated Gospel created in the mid 11th century. When seen by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, it stimulated him to commission similar manuscripts from the Abbey of Echternach (Germany).

 

My thanks to Rev. Msgr. Anthony Mancini, Pastor of the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, Providence, Rhode Island USA, for stimulating this blog post.

Copyright © 2011- 2019 Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved.

Christ in the Wilderness: Lent – the Season of Preparation – Luke 4: 1-2.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days He was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, He was famished. (Gospel of Luke chapter 4: verses 1-2)

In the extraordinary painting  below, we see Jesus after He was led into the desert wilderness by the Holy Spirit. He is surrounded by rocks and sand. He sits on a boulder, hands in front of Him. His eyes are filled with the knowledge of reality, of passions, power, and pain, ego and emptiness, sin and self aggrandizement.

This painting may move us from the awareness that in the desert wilderness Jesus is not only thinking through His ministry, Passion, and death but is also viewing our lives – our ministries, our passions, our death.

What do we see?

Let us examine His face.

christ_in_the_wilderness_detail_400

We see the seriousness of the forthcoming temptations; the physical, mental, and the spiritually violent struggle with the devil. It is written plainly upon His emaciated face.

We see the irrefutable fact of Jesus’ humanity.

We see that He is like unto us, except for sin.

This is the face of our Savior; but the victory is not His, yet.

His temptations, public ministry, Passion, and death are still to occur.

What do we see?

We see a man who knows His Mind. He knows His Body, Soul, and Spirit.

He knows His freely accepted duty to accomplish His Father’s will.

This is not the face of a defeated man. It is the face of a determined man who is also Lord and Savior.

**679px-Kramskoi_Christ_dans_le_désert

Observe Christ’s clenched hands, gaze deeply into His eyes, and you will see the artist’s portrayal of a Savior that is already, at the beginning of His ministry, aware of the viciousness of the tempter and the burden of our sins. Sins accepted by Him, and through His Passion and death, makes all things new.

christ_in_the_wilderness_detail_400

Jesus had to confront in that desert assault whether or not He was going to be faithful to His mission.

The Gospel passage above challenges us with the same questions: are we going to be faithful to the Commandments, to our Baptismal promises, to the mission given us in Confirmation to live and practice the truths that He taught us?

Are we going to be faithful to the spiritual power and grace given to us, not just when we feel like it, but even in the most difficult of circumstances?

As disciples of Christ we are on a daily basis constantly revolving around the axis of temptation and sin – faith and grace. We understand that temptation, in and of itself, is a test – it is not sin. It is only sin when we willfully place ourselves in its shackles, when we give into its fueled power to overwhelm our body and soul. That power  – a deadly power – obtains its animus and energy from the original tempter and liar – Lucifer himself.

Hell is real. It is not a mental construct. To say that it doesn’t exist is to call Jesus a liar, and His Passion, death, and Resurrection meaningless.

Jesus the Christ lived heroically in the face of Hell’s demons and witnessed to the power of God’s grace.

But you say, I am not Jesus Christ, I am a weak man or woman, boy or girl.

I say true, we all are; but by virtue of our faithful reception of the Holy Sacraments (Holy Mysteries) of Reconciliation (Penance/Confession) and the Holy Eucharist we have the power of Christ’s grace within us. A power, freely given by God and unmerited by us, to resist and overcome temptation and sin.

If we do sin – if we do “miss the mark” – we have a remedy.  We follow St. Paul’s advice: pick yourself up, dust yourself off (confess your sins), and confidently continue on your journey. We must do our part in cooperation with God’s love and mercy.

The Season of Lent is a time of joyful repentance, prayer, and fasting.

Let’s remember the  words of Nehemiah, who in the Hebrew Scriptures says: Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength! (Nehemiah 8: 9-10. 5th century BC)

***

The painting above was created and completed in the late 19th century by Ivan Kramskoi. He was a gifted Russian painter, noted portraitist, draughtsman, and teacher. The painting is entitled Christ in the Wilderness.

Copyright © 2011- 2019 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Portions of this essay may be used in accordance with correct notation and bibliographical insertion; contact deaconiacono@icloud.com for more information or questions.

Icons – Important Similarities/Differences

Can you pick out the seven similarities between the two sacred icons of Church Apologists that are below? The differences?

IconPM-Irenaeus-2
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (died circa 201). Famous for his manuscripts Against Heresies. He used 21 out of the 27 books of the New Testament in his writings and sermons.

 

SAINT-CLEMENT-I
St. Clement of Alexandria, Egypt.  Born AD 150, died AD 215.                                                               Famous for his manuscripts on the Blessed Mother Mary as the New Eve, the significance of the Holy Eucharist, and other catechetical works.

Let’s take a look at the two icons above.

Both are correct in the way they are represented. From an artistic and symbolic point-of-view there are distinct similarities.

They have seven similarities: the beard (signifying experience, authority, and that the saint is an elder); a large, high forehead (signifying Christian wisdom as influenced by the Holy Spirit which is visualized through the saint’s works and knowledge); the Holy Cross upon the priest’s stole (it appears as a garment that circles the neck and extends down the torso which signifies Christ’s Redemptive suffering and the saint’s  willingness to give witness and suffer for Christ); the presence of the book of the Gospels (the revealed truth of God through His Son, Jesus Christ); the script of the saint’s name at the top or side of the icon; and the halo circling the head (representing the sanctity of the saint).

There are two absolutely necessary and critical indicators that designate a valid orthodox icon or sacred image: the artist must distinguish the person represented with his or her name, and, the icon must give witness to their life and ministry to the Church.

How does the sacred artist accomplish this requirement?

The artist needs to follow this rule: if the person(s) represented is/are a cleric (deacon, priest, or bishop) they need to be clothed with the proper vestments of their rank, and prototypical appearance. If their physical appearance is known (such as St. Therese of Lisieux or St. Maximillian Kolbe) they must be represented in a correct and accurate manner. The artist must also represent some aspect that distinguishes their ministry, such as the Book of the Gospels.

This is also true if the person(s) is/are a martyr, holy man or woman, monk, etc. This is, again, necessary since  the faithful need to know the name of the saint so they “may honor, revere, and give salutation to them and aspire after them” (from The Seventh Ecumenical Council: Concerning the Holy Icons).

The differences between these two icons of Church Fathers are primarily in the icons’ age, the colors used by each sacred artist, the adornment of the garments and book of the Gospels, and whether or not the halo, and area surrounding the figure is gilded. Many of these differences reflect the specific culture the sacred artist lived in, the time period of the artist’s life, and the artistic resources (such as pigments) that were available.

Historically, violent disputes broke out between icon supporters and icon destroyers. The situation came to a head in October AD 787, when the 2nd Council of Nicaea, among other issues, reinstated the validity and necessity of the veneration of holy icons/images. It specifically quoted: Genesis 31: 34; Exodus 25: 19 ff; Numbers 7: 89; and Hebrews 9: 5 ff;) in support of their position. The Council Fathers especially cited various passages of the Fathers of the Church which proved to be critical in the authority of their proclamation. They were also heavily influenced by the writings of St. John Damascene. The Council documents were signed by the Byzantine Empress Irene, as many as (or more than) 300 bishops, and two legates of the Pope.

Sacred icons, sacred images, statues, etc are never worshipped. Worship belongs to God alone as represented in the Holy Trinity. The holy personalities represented give witness to unity with Christ and point us in the truthful –  orthodox –  direction. We venerate sacred statues, icons, and sacred images – never worship them. (See the documents of the 7th Ecumenical Council of the Church (AD 787) to reiterate this position).

Church tradition also warns the sacred artist who paints sacred icons to guard against unnecessary innovations and artistic flourishes. Please remember that in my blog I make a distinction between sacred icons and sacred images. My articles on this subject can be found in the Category window found on the top, right hand side, of my Home Page. You may find that my article A Canon for Catholic Sacred Artists, found in the Category: Sacred Artists, in the month April, 2018 (once there, scroll down to April 2, 2018 and you’ll find the article). That article has a short section in the Notes following the ten elements of my suggested “Canon” that express my opinion on the differences between sacred icons and sacred images.

Thanks for visiting with me. My best wishes for a relaxing weekend.

Copyright © 2011- 2019 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you. Deacon Paul Iacono, at deaconiacono@icloud.com.

 

 

 

Art Schematic of Church Painting

 

This is an easier way to view the material within yesterday’s post.

image001

 

Copyright © 2011- 2018 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Fra Angelico’s Four Reliquaries for the Church of Santa Maria Novella – Part 4 of the “Heaven on Earth” Exhibition

Today’s post is Part 4 in my series that began on May 16, 2018 concerning the recently concluded exhibition of extraordinary egg tempera paintings by the Dominican friar Beato Fra Angelico. The exhibition was held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts during the Spring of 2018 and was entitled Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth.

Nathaniel Silver, Associate Curator of the Collection for this exhibition, includes in his book, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth, articles by eleven scholars. Each paper is a quality contribution to scholarship. There is one article authored by Chiara Pidatella, entitled “The Provenance of the Four Reliquaries for the Church of Santa Maria Novella.” It clarifies and answers the confusion surrounding the provenance of the four reliquaries. Ms. Pidatella has written an important paper in that it compiles the documentary evidence that proves that the four sacred images within the reliquaries in the sacristy of the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, were painted by Fra Angelico. These reliquaries and other Angelico masterpieces were on display in the Gardner Museum.

A reliquary is an ornate elaborately constructed box, frame, etc. that is made of wood or precious metals and contains the remains of an individual or multiple saints. These remains may be small or large particles of bone, hair, etc of the deceased saint.  Depending on the design of the frame the openings for the relics are contained in the top or bottom, and in the center if it is a box with lid. You can see the potential opening for the relics at the top of the frame in The Dormition and Assumption of Mary.  It would be within the top circle that is vertically sliced in the center, the relics would be put in that small opening behind “the doors.” It should be noted that Colnaghi & Co. built a new frame for that painting in 1899. I presume they were loyal to the original design of a gabled early Renaissance reliquary, and that the vertical slice is actually an opening for the relic(s).

The reliquaries in the exhibition are embellished with four extraordinary paintings of events in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ms Pidatella says that “The fact that the saints whose relics they [the reliquaries] contained are not explicitly named suggests that the relics were of minor importance, especially in comparison to others mentioned in the same documents and described with great precision (particularly those decorated with gemstones and precious metals). The third inventory also confirms that all four reliquaries stayed together in the sacristy until at least 1772″ [Pidatella, p. 25]. 

The history of the movements of the four reliquaries is interesting. I won’t go into the historic details yet one incident deserves mentioning  (I recommend that you purchase the book, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth, 2018, Gardner Museum, and Paul Holberton, London). The incident concerns the events of the early 19th century when the French government was required (under orders from Napoleon) to make an inventory of Italian artworks. The result being the French government took a very hard stand in relation to Italian art. Ms. Pidatella mentions their belief “that only France deserved to exhibit works from the most important moments in the history of art” (emphasis mine) [Pidatella, p. 27].   Pretty cheeky.

While three of the reliquaries remained in Florence, the Dormition/Assumption of Mary reliquary (one of four seen below) made its way into a collection of an English family headed by Rev. John Sanford (1777 – 1855; he was the chaplain to the Duke of Cambridge, brother of the British King George IV). This acquisition occurred  in the early 19th century; however economic difficulties led to Sanford’s daughter, Anna Horatia Caroline Methuen, to put this Angelico painting on the market. When this occurred Bernard Berenson recommended Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston to purchase the piece, which she ultimately did in 1899, for £4000 [Howard, p. 18, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth]. The Dormition and Assumption of Mary painting then became the first Fra Angelico to be displayed in the United States. Its current frame (that you will see below) was commissioned by Colnaghi & Co.(art dealers) in 1899. Their focus was to frame it in its original gable design {Howard, p. 18-19, ibid].

It is my privilege to present to you my quickly snapped photos of these masterpieces of the four reliquaries (through the courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) . I will also provide my photograph of the back of one of the reliquaries to show you the wooden panel on which the egg tempera paint was applied. You will see that the panel was covered with a decorated piece of paper-like parchment. The reliquaries are approximately 24 inches tall by 15 inches wide.

The Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi (painted 1426-27) egg tempera and gold on wood panel. This frame is not slightly tipped to the right in reality. It was my attempt to snap a photo before someone stepped in front of me; I didn’t realize the photo was tipped at the time!

IMG_1775

 

IMG_1777

IMG_1710

The above two are closeups of the Annunciation and Adoration. Slight tipping resulting from a quick snap occurred here, too. The green squares to the left of Mary’s head are not part of the painting. I did not use a flash. I don’t know what they are, possibly security lights. Notice the extraordinary grill work in back of the Virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel, and the Magi.

IMG_1703

The Dormition and Assumption of Mary (1433-34, egg tempera and gold on wood panel). Purchased by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1899, making it the first Fra Angelico painting in America. The painting shows in the lower section the Dormition (falling asleep, death, and above it the resurrection of Mary, the Mother of God ( that is, Mother of Jesus’ human nature) and her simultaneous Assumption into Heaven. The angel, dressed in a blue garment to the left of the frame, is one of a number of larger than life size posters that graced the black walls surrounding the exhibit. These poster angels were copied from Fra Angelico’s paintings. They provided a dramatic effect to the entire exhibit.

Adj ASSUMPTION FRA A.

The above is a closeup of Mary which has also been expanded into a larger than life size poster image found in the above Assumption painting. This image was the first you saw as you rounded the second floor stairs into the exhibit at the Gardner Museum. It was taken from the above reliquary on the Dormition and Assumption of Mary and introduced visitors to the beauty of the exhibit.

IMG_1707

The Coronation of the Virgin (1429). The lower image within this reliquary is contained in a small rectangular panel called a predella. It shows the Adoration of the Christ Child by Mary, St. Joseph, and six angels. It also is completed in egg tempera, gold, on a wooden panel. You see more poster angels taken from the Dormition and Assumption of Mary painting in pink and blue garments to the right of this reliquary on the black walls of the exhibit.

IMG_1709

This is a closeup of the Coronation of the Virgin found within the above reliquary. Below are gathered a group of saints. The saint looking over his shoulder at the viewer near the extraordinary translucent stairs is Saint Peter holding the keys of Heaven. St. John the Baptist is on his left. Dominican saints, St. Peter Martyr and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas are also present, St. Francis of Assisi showing the stigmata in his hands, two deacons (St. Stephen, the first martyr (protomartyr), and possibly the deacon St. Benjamin, and some Old Testament prophets. St. Thomas Aquinas (above within the  bigger photo) is looking at the viewer. He is situated next to a pope (the Benedictine Gregory the Great?), possibly placed in that position because both Aquinas and the pope were not martyrs.

IMG_1720

The Madonna della Stella (The Madonna of the Star, 1433/34). Within the predella are the major saints of the Dominican Order (Order of Preachers). Saint Dominic (middle) flanked on the right by St. Thomas Aquinas and on the left by Saint Peter Martyr. The small circular photo of the Church of Santa Maria Novella on the back wall of the exhibit accidentally was included in my quick snap of this picture.  It is interesting that it appeared, I did not plan it. It is the church that the four reliquary paintings were originally housed before they were split up during the last two and one-half centuries.  Presently the Gardner Museum has the Dormition/Assumption of Mary reliquary staying in its collection and the other three will be returned to the Museo San Marco in Florence, Italy.

 

IMG_1722

Closeup of the Madonna della Stella, showing the symbolic colors of the garments worn by the figures. The color blue represents divine attributes, which in the Blessed Mother’s case, represents the belief that she was always immaculate – without sin – and that the Holy Spirit “overshadowed” her resulting in the Incarnation taking place within her physical body. The presence of her immaculate nature was within Mary from the moment of her conception. The Latin Rite, the Eastern Rites in union with Rome, the Coptic Church, and the Orthodox Rites believe that Mary is not God, or a goddess. All of these Rites and Churches do not worship Mary; she is venerated by them. Worship and veneration are two very different concepts; they should never be equated.

The color red of Mary’s inner cloak (as well as Jesus’ outer cloak) represents their human nature. The orange trim of her cloak represents the specific spiritual illumination, and self knowledge, of her status as the Mother of Jesus’ human nature, not His divine nature.

With the two lower angels you notice that the blue/red colors are reversed. The inner cloak is blue representing their spiritual illumination and unique qualities/functions, yet, their outer cloak is red. This is done because Fra Angelico represents them all with human features, but, in the case of the two lower angels he represented their outer cloaks as red. I can place no other interpretation on it other than to say that because Jesus and Mary were resurrected from the dead, and have new physical bodies (with unique and specific qualities) the angels dressed in red outer cloaks may be serving Mary’s physical needs (whatever they may be) in Heaven. Heaven is viewed as both a physical (while different from ours) and a spiritual dimension.

As you know, angels are spiritual beings living within the divine atmosphere of Heaven. According to the Latin Rite (Roman Catholic) and other Rites, there are nine “choirs” of angels; each choir possesses specific attributes and functions. Fra Angelico may be distinguishing one “choir” from another through the different colors of the angels’ garments. Angels are pure spiritual beings; they do not have human features or bodies. They are represented that way in Latin and Greek Rite paintings, and some of them in the Holy Scriptures, in order to give the observer/reader a way to relate and understand their functions.

The Dominican Order was keen on expressing the theology of illumination as expressed in the Blessed Mother, their founder – St. Dominic (who illuminated Europe with his sermons against heretics) – and the illumination of the doctrines and dogmas of the Catholic faith provided through the writings of 13th century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas.

For Mary, Fra Angelico expressed that illumination through the orange pigment of Mary’s inner garment and the extraordinary gilding of the rays of light emanating from Mary and Jesus’ bodies. Notice that Fra Angelico shows the love between the two by having the child Jesus place His head close to His Blessed Mother as if He is about to give her a kiss with the Madonna lovingly holds Him.

IMG_1723

Closeup of the Madonna della Stella; also showing a lovely lavender angel on her left.

IMG_1715

The back of one of the reliquaries showing the structure of the wooden panel, and its decorated paper covering. On the front Fra Angelico applied a base coat of gesso, and then his egg tempera paints and gilding.

I hope you enjoyed viewing my four part series on this extraordinary work by Beato Fra Angelico – Fra (Friar) Giovanni di Fiesole. My deep gratitude to Peggy Fogelman  (Director), Nathaniel Silver (Associate Curator) and the very talented staff  of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for bringing these masterpieces to America. For my wife and I it was a once in a lifetime experience. Congratulations to them and my sincere thanks, too.

I will be featuring some of the remaining single paintings within this exhibition at appropriate times during 2018-19. Some of the remaining Fra Angelico images from this exhibit are the marriage of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother, the Deposition (taking down) of Jesus from the Cross, another painting of the Dormition of Mary, and events in the life of of Saints Cosmas and Damian.

June 12, 2018

© Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018 – text and photos. Photos were taken through the courtesy and generosity of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. I took the photos with an iPhone 6, no flash.