St. Athanasius and St. Spyridon: A Correction and Another Interpretation – Let’s Take A Closer Look!

I am always very appreciative of my readers writing to me and providing new information and interpretations of sacred icons and images. Happily, that occurred last evening when a reader, Mr. John Daly from Australia, provided me with information on the second icon that was in yesterday’s post on St. Athanasius. Let me provide you with that image so we will have a reference point:

THE_FIRST_COUNCIL_OF_NICEA
This is the sacred icon of a bishop confronting a heretic at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325). Mr. John Daly of Melbourne, Australia informed me that we should take a closer look at the details of this icon because of how it depicts the bishop’s castigation of the heretic. I concluded erroneously that it must be St. Athanasius since he was a pivotal orthodox figure at the Council. Even though he was a deacon at that time, and not a bishop at the Council, he was ordained a priest and bishop about three years later, so the iconographer just inserted him as a bishop. Mr. Daly recommends a closer look to discover that it is St. Spyridon of Cyprus.

Mr. Daly is correct – it is St. Spyridon (born AD 270, died 340).

Let’s take a look at the reasons for this correction:

  1. The bishop castigating the heretic Arius is wearing a distinctive hat. The hat is unique. It is shaped like a beehive. It is made of woven straw and was traditionally worn by Cypriot and other shepherds tending their flocks – an apt metaphor for a bishop caring for the flock of his faithful.
  2. St. Spyridon was from the island of Cyprus, and eventually became a bishop serving the people of Trimythous, thus, he would have been invited to the First Council of Nicaea as were all the other bishops in Christendom.
  3. At another time, possibly in Cyprus, St. Spyridon was involved in a debate with a pagan philosopher whom he ultimately converted to Christianity. Besides his theological arguments about the Holy Trinity, the good bishop used a piece of pottery or a brick, to demonstrate to the philosopher how you could have one single substance be also composed of three separate substances (pottery and bricks consist of clay, water, and are unified by the substance of fire).
  4. The story of his discussion with the pagan philosopher continues and says that as soon as St. Spyridon finished speaking the piece of pottery or brick burst into flame, water dripped from it, and clay ash remained in his hand. Well that would have been enough to place me on the road to conversion, and so it was with the philosopher, too. If you look closely at the icon above you can perceive the fire bursting out of the brick and the water puddling beneath it. Hmm, I didn’t see that! As Sherlock Holmes once said, “Watson, you see, but you do not  observe” (taken from the story A Scandal in Bohemia by Sir A.C. Doyle).  Wise advice.
  5. Mr. Daly also relates that it was [and probably still is] common for an iconographer to fuse the two incidents of St. Spyridon converting a pagan, and St. Spyridon at the Council of Nicaea debating with the heretic Arius.
  6. There it is: the beehive woven straw hat, the bishop’s vestments, the water, fire and ash metaphor, the confrontation with an individual that has an opposite argument, and the public venue for both incidents.
  7. So where is St. Athanasius in this icon? Mr. Daly offers that in the upper left corner of the icon, we see an individual portrayed as listening intently to St. Spyridon. He is dressed in a dark alb with a white collar. He suggests that this is St. Athanasius. That argument makes some sense because, as a deacon, Athanasius may not have been up front with the bishops, rather he possibly would be located near the altar ready to perform his diaconal duties. At the same time he is still involved in the proceedings, and/or ready to respond to the needs of his bishop – Alexander of Alexandria.  You notice the priests and monks in the back of the room, too, in dark conical monastic hats and cassocks.
  8. My only issue with that interpretation is that the figure portrayed in the upper left does not have a nimbus (halo) circling his head, nor is he wearing his deacon’s stole; however, the scribe in the lower left corner is wearing a deacon’s stole. My stole comes across my chest from the left shoulder and is gathered at the right hip; and the scribe’s stole does the same thing. Is this individual St. Athanasius? There appears to be writing on his stole. I have no proficiency in Greek so I cannot be of help there.
  9. The scribe in the lower left corner has a halo, too, and so do all the bishops. Did the iconographer think that all the bishops present were saints?  This is not unlikely, since they produced a Creed for Christendom in three months. Truly, a stunning achievement. It indicates that the assembled bishops were very clear in their own minds what the Faith, based on Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, was all about. The bishops all appear very animated and involved in the Council proceedings. It’s obvious that the Holy Spirit was working within that Council!
  10. There is a lot going on in the upper part of this icon, too. Christ, as a young child, is found walking across what appears to be an altar towards another bishop. That bishop on the upper right is seen discussing some issue with, possibly, another dissenter (a priest, or deacon; even though the priests and deacons in attendance didn’t vote, they certainly could influence the bishop of their diocese on issues and arguments).
  11. Sadly, I believe that the only existing documents that we have concerning this Council that are still in existence are the Nicene Creed itself, the procedural rules of the Council, and Emperor Constantine’s address to the assembled bishops. It is said that many of the bishops came, returned to their dioceses, and then came back to the Council. This probably contributes to the fact that we don’t have all the names of the participating bishops, just those mentioned in other documents or in the stories that were passed on through to the faithful (confer Anna Erakhtina’s article The “Model of Meekness,” and Slapping Arius, at http://www.orthochristian.com, May 22, 2016, specifically the contribution by Archpriest Vladislav Tsypin. He discusses the documents available to us today). If anyone has additional information on the actual participants please tell me your source, and the participants, and I will spread the information through a post.
  12. St. Spyridon was also known as a miracle worker, especially for his successful intervention (caused by the prayers of the soldiers and sailors of the Catholic Rites) in the 1716 battles with the invading Ottoman Turks on the Greek island of Corfu.

John, thanks again; this was a fun interaction.

Additional images of St. Spyridon:

ST. Spyridon Orthodox
A contemporary Sacred Icon of St. Spyridon showing his beehive woven straw hat, his bishops stole, the blazing potsherd or brick with water dripping from it, and his holding the book of the Gospels (dogmatic truth based on the Holy Scriptures and the Sacred Apostolic Traditions of the Western and Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church. If anyone knows that artist that is responsible for this beautiful icon please tell me and I will credit him/her in this post. Icon found on Wikipedia and originates at St. Spyridon Orthodox Church in Loveland, Colorado (thanks to them for posting the image of this magnificent icon).
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A medieval icon of St. Spyridon, wall fresco, Bulgarian Orthodox, found in the  Zemen Monastery, Bulgaria. Photograph may have been taken by I.E. Stankov in 2012 using a Canon EOS 600D camera.

In the Roman Catholic Church, St. Spyridon is venerated on his feast day, December 14th; and on December 12th in the Eastern Rites and the Orthodox Church.

Thanks for stopping by and reading this post.

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.

Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32. The Prodigal: Which Brother Are We?

I once heard a friend repeat a quote by the author Katherine Mansfield: If you wish to live, you must first attend your own funeral.”

How true. We begin to live life perceptively only when we project ourselves to the time of our own death, imagining how we’ve lived our life and wondering whether we’ve met the mark.

Depending on our frame of mind, and perspective on life, we may not include the spiritual in our self-assessment, or, only give it a passing thought. That is why Mansfield’s phrase may be viewed as spiritually deficient.

In today’s Gospel on the parable of the Prodigal Son there are family members that Jesus is requiring us to understand. The behavior of these people, the father and the two sons, provokes four questions. Questions not so much about our secular situation but our spiritual – our relation to God, and, each other.

At first glance, the younger son impresses us as an individual who is quite selfish. When he requests his inheritance from his father, he isn’t just asking for the cash, he is in effect saying to his father: “I want to live my life now and without any strings attached. To me you’re unimportant, this family is unimportant. Just let me get on with my life and give me my share right now.”

Are we living in  a way that categorizes God? Are we willing to acknowledge  Him only because we want to get something out of Him? Do we play upon His charity and generosity?

If this is so, if we have the younger son’s attitude, we end up like him – swimming with the pigs.  What will be our inheritance? It will undoubtedly be spiritual poverty and secular discontent. Sadly, sometimes people understand this only in the last few months of their life, or, in the moments right before their death.

Jesus is teaching us that the prodigal son was only able to enter into a state of recovery when he “attended his own funeral.” When he was able to perceive his own personal endpoint, his own material and spiritual poverty. He was finally able to admit that he was grievously wrong only when this realization slammed into his consciousness.

His new perception demanded that he learn the root causes of his problem, reject his worldly self, and humbly ask for repentance. He needed to realize that his father and family were all important to his happiness. This required acceptance of and humbly requesting his father’s mercy and love.

This perception did not demand psychoanalysis. He did not need years of therapy on a psychologist’s couch. He had the intelligence to figure it out because he confronted himself as he truly was and extended that personal analysis to his family and surroundings. He acknowledged his sins, and how truly needy he was of his father’s love and mercy.

We are half way through the Season of Lent. Like the younger son, have we confronted our own faults, our lack of perception, and yes – our own sins?

The Prodigal says: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you.”

This is the turning point in the Prodigal’s life. It can also be ours.

Improvement begins with a decision to change the way we do things, the way we behave and perceive reality, both in a secular and spiritual sense. If you are a Western Rite Catholic, this is accomplished in three ways: Sacramental Confession, prayer, and resolution of purpose. Reconciliation is always possible. Our God is a God of justice, but also, a God of infinite familial love and mercy.

Do we behave like the younger son or the elder son? Are our hearts cold?

What the younger son ultimately accepts the elder son initially rejects. At first, the elder son resents the generosity of the father’s love – he resents the generosity of the act of forgiveness. It appears that he is unable to accept his repentant brother or his generous father.

Does this, in any way, apply to us? Do we ignore the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s love for us; do we resent people who have converted, changed their spiritual way of life? Or do we continue to judge them as if they were still enveloped by their sins? Do we verbalize our resentment or question their repentance? Are we unwilling to repent of these attitudes? Are our hearts cold?

I am a sinner and you are a sinner. There are very few people on this earth that are living saints. Regardless of whether our sins are small or large, visible or hidden, it is paramount that we remember the words of St. Paul: God the Father “reconciles us to Himself [through the passion and death of His Son] and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him [Jesus Christ] to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5: 17-21).

We need to take stock of ourselves this Lenten season, repent and return to the Father’s embrace. This can only be done through the Sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation – a Sacrament made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

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Painting by James Tissot (French; 1836 – 1902). “Return of the Prodigal Son.”

Thank you for reading this post.

 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Holy Trinity – Communication Through Word and Art

Is communication just a trait of human beings? Is it a trait of God?

The Dogma of the Holy Trinity is one of the great Mysteries of the Christian Faith.  All Christians acknowledge and accept that The One True God, the divine Holy Trinity, are three separate and distinct Persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity is not three separate Gods. They are one God in three Divine Persons. This is known as the dogma of the “consubstantial” Trinity: each of the three Persons is God – completely and entirely.

These ideas were debated and verified by the assembled bishops at the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 and subsequent Councils (specifically the ecumenical Council of Nicaea/Constantinople in AD 381).

In the 13th century the Fourth Lateran Council stated: “Each of the Persons is that supreme reality (nature, essence, and substance) of God” (confer Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, paragraphs 198 through 315, pp. 54-84).

These three Divine Persons relate and communicate among themselves and desire to communicate and relate with Their creation. This is verified through Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the historic teachings of the Apostles, the Ecumenical Councils, and the saints of the Church.

The  first of Their creation, the nine choirs of angels, communicate with God and each other, too.

Obviously, human beings communicate and relate through speech, behavior, and the written word, though at times, not very well. To a much lesser extent, there is “communication” in the other members of the animal kingdom (by instinct, chemical, and behavioral signals) and in the plant kingdom (through chemical signals).

God the Father has communicated specifically through His Word, the incarnated Son, Jesus Christ. In accordance with the Father’s will the human Jesus is “born of a woman” into space and time through the great Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ.

Jesus agreed to humbly obey His Father’s will. Through His Incarnation the Divine Son Jesus expresses His two natures: human and divine. He does this while “hiding” the full majesty of His divinity (except for the moments of His Transfiguration, Resurrection, and subsequent appearances to His Apostles).

The Holy Spirit (as the Council of Florence stated in 1439) “Is eternally from the Father and Son; He has His nature and subsistence at once from the Father and the Son. He proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and through one spiration (the life-giving breath of God).”

“When the Father sends His Word to His Creation He also sends His Breath. “Jesus and the Holy Spirit are on a joint mission, while at the same time being distinct but inseparable. It is the Son who is seen, the visible image of the invisible God, while it is the Holy Spirit that reveals Him.” (please refer to page 181 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, also pages 54 through 90).

The Holy Spirit communicates and spiritually shapes us through the Holy Scriptures, liturgical and private prayer, the teachings of the Western and Eastern Rites of the Church, and with the Father and Son in the seven Holy Sacraments (in the Eastern Rites – the Holy Mysteries).

The solemnity of Pentecost recalls the full expression of the Holy Spirit’s “Fruits and Gifts” to the Apostles, and through the Holy Sacraments to us, too  (refer in the Christian Scriptures to the Acts of the Apostles chapter 2, verses 1 – 42; and in St. Paul’s letters to the Galatians chapter 5: verses 22 ff; and 1st Corinthians chapter 12, verses 4 ff; also refer in the Hebrew Scriptures  to the book of the prophet Isaiah chapter 11, versus 2 – 3).

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“The Trinity”: early 15th century; egg tempera and gold on wood panel by St. Andrei Rublev (1370 – 1430).  St. Rublev was a Russian Orthodox monk. He resided and “wrote” with egg tempera paint to produce images of God, the angels, and the saints in sacred  icons. He lived at St. Sergius Monastery in Moscow, Russia. His sacred icon above captures some of  the truth of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity communicating with each other. God the Son, Jesus Christ, is the figure in the center of this painting.  You see two of His fingers extended to express His human and divine nature, and in a pointing gesture, to the “Cup of His Blood”  made manifest through His Redemptive sacrifice. In this masterpiece you observe the colors blue representing divine life and purple madder/burgundy signifying Christ’s humanity. God the Father is on your left and God the Holy Spirit is on your right. The Holy Spirit is garbed in blue and in green as a symbol of new life and spiritual growth through prayer and the Holy Sacraments (Holy Mysteries). God the Father is painted in both blue, green, and a very light, transparent gold ochre. The First Council of Nicaea (AD 325) verified and promoted the Dogma of the Holy Trinity. This Dogma was reaffirmed, and further explained by the Council of Nicaea/Constantinople in AD 381.

 

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A contemporary copy of the original Trinity by Rublev.

God the Father sent His Son to be born of a woman through the fecundity of the Holy Spirit. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ changed the Universe. God became flesh and walked among us. Why?  In order to teach, heal, and redeem us from our sins. The New Covenant with His creation is written in His Blood. There is, if you have the gift of faith, ample proof that God wants to communicate with you.

It is up to each man and woman to honestly determine whether or not they are ignoring Him, and if so, to decide what to do about it. Time is short.

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

God is a God of Compassion

“God of all compassion, Father of all goodness,

to heal the wounds our sins and selfishness bring upon us

You bid us turn to fasting, prayer, and sharing with our brothers and sisters.

We acknowledge our sinfulness, our guilt is ever before us;

when our weakness causes discouragement,

let your compassion fill us with hope

and lead us through a Lent of repentance to the beauty of Easter joy.

Grant this through Christ our Lord.”*    Amen.

 

*Roman Breviary – Vol. 2; Third Sunday of Lent, Evening Prayer I, Closing Prayer, pg. 210.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_-_The_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Detail_Father_Son

Rembrandt-The_return_of_the_prodigal_son
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669.

Roman Catholic Sacred Art: A Prayer to Accompany The First Theological Theme

“And only where God is seen does life truly begin.

Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is.

We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution.

Each of us is the result of a thought of God.

Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.

There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ.

There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.”

          The above was written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

If I may add just a few lines inspired by his thoughts:

There is nothing more beautiful than to become aware of what Jesus sacrificed for us in order to make us members of His family.

There is nothing more beautiful than when we repent of our sins, implore His mercy, and amend our lives, in love for Him.

There is nothing more beautiful than an innocent child in their mother’s womb and  being cared for by a loving parent(s).

A relevant theme: as Americans, regardless of religious creed, we need to remember the sixty million nine hundred and ninety-six thousand, nine hundred and ninety-four abortions, that is, the murder of 60 million, 996 thousand, 994 innocent children, that have been surgically murdered since the Roe vs, Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1/22/1973. This number does not include those abortions that have been chemically induced. The estimate for chemically induced abortions in the United States is approximately 250 million children.

In the United States today one abortion is performed every 20 seconds.

World statistics, which began being tabulated in 1980, total: 1,522,353,500. murdered children.

In the world today one abortion is surgically performed every second.

The source for these statistics is a non partisan reproductive health and family planning organization known as the Guttmacher Institute. These statistics, tabulated minute-by-minute, can be found at: http://www.numberofabortions.com

What can Americans do? Those that are against abortion can do three things: physically protest by legally, prayerfully, and peacefully demonstrating in front of abortion clinics and through legal and peaceful mass demonstrations. Catholic Americans that are unable to do so because of age, employment, or health concerns can prayerfully say the Holy Rosary every day. The Rosary can be found on-line by just entering the title – Holy Land Rosary. This will take you to a number of sites, some contain music, others such as the one (which I find very beautiful in its pace and view of Holy Land sites), linked here, is prayed by a Canadian Catholic priest and his Holy Land Tour group: https://youtu.be/a3Z3Sfp_0bA

You can say a prayerful Glorious, Joyful, Sorrowful, and Luminous Rosary at this site. An entire Mystery of five decades can be prayed in under 20 minutes. Save it to your phone, say it while driving or performing other tasks with the intention of interceding with Jesus and His Blessed Mother to touch the hearts of mothers and medical personnel so they do not proceed with the abortions.

A child or children’s lives depend on our prayers.

God bless your daily efforts to end this Satanic scourge of the world’s children.

Thank you.

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Closeup of the face on the Holy Shroud of Turin. At right is a forensic artist’s recreation of a potential human likeness of the image found on the Shroud.

 

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

What is Art?

Hello!  Glad to be back after a series of learning experiences which took me away from the keyboard. I see from the website’s analytics that we are still popular on a worldwide level (thank you!). I also appreciate and thank all of the hundreds of subscribers that have stayed with this blog and continue to use and enjoy the material I’ve presented and the many tens of thousands that have popped in and out over the past seven years.

Last week I made a church presentation (a power point lecture) on “Our Blessed Mother and Sacred Art Applied to Prayer.” For the upcoming weeks, during the Advent and Christmas seasons, I will be presenting to you – in short form – my lecture notes accompanied by relevant sacred and religious art. This is probably one of the busiest times of the year so I will be blogging it to you in small doses on a frequent basis. If you use any of it in your work, ministry, or studies please reference me. Thanks.

My lecture had  three major goals:

  1. What is Art and its forms of sacred, religious, and absurd religious painting?
  2. What are the major/minor stages of  sacred art within the history of the Roman Catholic Church?
  3. How do we apply sacred art, specifically in reference to the Blessed Mother, to the prayer form of Lectio Divina?

Let’s tackle the first part of the first goal: What is Art?

My perception is that art is a process in which an artist: 

  1. Creatively thinks,
  2. Makes a product (there are seven major historical disciplines in which products are made: architecture, drama, literature, music, painting, poetry, and sculpture),
  3. Intends that the product will cause a reaction/response (for the artist alone and/or from the public).

The above process occurs in all seven major disciplines of art. More recent historical artistic disciplines such as photography, computer art, grand and small scale landscape architecture possess this process, too.

Also, Professor Dennis J. Sporre has discussed that “Art has four functions: artifact, entertainment, social and political commentary, and therapy. These functions, or options, are not mutually exclusive, nor is one more important than the others” (found in his book The Creative Impulse, Prentice Hall, 4th ed., 1996. When I taught Humanities years ago this highly valuable book was one of the foundation blocks of my lectures and activities).

Tomorrow I will discuss Roman Catholic sacred art within the discipline of painting.

Thanks for joining me today.

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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

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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.