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Advent and Sacred Art

Our Dominican Order is noted for its intellectual tradition, especially luminaries such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert the Great. These saints have contributed greatly to the intellectual and theological advancement of the Church. Aquinas, especially, has led us to a better understanding of our human nature and our desires for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Aquinas, mostly through his written works, has touched the minds of many who seek the Truth.

In this post, I’d like to highlight a distinct but complimentary manner of reaching the human person—through visual means, through the beauty of sacred art. Within the Catholic Church at large, we have our Michelangelos and El Grecos. But even within our own Dominican history we have a great contributor to the Church’s sacred art tradition: Fra Angelico. Sacred artists touch their audience not primarily through an intellectual channel, but through a visual one. Their works ‘aim’ at a different part of the human person than do the written works of theologians. People see and are touched by DaVinci’s Last Supper or Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew that may never take the opportunity to read Aquinas. Given its broad attraction and ability to touch people at a nonverbal level, it is important that we appreciate and foster sacred art.

In this season of Advent, we might start with one of Fra Angelico’s most known works, The Annunciation, a visual representation of that very moment when the Word became flesh (John 1:14). During Advent, we prepare to celebrate Christ taking on our humanity and becoming man. Jesus takes a bodily, concrete existence on this earth. Fra Angelico’s work invites us into a meditation on the event of the Incarnation. In many of his works in the Dominican priory of San Marco, Fra Angelico explicitly cues his Dominican brothers to meditate on the mysteries of the faith he presents. We can see this in one of his presentations of the Annunciation painted in a friar’s cell. Here, Fra Angelico depicts St. Peter Martyr looking on as the event occurs. Fra Angelico invites us viewers to assume the role of St. Peter Martyr in the painting, and likewise to contemplate the mystery prayerfully.

The creation of sacred art is also a spiritual exercise for the artist. One of Fra Angelico’s biographers claimed that he never retouched a work once it was finished since he believed its original form is what God wanted. Fra Angelico prayed that the works of his brush manifest God’s desire. He asked to be made a secondary cause to a work that God was making. He said, “to paint the things of Christ, one must live with Christ.” This motto may serve all of us, whether we are artists or not—that we be made instruments for what God wants to accomplish through us. May we allow ourselves to be brushes in the hand of the Divine Painter and allow Him to make us part of his new creation.

Br. Scott Norgaard, O.P.  | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE