The art essay of the month

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1447–1449) by Fra Angelico (c. 1400–1455)

This fresco of Saint Thomas Aquinas is found at the Vatican in the Chapel of Pope Nicholas V, a small, private chapel (now part of the Museums) which Nicholas commissioned one of the leading artists of his day to paint: Fra Giovanni of Fiesole (c. 1400–1455), also known as Fra Angelico.

Angelic painter, angelic doctor

Fra Angelico, like Saint Thomas Aquinas, was a follower of Saint Dominic, taking vows in the Order of Preachers. And like Saint Thomas Aquinas, he worked tirelessly in service to the Church. Whereas Aquinas spent his life teaching and writing works of extraordinary depth and breadth, from commentaries on Scripture to philosophical and theological treatises, as well as hymns and prayers, Fra Angelico worked his whole life as a painter, creating numerous works in a variety of forms: miniature manuscript illuminations, altarpieces, devotional panels, and frescoes in chapels in Florence, Rome, and elsewhere.

Both Dominican priests, both exemplifying a Dominican motto derived from Saint Thomas Aquinas’ own writing, Contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere—to contemplate and to hand on to others the fruit of contemplation—they attained sanctity through their work: the scholar Aquinas using reason, logic, and argument; the painter Blessed Angelico using colours and visual forms.

The real Saint Thomas Aquinas

Working as a leading artist in the Christian Humanist style of the early Renaissance, Fra Angelico spotlights or emphasises the reality of sanctity: namely, that it is both supernatural and human. Saints have great souls and are real people. In painting Aquinas, rather than creating a stylised portrayal of a more spiritual, otherworldly aspect of this great saint, Fra Angelico accentuates the elements of this visible world, thus affirming the senses and the concrete, the here and now. At the same time, he draws from the tradition of Christian art established over the centuries.

Using the conventional symbol of the halo around the head, Fra Angelico shows us that Thomas Aquinas is holy. He stands in a privileged place, in a niche, on a carved step which is the base of an elaborate baldachin. Behind him hangs a rich red fabric with luminous gold stars and border, giving him prominence and providing a visually pleasing contrast to the deep blue in the background. Green vines and decorative red rosettes run the length of the image, connecting the upper register of the chapel and the ceiling, uniting the Fathers of the Church, the Evangelists, and scenes from the lives of Saint Stephen and Saint Lawrence into a whole.

Saint Thomas Aquinas is placed in this celestial realm, above eye-level in the chapel, in the space reserved for the Fathers of the Church, those preeminent holy men who faithfully interpreted Scripture and taught sound doctrine.

We further observe that Aquinas is wearing the white Dominican tunic and scapular and the black cape and capuce with hood, all reminders of the Dominican values he embraced: love of poverty, dedication to preaching, and reliance on divine providence. The cincture of purity, although hidden from view, is indicated by the tightly gathered folds of the tunic at his waist.

His elbows under the mantle are positioned slightly outward, thus with subtlety adding bulk to his frame, giving him his characteristic portly shape.

In his hands he reverently holds an open book with the inscription Veritatem meditabitur guttur meum et labia mea detestabuntur impium, “My mouth proclaims the truth, wickedness is hateful to my lips” (Pr 8:7). This is the verse with which Aquinas chose to begin his great theological treatise Summa contra Gentiles. Thus, the book Saint Thomas holds might be taken to represent his own illustrious work. However, as he is not holding a pen (to indicate his authorship of the book), it is more likely the Bible.

The book appears to glow, with rays of gold emanating from the edges. In his hands, the sacra pagina, the sacred page, is enlightened. With his depth of understanding and gift of teaching, Aquinas shows the faithful the Light, the Word, the Light of the World.

This is further symbolised in the ruby gemstone at his chest, shining and emitting golden rays. Gold, never fading, never rusting, recalls the divine light, the uncreated, eternal Light of God whom Saint Thomas adores.

His tonsured head turns slightly to his right—toward the chapel’s altar. His eyes are fixed in a contemplative gaze, and overall his face exudes serenity and gentleness.

Fra Angelico has skilfully modelled the features of Thomas’ youthful face and figure, making use of the natural light in the chapel that enters through windows to the left. It is as though Saint Thomas is really standing there, with very subtle shadows falling on the right side of his form, giving a sense of solidity and presence in this visible, material world. The noticeably darker shading by the stockinged foot on the right and below the arms enhances the sense that he is actually present in this chapel.

Invisible yet visible

Saint Thomas’ realistic appearance serves as evidence not only of Fra Angelico’s mastery of the Renaissance style, but also of the invisible reality of Saint Thomas’ presence in the communion of saints in the Mystical Body of Christ. He appears to be standing there physically, which aids our assenting to his presence. Our physical eyes, through the artwork and imagination, help us to see with the eyes of faith.

In a single image, Fra Angelico captures and communicates much about Saint Thomas Aquinas, and inspires us to remember the Angelic Doctor who intercedes for us now and whose teaching may guide us to closer union with divine love.

 

Jenny Healy

Co-director of the Language & Catechetical Institute and professor of art history in Gaming, Austria.

 

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1447–1449), Fra Angelico (c. 1400–1455), Chapel of Nicholas V, Vatican Palace, Italy.

© Heritage Images / Art Media / akg-images.