All Saints

November 1, 2011

Fra Angelico, Predella of the Fiesole Altarpiece, c1423-24 (National Gallery, London)

It is getting close to All Saints’ Day. There are not many artworks that try to depict the great cloud of witnesses. Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is one. The predella of Fra Angelico’s Fiesole Altarpiece is another.

The altarpiece was originally painted for the high altar of San Domenico in Fiesole, Italy, but was later moved and then divided up. The main panel shows a Madonna and Child flanked by Thomas Aquinas and three famous Dominican friars. The predella—the relatively small base of the altarpiece—somehow ended up in London. It shows a crowd of people worshipping a risen Christ. When the altarpiece was all together, it was something of a before-and-after lesson, with the crucifixion being the pivotal unseen event. With the predella now on its own, I think it is actually more powerful because there is nothing stealing our attention. Instead, we can get sucked into the details, into the lives, of the people represented.

At the very center of it all stands Christ dressed in white and holding the traditional banner of resurrection. This is the Risen Christ victorious. Surrounding him are clusters of angels playing every instrument you can imagine. Some seem to be singing; others simply gaze in his direction.

Left-center panel

The two panels on other side of the center contain a whole host of familiar faces, including biblical figures from both the Old and New Testaments, prominent church leaders, theological scholars, and male and female martyrs. Many can be identified through the attributes, like Peter’s key (right side of the top row in the left panel) and John the Baptist’s hairy garment (middle of the top row in the right panel).

The two outermost panels show groups of Dominicans, both men and women. Here again, most are identifiable by their attributes and (just for good measure) their name which is written on them. There is no doubt that this altarpiece was meant to honor the Dominican saints which had gone before.

What I love about these panels is the way Fra Angelico shows a multitude of saints and yet lets them maintain their unique identities. The claims-to-fame of the biblical figures are well-known in our time, but the stories of some of the others are rarely retold anymore, especially in Protestant churches. Here’s just a sampling from the right panel:

Right-center panel

  • Saint Victor of Marseilles (middle row, fifth one, in blue) was a Roman soldier who refused to offer incense to Jupiter and instead destroyed the altar. Consequently, he was crushed by a millstone and beheaded, which is why you can spy a millstone resting beside him.
  • Saint Lawrence (middle row, sixth one, in red) was a deacon in the Roman Church who was known for his generosity toward the poor. Legend says that the Prefect of Rome suspected that the church had great wealth and ordered Lawrence to bring “the church’s treasure” to him. When Lawrence instead brought the poor and declared them to be the church’s treasure, the Prefect condemned Lawrence to die a slow death by being cooked alive on a gridiron. You can see that gridiron here in front of him.
  • Saints Cosmos and Damian (second row, in the middle, matching pink robes) were brothers and both physicians. They were well-known in their day for providing medical care to both rich and poor without any payment, all because of their love for God. When a wave of persecution broke out, a Prefect ordered them to renounce this devotion to God. They refused and were tortured, but remained miraculously unharmed until they were finally and resolutely beheaded.
  • Saint Agnes (bottom row, seventh one, in blue) was a young girl of twelve or thirteen when she was martyred. The facts are unclear, but it seems that she boldly declared her faith in God during a period of intense Roman persecution. She is shown with a lamb that symbolizes her purity.
  • Saint Catherine (bottom row, middle, in pink with crown) was also martyred at a young age—perhaps eighteen—for declaring her faith during a time of persecution under Emperor Maximus. The legend says that she went head-to-head with Maximus himself along with his smartest scholars and prevailed, and in the process, persuaded many to believe in God. He condemned her to die a torturous death by the wheel, but the wheel itself was destroyed upon her first touch. Incensed by this, Maximus had her beheaded, but she became forever associated with the spiked wheel, which can be seen here as well.
  • Saint Helena (bottom row, pink and green, with a staff) was the mother of Constantine, which was her primary claim to fame, but she received sainthood for her piety. The historian Eusebius wrote of her, “She became under his (Constantine’s) influence such a devout servant of God, that one might believe her to have been from her very childhood a disciple of the Redeemer of mankind.” The maternal figurehead of the Roman Empire famous for her commitment to God—that’s a big deal.

Here’s the point. When Fra Angelico painted all these saints, he painted their stories of faith and dedication to God. This is what faith looks like. It looks like serving the poor and the sick out of love for God. It looks like declaring your allegiance to God just when the fire gets hot. It looks like being a model of devotion for a whole empire of new Christians. And for each of these stories of faith that are represented here, there are countless more. I wonder if I would be numbered among the saints. What have I done to demonstrate my love for God? What would my attribute be? How about you?