Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy #10

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments.

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.



Luke 10:38-42:

Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence began as a daughter house of the first Dominican community established in Florence at what is now called monastery Santa Maria Novella.  By the 1418, Monastery San Marco had developed a reputation for laxity in its discipline.  In 1437, Cosimo de Medici – in whose neighborhood San Marco was located – was instrumental in having the dwindling community at San Marco replaced with a group of zealous friars brought down the hill from a Reformed Dominican house in Fiesole.  Among these transferred brothers was the artistically trained friar now known as Fra Angelico.

Fra Angelico, together with his team of assistants, was given the responsibility for communicating a Dominican way of life in frescoes throughout the building, including the individual cells where Dominican friars not only slept but engaged in their daily study of scripture and theology and sacred tradition. These cell frescoes were designed to contribute to the spiritual formation of the mature brother or novice or lay brother assigned to that cell.  A century later in his collection of Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Giorgio Vasari writes of Fra Angelico:

He might have been rich, but to this he gave no thought; nay, he used to say that true riches consist only in being content with little. He might have ruled many, but he would not, saying that it was less fatiguing and less misleading to obey others. ….  He was most kindly and temperate; and he lived chastely and withdrew himself from the snares of the world, being wont very often to say that he who pursued such an art had need of quiet and of a life free from cares, and that he whose work is connected with Christ must ever live with Christ.

Fra Angelico considered his own work to be connected with Christ, and he was intimately involved in planning the theological significance of his paintings, though no doubt in consultation with the other leaders of the community. The frescoes that Fra Angelico painted in the brothers’ cells of San Marco encouraged each brother “ever to live with Christ.” 

The sisters Mary and Martha figure prominently as witnesses to the Piercing of Christ’s Side in one fresco (in cell 42, according to the numbering used in modern guides). But the fresco I wish to discuss depicts Jesus’s agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (in cell 34).

The left side of the fresco illustrates with careful detail the scene of Jesus with his closest disciples – Peter, James, and John. He has asked them to watch with him a little while, but they have all fallen asleep. The eyes of Jesus are fixed on the angel who is bringing him a cup; this is the cup that Jesus has asked might be taken from him. Fra Angelico has portrayed it as a communion chalice. As Luke recounts the episode, “Jesus knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” By placing the cup of suffering in the hand of the strengthening angel, then portraying the angel as pointing insistently at the chalice, the fresco suggests that the gift of strength will come through the experience of suffering. 

But it is the right side of the fresco that is surprising. Fra Angelico has placed Mary and Martha in a house next to the scene unfolding in the Garden. We know these women are Mary and Martha because their names are inscribed in their haloes. Nothing in the gospel account links Lazarus’s sisters with this moment in the garden.  In the fresco the sharp line of the wall of the house divides the scene into two distinct halves. In this picture, Mary and Martha are with Jesus in spirit while absent from him in the flesh. The little window in the separating wall suggests the link between them. They are doing what his male disciples have failed to do: they are keeping attentive watch with Jesus. 

Martha is in prayer, her hands in the same position as those of Jesus in the opposite corner of the picture. Her prayer is joined with his prayer. Mary and Martha have already received strength through suffering in the experience of the death and miraculous resurrection of their brother. Now they are watching over Jesus, our elder brother, as he begins this same journey, though the death he faces contains the penalty for sin, and the new life he will win is a permanent and glorified life. 

After her brother’s death, Martha’s address to Jesus was very similar to Jesus’ prayer here in the garden of Gethsemane. The gospel of John tells the story this way: 

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:20-27)

Martha begins by affirming her confidence that even now Jesus could take this cup from her, that even now God would give him whatever he asked, but her faith in Jesus is not contingent on his willingness to raise her brother. She confesses that He is the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world. And she knows that even if she must drink this cup of sorry now, she and her siblings may have confidence in the promise of the resurrection on the last day. 

It is remarkable that Fra Angelico chooses to present Martha as a paradigm of prayer and contemplation rather than as a symbol of the active life. In this fresco he imagines for us a progression in Martha’s life from the distraction of her domestic busy-ness, through the death and rebirth of her brother, to this moment of anguish shared with her Savior. She is now joined with Mary in choosing the better part. In the subsequent fresco of the Piercing of Christ’s Side, Martha will be shown joining Mary literally at Jesus’ feet, this time as he hangs on the cross in death.

Martha is gazing intently not at an angel but at Mary. It is Mary who has been God’s messenger, or angel, to her, showing her the one thing that is needful. Like Martha, Mary is also watching with her Savior; she has opened the Scriptures, which like him are given as bread from heaven. She is pointing insistently at the book, just as the angel is pointing insistently at the chalice. After his resurrection, Jesus met two disciples on the road to Emmaus and taught them from the Scriptures. Luke says: “Then he said to them, ‘Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” In this fresco, Mary also points to the Scriptures as the interpretive key to Jesus’ experience of agony. 

This fresco is especially intimate because of the way that the cell itself has been extended to include Mary and Martha within the friar’s own living space. The curved arches in the room in which Mary and Martha sit echo the curved arches in the simple cells of the monastery. The single window linking their room with the garden echoes the single window in each cell. The walls are the same color and textured in the same way. The brother in this cell is to understand himself as watching alongside Mary and Martha. They are exemplars of the contemplative life that he is called to live, a life of both study and prayer. It is a life of union with Christ.  

The brother in this cell is also faced with the warning of the sleeping disciples in the garden. Surely the friar knows this temptation. The rhythm of the hours of prayer interrupts his sleep every night; he never has what we would consider a full night's sleep. But as a friar he is called to the contemplative way. This fresco daily calls him to stay awake and watch with Jesus. 

The life of prayer also interrupts his domestic work. In a community of all men, the brothers are responsible for all the activity of cleaning and cooking, of offering hospitality to travelers, care to the sick, and aid to the indigent. The brother in this cell knows the ever-present temptation to distraction that once snared Martha. The domestic work must be done, but his life is meant to be ordered around prayer and contemplation, with those other duties fitted in around his primary work of life with God. Surely the friar knew the temptation, even as we know the temptation, of reversing this pattern, of allowing the busy-ness of our many tasks to control the rhythm of our day and then trying to fit in times of prayer and contemplative reading of Scripture around those tasks. The friar must keep his priorities in order. This fresco daily says to him, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” 

Martha is the only figure in this image who looks out of the frame into the life of the friar living in this cell. Her focused gaze and prayer posture remind him: “You have chosen the better part; it will not be taken from you.” The better part is to be where Christ is, doing what Christ is doing, and listening to what Christ is teaching. As Fra Angelico said, “he whose work is connected with Christ must ever live with Christ.”