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The life of St. Dominic and a sketch of the Dominican Order online

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duced a bloody and disastrous insurrection. Those who
are willing to believe that the Church has known no other
method of dealing with heretics than that of fire and
sword, would do well to study the manifesto of Father
John Nyder, one of the Papal Nuncios despatched by
the Fathers of Basle against the Bohemian insurgents.
It is given at length by Bzovius, and is remarkable for
its tone of sweetness and moderation, and its strain of
exalted piety.

But our chief motive for referring in this place to the
Council of Basle, is for the sake of the illustration which
its history affords of that devotion on the part of the
Dominicans to the interests of the Holy See, of which we
have before spoken as one of their most striking cha-
racteristics. The unfortunate conclusion of the council
is well known. On the attempt of the Pontiff Euge-
nius IV. to remove the assembly to Ferrara, the prelates
not only opposed his resolution with their remonstrances


(a step which was probably justified by the peculiar
circumstances in which the negotiations with the Bohemian
heretics had involved them), but, on his persisting in
his design, they proceeded to open resistance of his
authority, and even ventured to pronounce his deposition
from the Papal chair. Not to enter on the great theo-
logical question* which engaged the pens of the controver-
sialists assembled at Basle, we may be permitted to notice
the course pursued by the Dominican theologians during
this painful crisis, and their resolute defence of the Papal
authority, with sentiments of just admiration. The
services rendered by them to the Fathers of the Council
in the whole course of the proceedings against the Huss-
ites, and the labours of Nyder, Montenigro, and above all,
of John Torquemada, the Master of the Sacred Palace, had
been warmly acknowledged by the assembled prelates.
It is evident that they shared the views of those who
looked on the removal of the Council as a dangerous and
ill-advised step; nevertheless, the moment that an attack
seemed threatened against the integrity of the Holy See,
the instinctive loyalty of the order to the Chair of S.
Peter was manifested. No doubt the crisis was one of no
common importance; the proceedings of the Council of
Constance were considered by some to offer a precedent to
those of Basle, although in fact the cases were totally
different. Nevertheless, recent events, and the grievous
effects of a long schism, had contributed to lower the idea
of the Papal supremacy, and to exalt the authority of
councils. The danger of this feeling, at the very moment
when heresy was raging without the fold, was quickly ap-
prehended by the watchful eyes of the Dominican theolo-
gians, who accordingly withdrew from Basle, and hastened
to join the new council assembled under the authority of
the supreme Pontiff at Ferrara.

It was under these circumstances that Torquemada
published his two treatises on the power of the Popes, and
the authority of general councils ; and at Florence,
whither the prelates assembled at Ferrara adjourned soon

* The Immaculate Conception; defined by the fathers of Basle,
and at that time warmly disputed, by opposite schools of theology.


afterwards, he distinguished himself in so remarkable a
manner by his defence of the Latin dogmas, and especially
of the Roman primacy (which was defined by the council
and acknowledged by the Greek bishops) that he received
from Eugenius the glorious title of " Defender of the
Faith," less fitly borne in the following century by the
English tyrant Henry VIII.

Torquemada was, in fact, one of the most illustrious men
of the time ; and it is not until we fully appreciate the dan-
gers of the age in which he lived, that we can justly esti-
mate the services rendered to the Church by him and
others of his order, in their firm resistance to the schismati-
cal spirit then so general, and their devotion of every
energy to maintain inviolate that supremacy of the See of
S. Peter which each succeeding age has recognized with
greater distinctness to be the bulwark of the Christian
faith. As Cardinal-legate and Papal ambassador to
half the courts of Europe, Torquemada occupied a dis-
tinguished position in the sight of the world ; and yet so
little of the worldly spirit clung to him in his greatness,
that we find him retiring to his convent at Florence for
two years " busying himself with his own sanctification
and the practices of a private religious." " His great
dignities," says Leander Albert, " in no way interrupted
his ordinary exercises of piety and penance, or diminished
ought of his religious modesty. His habit and ex-
terior remained unchanged ; what he was among his
brethren he was also among the princes of the Church ;
humble, recollected, penitent ; full of zeal for the salvation
of souls, of tenderness for the poor and of love for his order,
which he honoured yet more by his virtues than by
the purple." *

We will now pass to a subject closely connected with
the period of religious reform ; carrying us, however, to

* Our readers must not confound John Torquemada, the "cardinal
of S. Sixtus of whom we have spoken above, with his nephew
Thomas Torquemada, the celebrated Spanish inquisitor, whose
severe measures in defence of the Christian religion, then furiously
attacked by the Jews and Saracens, have rendered his name so
terrible to English ears.


far different thoughts from those suggested by the dis-
putes of councils : yet we can probably scarce find a
better illustration of the largeness and diversity of the
Dominican spirit, than by turning from the great questions
of ecclesiastical and political interest which engages the
theologians of Basle and Florence, and dwelling for a few
moments on the gentler, — but who shall say less power-
ful? — influence of that art which, like theology, was
to find its " sublime dictator" among the ranks of the
Friars Preachers.

At this period of active contest and controversy, it is
pleasant to turn to the sunny hills and silent cloisters of
Fiesole, where the glorious genius of one whom the voice of
the world has consented to beatify, was laying a sweet and
powerful grasp upon the imagination and the heart of
Christendom. The order which had already produced an
angelic doctor was now giving to the world that saintly
artist, to whose name also the title of "Angelic" was to
be perpetually associated.



Santa Maria Novella. Passavanti. Connection of Art with reli-
gious reform. B. John Dominic. Foundation of the convent
of Fiesole. Fra Angelico. Savonarola : his idea of Christian
art and literature. His fall. Fra Bartolomeo. Bartholo-
mew of the Martyrs at the court of Pius IV. Later artists of
the order.

The connection of the Dominican order with Christian
art dates almost from its foundation. It was in 1278 that
the first stone of the church of Santa Maria Novella at
Florence was laid under singular and impressive circum-


stances. The feuds between Guelf and Ghibelline were
then at their height, and Fra Latino Malabranca, nephew
to Pope Nicholas V., after travelling through all the cities
of Roniagna, preaching peace and reconciliation to the
opposing factions, at length arrived at Florence to com-
mence the same work of mercy. He assisted at the
blessing of the foundation-stone of the new church, and
took occasion of the multitudes assembled to witness the
ceremony, to address them in so powerful a strain of
eloquence that the disputants agreed to forget their
enmities, and, flinging their arms round one another's
necks, embraced as brothers. The same scene was wit-
nessed not long after within the walls of the newly-erected
build: ng on the solemn publication of peace, which was
delivered by Latino from its pulpit ; and thus the very
foundation of this church, afterwards so celebrated in the
order, may be said to have been laid in mercy. Its archi-
tects and designers were the two lay brothers Fra Sisto
and Fra Ristoro ; and the glorious temple raised under
their direction was exclusively built by the hands of the
religious brethren themselves, without the assistance of
a single secular, " a thing," says Marchese, " very rare in
the history of art."

It is unnecessary for us to speak in praise of a struc-
ture whose criticism from the lips of Michael Angelo
must be familiar to all. He was wont to call it " his
gentle and beautiful bride;" and his merits have even
been celebrated in a treatise bearing the title " De Pul-
chritudine Sanctas Maria Novellce" which we find quoted
in one of Savonarola's orations. It must ever pos^s a
peculiar interest for the student of Christian art, who,
retracing the six hundred years that have elapsed since
its first erection, will recall the day when the walls were
receiving their first frescoes from the hands of those
Greek artists who had been invited to Florence by the
Republic, and found their first and most generous patrons
among the Friars Preachers. And as in fancy he watches
them at their work, he may see stealing into the church
a truant schoolboy, who has escaped from his books and
lessons in the grammar-school opened by the Friars


immediately on their settlement in the convent, and has
found his way here to feast his eyes and imagination on
the paintings so far superior in design and coloring to
anything yet known in Florence. He is the scapegrace
of the school, and his name is Cimabue. The order of
Preachers cannot indeed claim him as a member, yet it
was within the walls of one of her most glorious temples
that the future founder of the Florentine school of
painting caught his first inspiration, and it was there, in
the Ruccellai chapel, many years afterwards, that his
great chef d'aruvre, the Madonna, was carried in pro-
cession, and deposited by the hands of his enthusiastic

We should never end were we to attempt to chronicle
all the artistic glories of Santa Maria Novella, and our
design in speaking of them at all is that they furnish one
out of many illustrations which might be given, of the
manner in which art was used as a means of popular
teaching. The fourteenth century was an age (to use
the words of F. Marchese) "prolific in artists and glorious
for Christian art : every one desired to read on the walls
of the temple the most sublime stories of the Bible, the
popular legends of the saints, and the immortal strains
of Dante. Religion was then the fountain-source of the
artist's inspiration, and painting was employed as a grand
means of moral teaching, worthy of a Christian people/'
Indeed, no one can fail to be struck with the contrast
exhibited between the whole system of composition at

-"- The story told of the completion of this picture is illustrative
enough of the enthusiasm of the age in matters of art. Cimabue
was employed in putting hi3 last finishing touches to the Madonna,
when Charles of Anjou passed through the city, and notified his
intention of visiting the artist's studio. Hitherto no one had been
admitted to see the painting; but the news of the prince's intended
visit getting wind, a vast multitude of the citizens followed in his
train, and insisted on the doors being thrown open to the public.
Thi.3 was done ; all Florence crowded to see the great masterpiece
of Cimabue, and so great was the joy and admiration it excited,
that the quarter of the town occupied by his house received the
name of the " Borgo Allegri;" and the painting itself was, as we
have said, borne in triumphant procession to the chapel, where it
still remains.


this period, and that adopted in the modern schools of
painting. Mere picturesqueness of detail in form and
colouring was not the great object of the painter's study ;
the aim of men like Memmi, Orgagna, or Taddeo Gaddi,
was to employ religious, or, we might say, theological
ideas ; and thus the pencil of the artist was often guided
by the theologian, and was devoted to the representation
of a part of some complete system of doctrine or devotion.
In fact, painting was unknown as an art of luxury, or
apart from its great mission of popular instruction ; and
it is remarkable that cabinet pictures, that is, pictures
merely intended to hang against the walls of private
apartments as objects of taste, did not exist until a later
period. Up to the time of which we now speak, paintings
were to be found only on the walls of the church and
cloister, on the doors of shrines and tabernacles, or other
public places where they might best fulfil their avowed
object as the books of the unlearned. It was in this
way that the church of Santa Maria Novella became,
under the direction of successive generations, a very
museum of Christian art. Much was the work of the
religious themselves ; but they contributed to the forma-
tion of a high school of religious sculpture and painting
not only by their own labours, but by their patronage
and encouragement of others. None took a greater
share in this undertaking than the celebrated Fra Jacobo
Passavanti, of whom we have before spoken as the author
of " The Mirror of True Penance," and one of the earliest
fathers of the Italian idiom. His refined and admirable
taste led him to form intimate ties with the distinguished
artists of the day, such as Orgagna and others ; and at
his solicitation, under the superintendence of Fra Jacobi
Talenti, they completed the edifice, and made it an almost
unequalled gallery of sacred painting. Nowhere, perhaps,
have the peculiar characteristics of the mediaeval 'theology
been so perfectly represented and preserved. DanUs
mind and imagination seem to be embodied on the walls,
and we have already indicated the source whence the
great poet derived the religious coloring of his poems.
To show how close the connection was in those days


between painting and theology, we may remark that
whilst Orgagna was employed in those wonderful frescoes
which represent the terrors of the "Inferno," Simon
Memmi was decorating the cloister with a series illus-
trative of the mysteries of the Church triumphant and
militant, where we find the Sacrament of Penance placed,
in a number of elaborate designs, as the entrance to the
Church triumphant, every image being taken from Pas-
savanti's work. Indeed, we are expressly told that it
was he who superintended the whole undertaking, and
that the ideas and mode of treatment were all suggested
by him ; a circumstance which explains the remarkable
unity of design and teaching which we find in the entire

But it was not only as patrons of the arts that the
Friars Preachers evinced an appreciatian of their power
as instruments of popular instruction. They were
artists themselves: and there is one remarkable feature
in the history of their cultivation of Christian art which
we particularly desire to notice in this place. Not only
was it essentially a Christian school of painting which
flourished in the Dominican order, but one which was
invariably associated with the spirit of religious discipline
and reform. Whilst the arts have elsewhere but too
often gained themselves an ill name by their connection
with an age of luxury and relaxation of morals, wc find
that in the cloisters of the Friars Preachers they were
not only made compatible with the rigour of primitive
discipline, but were even used as a means of its restora-
tion, where it was found to have decayed. The chief
patrons of art in the Dominican order have every one
been among her greatest and most austere reformers ; so
that, in attempting a sketch of her painters and sculptors,
the names of her saints and ascetic men would necessarily
find their way into our pages. Blessed John Dominic,
S. Antoninus, and Jerome Savonarola, are among the most
conspicuous of those who fostered artistic genius in those
very cloisters into which they introduced so primitive and
austere a reform ; and this fact will readily explain the
very spiritual and sublime character which attaches to


productions which were undertaken in close association
with a revival of religious observance, — nay, often as the
very instruments of effecting it.

No man probably stands more distinguished as an
ecclesiastical reformer, whether in the Church at large
or in his own order in particular, than he whose name we
have already so often referred to, — the blessed John
Dominic, Cardinal of S. Sixtus. In history he must
always be remembered as one who bore the greatest part
in extinguishing the fatal schism of the west. He also
took the lead in the reform of his own order, and was the
founder of several convents which he established on the
principles of strict regular observance, to serve as nur-
series of sanctity, and models of the institute at large.
He was himself an artist of no mean capacity, and during
the early years of his religious life in the convent of
Santa Maria Novella attained to singular excellence as a
miniaturist ; many of the choral books illuminated by his
hand at this period being still preserved. It was, there-
fore, experience rather than theory which taught him the
use which might be made of religious art as an instru-
ment of community reform ; and in his after career we
are told that in every convent of the order, whether of
men or women, whose regular discipline he reformed,
nay. in every convent that he built from the foundations,
" he invariably laboured to introduce the most noble
art of painting, whose tendency is to raise the soul and
the heart to chaste and holy thoughts." Many of his
letters on this subject, written to the nuns of the con-
vent of Corpus Domini at Venice, remain to attest the
truth of this assertion. In them he directs the religious
to perfect themselves in miniaturing (by which is here
meant the devout miniatures in choral books) and offers
to complete some, the final tintings of which were too
difficult for them to undertake.*

We shall select the history of one these convents of

strict observance, both for the sake of its connection with

Dominican art, and because we are persuaded that our

readers will gather a better idea of the spirit of the order

« Marches^


at this period of its revival and reform from such a narra-
tive, than by a separate notice of the illustrious men whose
names are associated with its foundation.

It was then, in the year 1406, that after reestablishing
regular discipline in every convent of the Roman pro-
vince, John Dominic determined, as we have said, on the
foundation of several new houses, where the strict letter
of the rule should be observed, and the spirit of the order
carried out in its highest perfection. The sunny hill of
Fiesole was chosen as the site of one of these ; and if, as
would seem, exterior beauty dwelt on in a religious spirit
was judged in the mind of its founder to be a help to the
devout contemplation of God, he could scarce have chosen
a fitter spot than the one which he destined for his
new convent of S. Dominic. The ground was given by
Altovito, Bishop of Fiesole, himself a Dominican ; and
scarcely had the work been begun, when rumours
spread far and near that the building then in course of
erection was intended as a retreat of peculiar sanctity, or
as one may say as an ideal of monastic perfection. S.
Antoninus was among the first of those who presented
themselves for admission, being attracted by the rumoured
holiness of the new foundation ; and he was followed two
years afterwards by the two brothers Mugello, better
known as Fra Benedetto, and Fra Giovanni Angelico da
Fiesole. No noviciate being as yet attached to the con-
vent, they were sent to Cortona, where the blessed
Lawrence of Ripafracta became their novice-master ;
having held the same office to S. Antoninus, who has left
a eulogium on his venerable guide and teacher in the
spiritual life, which has been confirmed in our own day
by his solemn beatification. " By reason of his purity of
heart," says Bzovius, " he doubted not to call him
blessed," And besides these joined with them in the ties
of holy friendship, there was the blessed Constantius
Fabriano, afterwards the reformer of Ascoli, a man illus-
trious for miracles and the gift of prayer ; and Pietro
Capucci, to whom is also sometimes given the title of
blessed. In fact, Cortona and Fiesole were the nurseries
of saints, and it was in such a home, and in such fellow-


ship, that the genius of Angelico received its stamp of
sanctity. Of all the painters of the mystic school (by
which we intend to designate the followers or imitators
of Giotto in opposition to the naturalists who received
so powerful an encouragement from the patronage of the
Medici), Angelico stands undoubtedly highest ; and his
merits as a painter, nay more, the singular and irresistible
spiritual influence of his works, have been acknow-
ledged by critics like Vasari, whose mind was certainly
cast in a wholly different mould. Yet his sketch of the
Dominican painter is itself so beautiful and truthful a
delineation that we will give it as it stands, feeling sure
that our readers will gain their best idea of the character
of his paintings by knowing something of the character
of the man. His words are as follows : " Era Giovanni
was a man of holy and simple habits ; he lived a pure
and sanctified life, and was ever the friend of the poor on
earth, as I believe also that his soul is now in heaven.
He was always painting ; and never wished to produce
anything save for the saints. He was wont to say that
true riches consist in being content with little. He
might easily have attained to high dignities, but he did
not esteem them, saying that the only dignity he desired
was to escape hell, and to win paradise. He was very gen-
tle and sober, and used to say that artists needed quiet, and
should be free from interruptions ; and that he whose
works related to Christ should be ever communing with
Christ. Never was he known to exhibit anger, and when
he had occasion to admonish any, he did it with a gentle
smile. When others sought works from his pencil he
was wont to tell them with extraordinary amiability that
so long as the prior was satisfied he would not refuse
them. In short, both in actions and words, he was
most humble and modest, and in his painting simple and
devout ; the saints he painted have more the air and
resemblance of saints than those of any other artist. '
He never retouched or heightened the effect of any of
his works, but left them just as they came from his
pencil, believing that such was the will of God. Some
say he never took up his brush without first having


recourse to prayer. Whenever he painted a crucifixion
the tears streamed down his cheeks, and it is easy, in the
very countenances and attitudes of his figures, to see the
purity of his heart, and his devotion to the Christian
faith." In fact, to use the words of a more modern critic,
" painting was his ordinary prayer," the very means he
used to raise his heart to God. What wonder that the
works of such a man should bear in their silent eloquence
something of that strange power over the soul which
attaches to the speech or the writings of the saints ? A
power which genius alone, even the genius of Rafaele or
Michael Angelo can never attain to when the supernatural
element is wanting.

The influence exercised by the poetry of Dante over
all the painters of the mystic school was of a very singular
character. Giotto, we know, was the friend and close
associate of the great Florentine, and may be said to have
illustrated the Divine Commedio by his pencil. Nor was
Angelico insensible to the influence of that master mind.
" Dante," says Marchese, in his work on the Dominican
painters, " mated the doctrine of S. Thomas to the har-
mony of his verse ; and I would venture to affirm that
Angelico incarnated and coloured the conception of these
two great men. If we compare his pictures with the
writings of the philosopher and the poet, we shall have
little difficulty in detecting the identity of thought that
characterized the Italians in their theories of the super-
natural, and the imagery in which they clothed them."
To which we will add, that a study of the works of these
three minds will probably convey the most perfect idea that
could be formed of the Christianity of the middle ages,

Online LibraryR. S AlemanyThe life of St. Dominic and a sketch of the Dominican Order → online text (page 26 of 37)