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

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and would enable us to form a high conception of the
extent to which the theolgy of S. Thomas, illustrated and
popularized as it was to men's hearts by the genius of the
poet and the painter, diffused its influence over all classes,
and found new ways of exercising its dictatorship of
Christian philosophy.

How vast a distance separates this school of superna-
turalism from that of the succeeding centuries! Two
words rise to our lips as we stand before any of the great


works of the Angelico: they are simplicity and faith; and
these two qualities, whilst they express the whole character
of his mind and of his paintings, seem also to express the
religious spirit of his age. What their influence may have
been in keeping alive spirituality and asceticism we can but
estimate by contrasts. Let us turn to the productions of
a later school, to the churches restored, as it was called, by
the enthusiasts for pagan art, whose walls are defaced by
those gross imitators of nature who seem to value the art
of delineation only so far as it reproduces the idea of flesh
and blood ; and when we feel the evil power possessed by
such representations, of obliterating spiritual impressions,
and substituting in their room the merest images of sense,
we feel also how different and wholly unearthly must have
been the thoughts and tone of mind of those trained to
prayer and contemplation in the midst of that supernatural
system which in the ages of faith was preached from the
very walls of church and cloister.

The reforms begun by John Dominic were carried out
in the same spirit by his disciple S. Antoninus, who, pre-
vious to his elevation to the see of Florence, governed
successively the convents of Rome, Naples, Gaeta, Cortona,
Siena, Fiesole, and Florence. At the latter place Cosmo
de Medici made over to the Friars Preachers the convent
of S. Mark, which he endowed with his usual munificence,
and S. Antoninus became prior of the new house, to which
Angelico and his brother were soon summoned, and where
they have left the most glorious monuments of their genius.
S. Mark's soon became another Fiesole, a home and nur-
sery of sanctity, and at the same time a gallery of the
most glorious productions of Christian art. Indeed, wt>
linow that S. Antoninus, like his predecessor, John Dominic,
was not only a patron and encourager of art, but was
himself possessed of considerable skill in painting, and
many of the choral books of S. Mark's still claim to be
those which received their illuminations from his venerable
hands. And widely different as their part in life was des-
tined to become, the name of Antoninus, the mirror of
prelates, the reformer of his order, the doctor of the
Church, is always sweetly and closely associated with that


of Fra Angelico whose life was so essentially hidden and
contemplative, and whose only learning was that of his
pencil. Every one knows the story of his visit to Rome,
and how Eugenius IV. is said to have been so struck with
his peculiar sanctity, that he would have elevated him to
the vacant archbishopric of Florence, had not the painter
declined the dignity, and suggested Fra Antonio as the
fitter person for so exalted an office; so that, if the tale
be authentic, and there seems no reasonable ground for
doubting it, we may consider the glorious episcopate of
S. Antoninus as in no small degree to be attributed to the
recommendation of his friend. Those who are familiar
with his story will remember also that instance of his
naive simplicity, so like what we realize of his character,
when we are told how, on being invited to dine with the
holy father, he declined, saying he could not eat meat,
without his prior's permission, quite forgetting the dispen-
sing power of the supreme Pontiff. He lies in the church
of the Minerva, and it is said the Pope himself wrote
the inscription we read over his tomb ; remarkable for the
circumstances that even there, and so immediately after
his death, the expression occurs which has been sanc-
tioned, if not by the formal declaration of the Church,
at least by the common consent of her people. The words
run thus: —

Here lies the Venerable Painter,
Brother John of Florence, of the Order of Preachers.
Fra Angelico had no disciples among the ranks of his
own brethren, nevertheless, though he can searcely be
said to have formed a school, or to have trained others in
his peculiar style, there were many of the order who trod
in his footsteps, though there were none who came near
to him in artistic skill. Thus we read of a certain Fra
Girolamo Monsignori, whose character, sketched also by
Vasari, is precisely of the same stamp as that of the
great painter: "He was chiefly distinguished," he says,
" for his love of prayer and seclusion, and his indifference
to the world. The money which he earned by his works,
and expended on the purchase of colours, was hung up in
an old box without a lid, so that any one who wanted it


might come and use it. To avoid all trouble about daily
food, he cooked every Monday a pot of beans, and this
supplied him during the week. When Mantua was visited
by the plague and every one fled in alarm, he, moved by
charity, refused to abandon the sick fathers, but tended
them with his own hands. So, sacrificing his life to God,
he caught the contagion and died, being of the age of
sixty." How full, too, of the religious spirit of Angelico
is the inscription which we read on the painted window
in the church of S. Dominic at Perugia, which tells us
that the window is consecrated " to the honour of God
and of the most Holy Virgin, of S. James, and the blessed
Dominic, and of the celestial choir, by Brother Bartolomeo,
the least of the order of Preachers, who, with the Divine
aid, furnished it in the year 1411." Glass-painting,
indeed, was an art particularly cultivated in the order, and
produced the only really beatified saint who was distin-
guished as a painter ; this was the blessed James of Ulm,*
a lay brother in the convent of Bologna, and the master
of a school of artists who rivalled him both in genius and
in sanctity.

But we must pass on to another period when the connec-
tion between religious art, as cultivated by the Dominican
order, and a spirit of ecclesiastical reform, was destined
to be more fully and strikingly illustrated than even in
the example of the Cardinal John Dominic. In speaking
of it we must necessarily carry our narrative to a later
date than that with which we concluded our last chapter ;
but as it is not our intention to return to this subject, we
shall refer to the one or two facts which seem to claim
our notice, without attending to the chronological order
of our sketch; and there seems no fitter place than this
in which to speak of one whose enthusiasm for Christian
art is certainly not the least remarkable feature in
his character: we refer, of course, to the unfortunate

We have already mentioned Cosmo de Medici as
having endowed the order of Friars Preachers with the
convent of S. Mark's at Florence. He was the first of
* See No. XIX. of " Tales and Legends from History."


his family who attained to the chief and supreme rule in
the Florentine republic, and under him and his successors
it may, indeed, be said that the state was a republic no
longer. The very name of his race carries with it the
idea of all that is splendid and refined ; the restoration of
learning, and encouragement of science and commerce,
and, above all, a special patronage of the arts. And yet,
for all this, we can scarcely be wrong in saying that
Christian art and feeling had no more fatal enemies in
the fifteenth century than the illustrious members of the
Medici family; and that it was they who chiefly gave
that impulse to pagan literature and pagan philosophy
and art, from whose deadly effects the world is only in
our own day beginning to revive. The fall of Constanti-
nople drove multitudes of Greek scholars and artists into
Europe, and nowhere did they receive a more princely
welcome than at the court of Cosmo the Magnificent.
A fashion, if we may so say, set in for classic studies ;
Plato took the place of S. Thomas, and we begin to hear
in the popular writers of the day more of the " virtues of
philosophy," and "the sublime mysteries of Platonism,"
than of either the virtues or the mysteries of the gospel.
'• In fact," says a modern historian of this period,
" Florence was heathenized by the Medici, and pagan
philosophy was made the rule of life for the scholars and
sages of this new Athens of intellectual refinement."
Yet the evil had its commencement only in the lifetime
of Cosmo.

The dazzling brilliancy of the age of the Medici has
too often blinded the eyes of its historians, as it did
those of contemporaries, and concealed from their view
the fatal character of that revolution which was effected
in society during the fifteenth century. If we con-
sider some of the elements then at work, we may easily
perceive that in no way could the world have escaped
a period of powerful agitation and intellectual excite-
ment. At one and the same time, the stores of ancient
classic learning were being poured into the capitals of
the west, brought thither after the fall of the eastern
empire, by the crowd of refugee scholars and philosophers


who found their chief asylums at Rome and in the northern
cities of Italy ; whilst the newly-discovered art of
printing lent its aid to diffuse these new studies, and,
in the words of Marchese, " sowed broadcast the seeds" of
pagan erudition.

Old principles of thought were breaking up : Aristotle
and his school of Christian interpreters were abandoned ;
and Plato, who took his place, was thought to need no
Christian interpreter at all. No century could, probably,
be selected so brilliant in names of literary greatness ;
but when we glance at the character of their genius, we
tremble at the combination of so much mental power with
so enormous a depravity. The world was no longer to
be ruled by the brute force of barbarous ages, and the
people showed a disposition to free themselves from the
yoke of their feudal rulers, whose power was everywhere
giving way before the refinement and civilization of the
age. But, in exchange, they fell under a different and
more subtle tyranny. It was the age of Machiavelism, and
the principles of state policy, and we may add, of state
iniquity, were in the vigour of their first developement.
" In wickedness of policy," says Marchese, " no age ever
surpassed the fifteenth century, for it fought, not with
arms and valour, but with fraud and poisons, and few
ever equalled it in the corruption of its morality." In
Tuscany the Medici, in their attempt to secure the
supreme power, not only pursued this object with a total
indifference to the protection of morals, but made the
indulgence of the people in a certain licence of manners
one of the most approved methods of acquiring the
dominion at which they aimed. It has ever been the
line of all who have grasped at a usurped dictator-
ship, to amuse and intoxicate the multitudes by
pageant and festivals, by which their senses are dazzled,
and their minds distracted from an apprehension of their
real danger. This was the peculiar policy of the Medici,
and they cared little for the licentiousness which quickly
infused its poison into every vein of society, so long as
the world applauded, and the state submitted ; and
Florence was content to sacrifice its liberty in exchange


for the enjoyment of that unbridled freedom which dis-
figured the very arts of which they claimed to be the
special and most magnificent patrons. Alas! these great
patrons of art were, in too man^ ways, its gTeat corrupters.
What could be anticipated from an intellectual move'
ment so thoroughly and essentially pagan in its tendencies,
that we find examples like that of a certain Florentine
canon, who, in his idolatry of Plato, went so fir as to burn
a lamp in his chamber before an image of his favourite
philosopher !

Whatever may be the merit of the Medici as the
revivers of classical learning, and the great encouragers
of genius in every shape, the prestige of their magnifi-
cence is something tarnished when we view it closer.
The imaginative arts had hitherto been the weapons of
Christianity against the world : they now became arms
in the hands of the world, warring against Christi-
anity. Let us hear a modern author speaking of the
period when Lorenzo de Medici ruled the republic, of
Florence as its absolute sovereign: — "Among the means
adopted by this great and astute man to secure his
power, always increasing, over the Florentine people,
he imagined a new style of poetry which he called
" Ganti Carnascialesclii" or carnival-songs, in order to
give more effect to certain masquerades in which some
triumph or subject of art was represented. He spared
no expense to render these orgies attractive and brilliant.
The chariots and carousers went about the city from
after dinner to two, and even three, hours of the night,
men wearing masks following them on horseback, richly
apparelled, with flames and torches. In this order they
paraded the city with singers and musicians, singing
ballads and madrigals suitable to the character of each
masquerade." He then gives us the names of subjects
of some of these representations, some being heathen
fables, as " The triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne ;" others
of a satirical character, adding that these festivals, and
the poetry which was sung in them, " were for the
most part indecent and immoral."* In fact, one cannot
« De Rians.


acquit the Mecsenas, or the Augustus of Florence, as
his flatterers loved to call him, of a deliberate plan for
securing his power over the populace by means of the
corruption of the public taste and manners. Nay, what
was the very art that he encouraged and revived ? We
may quote a French writer of our own day, one of those
many generous champions of Catholic faith and purity
who, thanks be to God, are fast obliterating from the
literature of their country the associations of a past age
of infidelity. " Antiquity," says Carlier, " was patron-
ized by the Medici only on the side of sensuality.
Their love for pagan art was not a classic taste, but a
voluptuous passion. In literature, Ovid, Catullus, and
Tibullus, were in greater favour with them than Homer,
Cicero, and Caesar. Their celebrated garden at Florence
became the sanctuary of a nude naturalism in art. Deve-
lopments of form — the mere manifestations of physical
perfection — statues of divinities who presided of old
over the orgies of unbridled vice, — these attracted the
public admiration, and found a species of worship in
obsequious criticism, in poetry, and even in philosophic

Such was the state of things in Florence, when a chance
meeting at the chapter-general of the order, held at Reggio
in 1445, introduced Jerome Savonarola to the notice of
one of the most remarkable men of that remarkable age.
This was John Picus Mirandola, " the phoenix of intel-
lects," as he was styled: a prodigy of learning, whose
wonderful mind had happily early drunk deep at those
sacred sources of Christian theology which made all things
pure to him. The intellectual wonder of his age, he was
able to say with the profound conviction of one who utters
the experience of a life, "Philosophy seeks for truth,
theology finds it, religion possesses it."f Among all the
great intelligences whom the Medici had attracted to
their court, there was none so distinguished for his vast
attainments, his undisputed taste, and his lofty and irre-
proachable character, as the young prince of Mirandola ;

• Carlier, AZstMtiquea di Savonarola
f Epist. Joh. Pic. Mir-


and at his first meeting with Savonarola, " spirit sprang to
spirit," and a friendship was formed between them which
remained unbroken during the whole of their lives. On
his return to Florence, Mirandola exerted all his influence
with Lorenzo de' Medici to invite the gifted friar to his
capital, and five years afterwards Savonarola was estab-
lished in the convent of S. Mark, and was almost imme-
diately elected prior of that community.

Of all the illustrious men of the Dominican order
there is none whose name has such a world-wide interest
as that of Savonarola. Something of the spell which
attracted men to him during his life almost against their
will, still attaches to his memory ; and sparks of that
enthusiasm which he kindled by his strange eloquence
even now survive among us. His career, from the time of
his entrance into Florence to the day of his ignominious
death, occupied the short space of eight years : during
that time he combated single-handed against the corrup-
tions of the world around him : against licentiousness of
morals, corruptions in public government, and paganism
in literature and the arts. As a religious, he was the
strictest, yet the gentlest of reformers : we see him, in our
mind's eye, walking through those glorious cloisters of
S. Mark's, rich with the fairest creations of Angelico's
imagination, with the ivory death's-head that he was wont
to carry in his hand, and with that look of sweetness and
repose about him which, we are told, was one of the
secrets of his influence over others, and which kindled an
indescribable feeling of interior consolation in all who
approached him. His first work as a reformer, and that
which was the most successful and abundant in its fruits,
was in his own order. Everywhere he endeavoured to
introduce the old spirit of poverty and religious simpli-
city ; a spirit little in accordance with the manners of the
time, but which he found ways and means of fostering
out of the richness and fertility of his own inventive
genius. What cannot one master mind effect when, in
addition to its greatness and its power, it knows how to
charm by a sweet familiar intercourse with all ranks and
ail ages: when it can be grave with sadder and elder


hearts, and can unbend to children ; can discourse of
divine things, and expound the sacred Scriptures with
theologians, or gather the novices and little ones of
Christ, and exert all its skill and all its gracious
pleasantry to amuse! And so it was with the prior of
S. Mark's. We can watch him in the convent garden,
singing canticles with his novices, or sitting under the
shadow of the fig-tree, amusing them by cutting out the
pith of trees into images of little doves, or teaching them
simple games, wherein some saint of pure and holy life
was commemorated, and praises and divine songs were
sung in honour of the Child Jesus, or of the blessed
Virgin. This was one of his methods of guidance;
another was the introduction of habits of industry among
all the members of the community. He contrived to
infuse his own spirit among them, and one of the great
weapons used by him for the preservation of this spirit
of primitive and spiritual religion was the introduction
and cultivation of Christian art. In every convent over
which his influence extended, and in all which he founded,
whether of men or of women, the arts of painting and
modelling were introduced, and carried on in strict accord-
ance with those maxims which our own day is fast
recognizing as the truest definitions of beauty ever given
to the world.

We should be exceeding the limits of our subject were
we to give the extracts from Savonarola's sermons and
writings, wherein he lays down the rules of spiritual
beauty, and attacks with a bold and fearless eloquence
the profane and abominable representations from the
school of naturalism which had found their way into the
holy places. Art was in his eyes one of the great
elements by which men were to be humanized and
christianized: he considered it as a want of the people,
and, unlike others who had entered on the task of
reform, far from proscribing it, he encouraged it with
all the force of his enthusiastic eloquence ; his denun-
ciations fell only on the sensualism which had usurped
its name. We refer the reader to the beautiful work of
Rio, " La Poesie en TArt," to Marchese's " Lives of the


Dominican Painters and Sculptors," and to Carlier's
article* on the " ^Esthetics of Savonarola," if they would
form any idea of the corruptions which he attacked, or
of the principles which he brought into opposition. No
one can rise from the perusal of these authors, or of
those passages of Savonarola's own writings which touch
on the subject without feeling that he in the most
intimate and delicate manner apprehended that super-
natural and spiritual idea of art which had found its
incarnation in the works of Angelico ; while, on the
other hand, he will receive an impression of the cha-
racter of that classic revival so lauded by the admirers of
the Medici, which makes us glad to leave the task of
exposure to other hands and other pages. Let him turn
to the Lenten Sermons in which the great orator attacks
the profligacy of the church-decoraters in such indignant
strains of eloquence, and in the same breath defines the
idea -of beauty, apart from form, as something whose
essential principle must be light and purity. Powerful,
indeed, must have been that oratory, whose effects are
said by Burlamacchi to have been like an irresistible
magic, even on hardened and debased minds like those of
the Florentine artists. As in the days of the Apostles,
they came and laid at their feet the materials of their
unholy trade. Baccio della Porta, afterwards known in
religion as the celebrated Fra Bartolomeo, with several
others, brought all their designs and works of a reprehen-
sible character, and offered to destroy them before' his
eyes. Others left his presence with vows on the lips,
never again to degrade the art of sculpture or painting
by prostituting them to the encouragement of vice. The
change effected by his fervid oratory was felt, not among
the artists alone, but in all ranks and professions. The
quick and ardent sensibilities of the Florentines were
captivated by that eloquence which undoubtedly, in its
bewitching charm, surpassed everything which the world
of antiquity had known.

" The people," says Burlamacchi, " rose from their
beds at midnight to go to the sermon, and waited uncovered
* Published in the H Annales Arch6ologiques," 1847.


at the doors of the cathedral till they were opened, never
complaining of the inconvenience, or exposure to the
cold air, of standing in the winter time on the bare marble ;
and amongst them were young and old, women and
children, of every class, all filled with great joy, and going
to the sermon as to a wedding. In the church was pro-
found silence; not a whisper heard in the great multi-
tude till the children came, who sang some hymns with
such sweetness that Paradise seemed opened. And so
they would wait three or four hours till the father
ascended the pulpit. Profane songs were now no longer
heard, but spiritual canticles, often the composition of
Savonarola himself; these they sometimes chanted in
chorus on the highways, as friars do in the choir. Mothers
were seen in the street reciting the office with their
children. The women, now dressed with modesty, and
even the children, sent a deputation to the governors of
the city praying them to enact laws for the protection of
good morals." All classes crowded round the wonderful
friar, and gave in their enthusiastic adhesion to his plan
of social reform. " The grand intellects," says Marchese,
" whom the Medici had attracted to their court, all
bowed before the majesty of his surpassing eloquence."
There was the Count de Mirandola, who after renouncing
his government, desired to enter the order of S. Dominic ;
but, death preventing the accomplishment of this design,
he directed that at least his body should be buried in the
holy habit, which was accordingly done. There was
Zanobi Acciajuoli, the classic scholar of his day, and
Politian, the most refined and elegant of Lorenzo's
courtiers. Such a crowd of Florentine nobles solicited
the habit that S. Mark's had to be enlarged ; and, on
the death of Savonarola, the convent counted upwards of
two hundred friars, and eighty novices, all 1 of whom,
we are assured, persevered. As to the artists to whom
Savonarola unfolded his glorious idea of beauty, Vasari

Online LibraryR. S AlemanyThe life of St. Dominic and a sketch of the Dominican Order → online text (page 27 of 37)