The sacred and profane

Angelic Brother. That was the nickname they gave him, because of a talent he possessed that seemed heaven sent. On a recent trip to New York City, Mary and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see only the second exhibition ever assembled of the work of the 15th-century Florentine master they call Fra Angelico. Born Guido di Pietro, this freelance painter, who became a humble Dominican friar, was given the name Fra Angelico—Angelic Brother—by those who knew him and is now often credited (along with Masaccio) with inventing modern painting and perspective. Fra Angelico brought to the tradition of medieval iconographic representation a talent for capturing the play of light on objects and faces, a newly realistic sense of space in architecture and landscape, and the ability to make paint look like human flesh, glowing with life.

He painted for popes and princes, adorned cathedrals in Rome and Orvieto with grand frescoes of brilliant colors and a profound sense of the mutually penetrating reality of the spiritual and the physical. Perhaps Fra Angelico’s greatest work, however, could not be presented in an exhibition. It remains in the plaster walls of the convent of San Marco in Florence, which was given to the Dominicans in 1436. Soon after, Fra Angelico was commissioned to paint frescoes directly on the walls of the modest, cramped cells in which his brothers lived, to stimulate prayer and meditation. These simple little rooms make one of our dorm rooms seem like a ballroom in size and luxury; but all 42 of them were touched, thanks to the Angelic Brother, with an unmistakable sense of the supernatural and the eternal in the profoundly simple scenes he painted there.

This holiday season, in New York City, offered a fitting time and place for meditating upon these sacred and incarnate images. In the pages of this issue of Arches, I can’t help but detect eloquent echoes of the same truths expressed in those images. The stunning photography by Tom Winter and the haunting words and images of Justin Garland’s experience in Swaziland offer compelling juxtapositions—as Fra Angelico’s frescoes did—of the sacred with the profane, the interpenetration of beauty with terror, the play of breathtaking light against a cold and desolate darkness.

For Fra Angelico, these conflicting forces adumbrated the mysteries of faith. For those of us devoted to liberal education, they sketch out the challenges of the liberal arts, where we negotiate between competing perspectives and values, test belief against experience, confront the familiar with the uncanny, and balance the real with the ideal, hope with disappointment, and the call to action with the need for reflection and understanding.

An angel is a messenger from a mysterious place. A brother is a familiar and well-known companion. As the words and images of these pages suggest, a Puget Sound education can be, for us who are fortunate enough to possess it, an angelic brother in a fiercely frightening and a terribly beautiful world.