Let us for a few moments turn our attention to a monastery a short distance from Florence. From its elevated position on the hills which skirt the vale of the Arno it commands a panoramic view of the "Lily City." It is the time when the Renaissance is virgin new to the world. Faith was still so real and living a thing that men and women shut themselves up from the world in order to live holy lives and devote themselves entirely to the service of God.
It is a body of such men on the heights of Fiesole that interests us. They are Dominican monks, of the order of great preachers, founded long ago by St. Dominic. Over long white robes the brothers, or frates, as they are called, wear black capes and back from their tonsured heads fall hoods, which protect them in inclement weather. It is a prosperous monastery surrounded by goodly fields. In some, the olive groves blossom in the spring-like snow, or wear foliage of richest green as the season advances. In others, the yellowing grain waves in the upland summer breeze. The monks are busy people, many without in the fields tilling the fruitful soil or gathering in the abundant harvest.
Indoors there is the silence which attends toil, intense and absorbing. The cellar and kitchen are in perfect order and in the refectory, or dining room, the table is spread for the next frugal meal. In the scriptorium, or writing room, several monks are busy copying ancient manuscripts on parchment. One does this work, using the most exquisite lettering, while another indites the hymns long loved by the church. This other, bending over his task, from a rich palette makes the vine to run, the dragon to coil, the angel head to shine, the tropic bird to fly from out the lettering of his book or, more ambitious still, he decorates a broad margin with an elaborate design. Mayhap he devotes an entire page to the deliniation of some favorite saint.—"What joy it is to labor so, To see the long-tressed angels grow Beneath the cunning of his hand, Vignette and tail-piece subtly wrought!"
Here in the walk of the cloisters, his pallid face lit up by fiery eyes, strolls another, the preacher of the monastery. To-night he will electrify his audience with the eloquence of his sermon that shall tell of the curse of evil, of the saving power of love.
Yonder, with the face and attitude of one who prays, painting a lovely angel with flame upon her forehead, with stars upon her robe and with a golden trumpet in her hand, is a man whose fancy has outgrown the margin, the full page even, of the beloved parchment book, and so he fills a whole wall with his vision from Paradise. Little need is there to name this painter-monk. It is Fra Angelico, the "Angelical Painter," Il Beato, "The Blessed."
To this man, who prays as he paints and who paints as he prays, we are to give our attention for a time. It is particularly delightful to find such a character in a time when holy men and women sometimes forgot their religious vows and ordinary citizens, in their scramble for place, lost sight of the laws of honor and manhood....