Carrying the Cross in the School of Fra Angelico
“The life of man upon earth is a warfare.”1 No human life is without trials of all sorts. The Christian knows the origin of these sufferings and with just cause identifies it as original sin with its terrible consequences. Revelation teaches at the same time that the remedy is brought to us by the Incarnation of the Son of God Himself, Our Lord Jesus Christ, an incarnation for the redemption of mankind, “propter nos et propter nostram salutem.” This ransom took the form of the sacrifice of the Cross, the mystery of the Passion and death of the God-man on Calvary on Good Friday.
Since this is so, Christians commonly speak about suffering as a cross, thereby expressing in an intuitive way the fact that our sufferings have value or usefulness only if they are united to the redemptive sufferings of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This union is accomplished, in the state of grace, through the charity that gives a soul a right to merit. Our sufferings, freely accepted, then become instruments of salvation, a means of asking forgiveness for our sins and for those of our neighbor, to make amends for them, to turn our hearts toward the Good Lord.
It is advisable therefore to know how to carry one’s cross, how to face one’s sufferings and to make them meritorious. In order to do that, let us go to the school of an artist, Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar, who painted several frescos depicting St. Dominic at the foot of the cross. Through his paintings he expresses the dispositions of the Christian soul when faced with suffering and also the effects of the cross in our soul.
Meditating on the Cross, or the Dispositions of the Soul Needed to Endure Trials
Let us contemplate first the fresco in which St. Dominic is meditating in front of Christ who is being mocked. The saint’s attitude is calm, at rest, while above him is symbolized the violence that is unleashed on Our Lord Jesus Christ. Fra Angelico depicts him meditating unhurriedly; his right hand supporting his head symbolizes good works (the active life) at the service of the faith and of charity (the contemplative life). His forehead is slightly furrowed to indicate the attention given to study and the sorrow of his soul meditating on the passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Saint Dominic meditates with the book open. No doubt these are the Sacred Scriptures. We should learn a lesson from this. Suffering and sorrow are repugnant to human nature. In order to be ready to endure them, it is necessary to know why they exist and the use that one can make of them. And that is revealed to us through the various texts of Sacred Scripture, which reveal to us the meaning of suffering in general and of our sufferings in particular. And above all the sufferings of Christ in His passion are the ones that arm our soul with courage. “Indeed, meditation on the passion of Jesus Christ causes us not to let ourselves become discouraged. If we call to mind the passion of Jesus Christ,” St. Gregory says, “nothing can be so hard that we will not support it with equanimity.”2
Humbly Welcoming the Mystery of the Cross
Fra Angelico also depicted St. Dominic at the foot of the cross in a large fresco located in the chapter room of the convent of San Marco in Florence. The saint looks at the Crucified; he is kneeling, just to one side of the cross. His two hands are outspread, thus seeming to express the inexpressible, what cannot be said. It is the soul’s exclamation when faced with the mystery of suffering, that of Our Lord Jesus Christ or her own, because suffering remains a mystery. At the same time, the outstretched hands also express openness, the willingness to welcome the trials that the Good Lord permits. Far from shutting herself in and making her own will prevail, the soul seems to open herself and to let the divine Crucified Lord have His will with her. May He come therefore to purify our hearts. The only response is that of the humble Virgin Mary: “Ecce ancilla Domini. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.”
Before Fra Angelico, Giotto too painted Saint Francis at the foot of the cross, in the same posture, expressing wonder at the cross. Saint Francis is to the left of the cross; he stares at the Crucified; he is kneeling, with both hands outstretched toward the cross. Everything looks as though the cross is eliciting a cry from the depths of his heart: a cry of sorrow but also of love in view of so many sufferings endured for our salvation. He would like to take in this precious body, he would like to help it to bear its cross. He strains toward the body, toward the cross, so as to join them together.
Accepting the Cross and Submitting to the Divine Plan
The cross is a school of God’s will. St. Paul teaches this by saying that, through His sufferings, Our Lord Jesus Christ learned obedience, not that He needed to learn it, but rather to point out that our human nature must learn to bend beneath the demands of the divine love, even if these demands are tormenting:
Who in the days of His flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplications to Him that was able to save Him from death, was heard for His reverence. And whereas indeed He was the Son of God, He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.3
Fra Angelico expresses this very well in a fresco where St. Dominic is at the foot of the cross with the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John. He is kneeling, both his hands are placed flat and upright on the cross, on the front and on the side. These hands seem to make the cross their own. Notice that they are aligned with the wood of the cross, so as to correspond to the divine plan. We must carry our cross according to God’s will in order to correspond to what He wills, in other words, in the same direction as the cross and not athwart it. We must not drag it, not carry it apart from what the Good Lord wills for us in permitting this trial. At the same time the saint’s look is always fixed, not on the hands the bear the weight of the body, in other words, on the suffering itself, but on the Crucified, that is, on the cause of this suffering, on the love with which we must endure it, in union with Him who endures it. “We must not separate Jesus from the cross; we must say with Saint Ignatius of Antioch: ‘My love is crucified, amor meus crucifixus est.’ ”4
The cross also preaches abandonment to the divine will. Ernest Hello has shown the lengths to which this abandonment must go:
We should note that the cross, which represents the idea of sacrifice in this world, is precisely what best represents absolute abandonment. The One who let Himself be laid on the cross so as to be martyred on it holds nothing of Himself back. He allows Himself to be pierced in every part, in His hands, in His feet, in His heart, everywhere. He lets Himself be stripped of everything: friends, dignity, clothing. He is there, alone and naked, a victim in heart, mind and body, to be tortured as they will; he neither resists nor responds nor defends Himself. He allows Himself to be torn, thirsts to be torn from head to foot, from skin to heart; He prays for His executioners, remains prostrate, lets Himself be turned about, pierced, mocked; lets His face be spat upon and His heart be struck by His friends, by His enemies, while abandoning Himself to this God who does not spare the one He loves: what they do to Him does not matter to Him; He receives the blow and gives thanks.5
The Cross, the School of Co-Redemption
Being a school of obedience and humble acceptance of God’s will, the cross is also a school of voluntary mortification. Testimony to this is the surprising fresco by Fra Angelico in which Saint Dominic is scourging himself at the foot of the cross. He again contemplates the Crucified, he is at the foot of the cross and is scourging himself, his torso naked. Drops of blood gush from the Sacred Heart and St. Dominic seems to wait for them to touch him to purify his soul. This flagellation in the presence of the cross evokes quite palpably the share of voluntary mortification that we must accept in the mystery of redemption. Our share of the cross in our life consists first of the involuntary sufferings: illnesses, contradictions, trials of all sorts due to the imperfection of our human nature or even because of our sins and failings—which in themselves are all voluntary although we have made them involuntary by the conversion of our heart.
But there must be more, a genuine voluntary mortification. This is self-imposed in addition in order to participate more intimately in the redemption. In order to add something more to the sufferings of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross and thereby to console His divine Heart. We see clearly that this voluntary mortification must not be separated from contemplation of the cross, from love of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not a feat of strength or a superhuman act: it is an act of charity that makes us participate in the divine life:
Semper mortificationem Jesu in corpore nostro circumferentes, ut et vita Jesu manifestetur in carne nostra mortali: Always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies.6
Carry the Cross and it will Carry You
Several frescos by Fra Angelico depict St. Dominic at the foot of the cross with both hands outstretched encircling the cross. He seems to hold it; he seems to be the one keeping the cross upright. And indeed, it is advisable to carry it like a banner, since it is also our victory and the sign of the Christian’s gratitude. But let us look more closely at the hands of our spiritual guide. They encircle the cross. His gaze is still fixed above on the Crucified. His face is slightly sad. His right hand rests on the cross, quite flat, aligned with the cross—as though carried by the cross. It is pointed upward, it transports the soul toward the heights, toward the Crucified. It gathers the blood that flows from the cross and, at the contact with this blood, it is purified. As for the left hand, it grasps the cross, embraces it, and seems to carry it. This is a sign of love and of the strength that love gives. We embrace the cross as something that we love.
The cross gives us a transfusion of charity, causes God’s love to penetrate within us and thus draws us to Heaven. It carries us more than we help Our Lord Jesus Christ to carry it.
Standing with Our Lady of Compassion and Praying
On one small fresco painted by Fra Angelico, St. Dominic is depicted kneeling at the foot of the cross. His eyes are fixed on Christ, his hands joined in a posture of prayer. Suffering, trials, and the cross are a terrible thing for our human nature. And so the painter shows us the way to overcome and endure these difficulties: prayer. Our Lord Jesus Christ offered a sacrifice on the cross. We must not lose sight of this point. This sacrifice is reenacted every day on our altars. This is Christ’s great prayer that continues down through the centuries, to which all the personal prayers of every Christian should be united.
But the Christian is not alone in his suffering. There is the Blessed Virgin Mary beside him, an indispensable presence at the foot of the cross. Often St. Dominic is at the foot of the cross accompanied by, or rather accompanying, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John. One cannot carry one’s cross without the love of the Crucified, without the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary and without the presence of St. John. The Immaculata is there to remind us of her compassion and to teach us to suffer well, in charity, under the influence of the gifts of understanding and wisdom. As for St. John, he represents the priest who, through the sacraments, and especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and Confession, is the instrument of our Crucified Lord by which He transmits to us the divine life gushing from His wounded side.
Loving the Crucified Lord
But Giotto was no doubt bolder than Fra Angelico. Thus he painted St. Francis kissing the feet of Jesus on the cross. Kneeling at the feet of the Crucified, he pours out all his love on the wounds of the feet at the place of the nail. Carrying one’s cross is a work of love. Our love for Our Lord Jesus Christ and for His sufferings consoles the Heart of Jesus and, retrospectively, helps Him to carry His cross, “because basically, the cross is Jesus: therefore when we kiss the cross, Jesus is the one whom we kiss.”7 Often, when faced with a trial, it is better for us to make an act of love than to lose our peace of mind in a multitude of unanswerable questions. This is the best way of manifesting the true Christian life.
The Baroque Development of the Theme
Establishing that Giotto was bolder than “Brother Angel,” we can opine that Murillo and his followers were bolder yet. Two centuries later in Baroque Spain, his school presented the same subject matter in its most intimate form: St. Francis embracing Our Lord, with the Divine Savior returning the embrace. Devotion and love are equally displayed in both depictions of St. Francis, but with drastically different impact.
The Spiritual Effects: Charity, Joy, Peace
Returning to Fra Angelico, we see that all the while, the Crucified Lord looks at Saint Dominic. In all the frescos by Fra Angelico, Christ is not indifferent to the way in which we carry our cross (or rather we should say, His cross) and to our love for Him, a love that we manifest by enduring trials and sharing in His sufferings. The first effect produced by a cross that is carried well is therefore to increase charity in us. The love of God grows by acts that should be more and more intense. The different trials that we go through in life are there to give us the opportunity to perform these ever more intense acts. Love is not measured by its difficulty, but difficulties can help love to grow by forcing us to be more generous and stronger: “Fortis est ut mors dilectio.”8
Love in turn brings joy and peace. “But the fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace…”9 Most of the time, Fra Angelico depicts the joy of St. Dominic. St. Dominic looks at the cross. His gaze is fixed on the crucifix. He contemplates the One who is on the cross, not the cross. His gaze is calm, fixed on high. His face is serene, with a faint smile. It is necessary to contemplate the Crucified who is God, to contemplate His divinity through His crucified humanity, and that produces a smile, joy, because one is close to God. And this contemplation produces calm, peace and prayer, signified here by the joined hands. The peace that results from contemplation of the sacrifice on Calvary is not just for oneself. It redounds also on society as a whole; then it is public peace, the peace of societies that live in keeping with the natural order of things and in harmony with the supernatural order of grace.
Christendom is the village; it consists of the villages, the cities, the countries which, in imitation of Christ on the cross, carry out the law of love, under the influence of the Christian life of grace. Christendom is the Kingdom of Jesus Christ; the authorities of this Christendom call themselves ‘lieutenants of Jesus Christ,’ commanded to apply His Law, to protect the faith in Jesus Christ and to assist its development in every way possible, in complete agreement with the Church. One can truly say that all the benefits of Christendom come from the cross of Jesus and from Jesus Crucified; this is a resurrection of fallen humanity, thanks to the power of the blood of Jesus Christ.10
They say that Fra Angelico never painted without praying first, so that his frescos are nothing other than the fruit of his contemplation. In turn, and conversely, may the contemplation of these divine scenes produce prayer in us so that we might be able to sing with him and with all the blessed: “O Crux, ave, spes unica. Piis adauge gratiam, reisque dele crimina.”11
Source: Le Seignadou, by Fr. François Delmotte—April 2017
1 Job 7:1.
2 Saint Thomas, Commentaire sur Isaïe, Chapter 12.
3 Heb. 5:7-8.
4 R.P. Dehau, Le contemplatif et la Croix, tome II, page 17.
5 Ernest Hello, Regards et Lumières, Perrin 1929, pp. 91-92.
6 II Cor. 4:10.
7 R.P. Dehau, Le contemplatif et la Croix, tome II, page 15.
8 Cant. 8:6.
9 Gal. 5:22.
10 Archbishop Lefebvre, Spiritual Journey, Chapter 7.
11 “ O Cross! all hail! sole hope, abide!
New grace in pious hearts implant,
And pardon to the guilty grant! ”