On the occasion of the reopening of the monumental Library of Michelozzo on 20 February 2015, Father Michael Dunleavy, an expert on Dominican liturgy, in a seminar interspersed with songs performed by the Schola Cantorum, clarified the relationship between Dominican liturgical song and the iconography of Angelico. It is a profound and fascinating relationship which, while embracing the entire oeuvre of Angelico’s painting, is not yet sufficiently researched.
The paintings by Fra Angelico, in particular the frescoes of the cycle of San Marco, are luminous illustrations of Mystery, in which preaching is no longer directed to the outside world, to the public of the idiots (Saint Antonino Pierozzi held that for churches are made “devout paintings … which are spoken of in the Decree Books of the Idiots, who not knowing how to read, therefore for them is represented the fervour … so that the soul is stirred to follow it”), but to an interlocutor confidant, “initiated”. The frescoes of the cells are the lyrics of Angelico: they are the visible testimony of grace for the benefit of his beloved brethren.
The function of the frescoes is “heuristic.” It does not reproduce perceptible reality, in a camouflaged or descriptive sense, but reinvents it in a way that suggests Platonically the idea from which it descends. It deals for the most part with frescoes which are “anonymous”, except for the three large frescoes for the community and those of the first ten cells of the corridor of the Fathers (autographs are not relevant in prayer-art), in which the representation of the joyful, sorrowful and glorious Mysteries becomes a most refined theological meditation, a synchronic coexistence between events already taken place and events that are yet to occur, between memory and the gazing upon it.
The liturgical system is like a musical score. This is because music has such an effect that one is obliged to perform it; so it is with liturgy. You must enact, re-animate the texts and actions, and nourish them with the images of the Virgin, the Cross, and the models of holiness of Dominic, Peter Martyr and Thomas Aquinas
Below are some examples of liturgical chants accompanied by images Fra Angelico, according to the cues provided by Father Dunleavy.
Ave Regina Coelorum (Hail Queen of Heaven). It is an antiphon sung at Vespers, or at the end of Compline. The iconography is that of the Coronation of the Virgin, of which, further to the fresco in San Marco in the cell nine, are two small panels in the Hospice of the Pilgrims. There are also important examples on panel preserved in other museum collections (Uffizi, Louvre).
Ave Maris Stella (Hail Star of the Sea), is always recited during the Divine Office and at the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as well as during Vespers and is present in the Roman breviary which envisages its recitation during the Marian feasts. The iconography is that of Our Lady of the Star, an altarpiece painted on and kept in the Room of the Hospice of the Pilgrims of San Marco.
In Medio Ecclesiae (In the Midst of the Church), is a song that alludes to the combative vocation of Preaching fathers. The iconography, in this case, is that of the holy founder of the Order, Dominic de Guzman, who is represented on many occasions by Angelico in adoration of the Cross.
Adoro te devote, is one of five Eucharistic hymns attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas and was written on the occasion of the introduction of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi in 1264, on commission by Pope Urban IV. The iconography is that of the Crucifixion of the Chapter House, characterized by the presence of a pelican, at the top of the curved frame, which pierces his breast to feed his offspring with his own blood, a obviously Christological reference.
transl. by Marcus Francis