Sunday, March 21, 2010

Blessed Giovanni Dominici

Blessed Fra Angelico 1400 - 1455
Crucifixion and Saints
Fresco, 550 x 950 cm
Convento di San Marco, Florence

This huge fresco occupies the entire wall opposite to the entrance of the Chapter Room in San Marco in Florence

It is filled with figures. It is a complex masterwork by Fra Angelico

Let us look at only a small part of this profound work, one which Vasari tells us caused Fra Angelico to weep while painting the crucified Christ.

Most visitors to the Convent of San Marco can only take in so much in a visit to this great collection of religious art. It is easily overlooked like many other details of many of the other works on display.

In the lower frieze there are seventeen medallions of portraits of the most distinguished members of the Dominican order: la genealogia domenicana

Amongst these distinguished figures of Popes, saints and others is the portrait of Fra Angelico`s near contemporary Blessed John Dominici, Archbishop of Ragusa and Cardinal (ca. 1356-1419) (see below)

In the Acta Sanctorum, two lives of the Blessed are printed: one is, a short memoir by St Antoninus of Florence (1389 – 2 May 1459) who would have known the Cardinal well.

The Cardinal had founded the Convento di San Domenico in Fiesole in 1406 where the young St Antoninus and the Blessed Fra Angelico had spent time as young novices and friars. He had founded it as one of the convents of the Observant Dominicans, a strict branch of the Dominican order.

Butler`s Lives of the Saints sets out a brief summary of his life and works:

"A Florentine of humble parentage, born in 1376, John received the Dominican habit at the age of eighteen in the priory of Santa Maria Novella, in spite of some opposition caused by his lack of education and a tendency to stammer. An unusually retentive memory and great perseverance enabled him soon to remedy these defects and he became one of the leading theologians of his day as well as an eloquent preacher. In addition to commentaries on the Holy Scriptures and one or two treatises, he wrote laudi or hymns in the vernacular.

For twelve years after completing his studies at the University of Paris he taught and preached in Venice. He was then prior of Santa Maria Novella and elsewhere.

At Fiesole and in Venice he founded new houses for men and in the latter city he established the Convent of Corpus Christi for Dominican nuns.

He it was who contributed most to the reform movement in Italy, introducing or restoring the strict rule of St Dominic in several priories, with the approval of the master general, Bd Raymund of Capua. It should be further noticed that he took the keenest interest in the Christian education of the young and that he was one of the first to detect and resist the pernicious tendencies of the new paganism that was growing up with the humanists.

In 1406 he attended the conclave which elected Pope Gregory XII, and he afterwards became confessor and adviser to that pope, who created him archbishop of Ragusa and cardinal of San Sisto.

By encouraging Pope Gregory to resign -- as the only possible means of inducing the antipopes likewise to forego their claims -- Blessed John was instrumental in helping to end the Great Schism, and it was he who conveyed Gregory s resignation to the Council of Constance.

The next pope, Martin V, appointed him legate to Bohemia and Hungary, charged especially with the duty of counteracting the influence of the Hussites. He found Bohemia in a turmoil: public opinion had been roused to the verge of frenzy by the execution of John Huss; and King Wenceslaus would not take the repressive measures advocated by the nuncio.

As he could do nothing there, Dominici passed on to Hungary, but he caught fever soon after his arrival and died at Buda on June 10, 1419. His cultus was confirmed in 1832. "

In a recently published book Sister Bartolomea Riccoboni - Life and Death in a Venetian Convent: The Chronicle and Necrology of Corpus Domini 1395 - 1436  Edited and Translated by Daniel Bornstein (2000), there is reproduced the Necrology for the Cardinal (the founder of the Convent) produced by the Convent in 1419. Thus the two dimensional image painted by Fra Angelico in the Convent of San Marco becomes three dimensional

"On June 10th, 1419 our reverend father Brother Giovanni Dominici, founder and father of this convent, passed from this life. After he had enclosed it, he remained in this city for five and a half years.

As I have said, Pope Gregory made him his cardinal, and in his service he lived in constant company with the many troubles and tribulations and persecutions that he suffered for the holy church and the defense of the truth. Because he accepted this position of authority within the holy church not for pomp or profit but out of obedience, God promised that for his obedient service to the holy church he would die in conformity with Lord Jesus Christ, who in human form was obedient usque ad mortem.

Thus it happened that when unity had been restored to the holy church, a terrible heresy arose in the region of Bohemia which held that monks could marry and that the sacrament of the altar was not real; and many monks and nuns were killed by these Wicked heretics for refusing to accept this perverse heresy.

After Pope Gregory died and Pope Martin V was elected pope by agreement of the entire council, everyone concurred that our father, as the wisest and most fervent zealot for God's honor, should be sent to extirpate that heresy, and he was made a legate with full authority to act on the pope's behalf.

He went obediently, and when he had arrived in those areas of Bohemia he began to preach to lead those souls back to the true light. He wore himself out in preaching, lecturing, and debating, until finally he was stricken with pain in the sides and kidney stones, which had given him trouble in the past.

And so the Lord saw fit to grant him repose, and he passed from this life serenely, full of good works and with a good reputation.

When the news reached our convent, everyone felt inexpressible sorrow at being deprived of such a venerable father, for even when he was far away physically he still continually visited us spiritually with his prayers and letters and epistles, urging us always to act well. He also solicited from Popes Gregory and Martin a pardon on the Assumption valid forever for all the sisters in the convent, on condition that when first vespers is said they recite Veni creator spiritus and the seven psalms, and those who are too sick to come to choir should have the cross carried to them so that they might kiss it three times and receive the pardon.

He also solicited a plenary indulgence in articulo mortis granting, for the space of a year, remission of sin and suffering to those sisters then living who chose to confess on any day they pleased and performed whatever penance the confessor saw fit to impose, thereby receiving this pardon.

What is more, he bestowed upon his daughters not only spiritual goods, but temporal ones as well.

Thus it was through his intervention that Pope Gregory instructed the prior of the Carceri in Padua to give our convent, out of his revenues, 600 ducats a year for fifteen years in a row.

In addition, even when he did not receive his revenues on account of the war and schism in the church, he still managed to send us a hundred bushels of grain and 100 ducats; and if he had lived three years longer, he would have endowed the convent as he wished.

He had the greatest affection for his daughters, which he demonstrated in life and in death. Once he wrote to inquire how many of the women he had left here were still alive and how many had died and how many there were at that moment, and he asked that each send him a ginger root as a sign of charity. When his daughters heard this, with the greatest joy they all searched to find a fine ginger root. Each one's name was written on a tag tied to her root, and one was put in a sack for each of the sixty-three sisters then in the convent.

When he was presented with the sack, he sat down on a bench and opened it and emptied it, and while reading the names of his beloved daughters he could not hold back his tears, so that those who were present there were moved to weep at the sight of his humanity and sweetness. He wrote back that he welcomed the little ones no less than the big, since he saw that the charity of all was great; and he urged us all to act well and live in common.

After his death, he left us all his silver, which we sold for 600 ducats and used the money to buy state bonds.

Whoever tried to record everything that we saw and felt of his affectionate charity toward us would have a lot to write; but I will tell about one wonderful example of his charity for all. Just as the master of true charity loved all his disciples yet among them John was especially beloved, so our father felt, four years after it was enclosed, about those two beloved women who gave our convent its start.

When our father learned that Sister Andreola, who was one of these two sisters, was sick and in very bad shape, he said, "When Sister Andreola dies, I will follow soon after her." We asked him why, and he replied, "Because we promised each other that whichever of us died first would ask the Lord God to allow the other to follow right away." And so it happened, since he lived just three months and three days after the death of Sister Andreola.

He had solicited two other privileges for his daughters. The first was that those who had received the habit from his hands would be spared the torments of hell-and he vested seventy women in this convent in the five and a half years that he resided in Venice [after the founding of the convent].

The second was that none of the women he vested would die of plague; and this we have found by experience to have come true, by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. He obtained this favor from God in the following way: two years after he enclosed the convent, the plague struck one of the sisters. Our father was immediately summoned to come and give her the sacraments; he replied that he would come in the morning. When he arrived the following morning he said, "There is no need for me to come inside. Don't worry, for she will not die from this illness." On the third day, she was safe and sound. He stopped by another day to rejoice with us over that sister's recovery and said, "Dear daughters, be of good spirits, since none of you will ever again have this disease; my Lord God has made me this promise."

In many such ways we have found by experience that our dear father is God's friend and has obtained many favors from his majesty on our behalf. No one who sought him out was so troubled and tempted that she did not departconsoled; whenever anything was needed, everyone went to him, and with great charity he provided for us all according to our needs. During the five and a half years that he stayed in this city we were like good infants hanging at their mother's breast, and when he left we lost a great comfort and spiritual and temporal support.

Whoever wants to tell his life's story would have to be a wise and learned person, since I truly believe that he is a saint in celestial glory.

Nonetheless, in my own little way I will say something about him.

This most holy man was from the city of Florence, the son of parents who were thoroughly honest and good in worldly terms.His father was named Dominic and practised the silk trade, and his mother was named Paola-and he fully lived up to his parents' names, since he became a son of Saint Dominic, following the preachings of Saint Paul.

His venerable mother told how she was left pregnant with him when his father died. When he was born, she named him Giovanni. He wanted to enter the order when he was fourteen years old, but his mother feared that the friars in Florence would not accept him, so she sent him off to Venice with a respectable merchant. While residing there in obedience to his mother, his good desire increased. He often visited San Zanipolo, and when the sermon was over he would climb into the pulpit and say, "Someday I shall see many people in this church at my sermons"- and so it came to pass.

After two years had gone by his mother thought that he had gotten over the fervor to be a friar, so she sent for him; and as soon as he arrived in Florence he donned the habit of Saint Dominic in the friary of Santa Maria Novella. His mother knew nothing, but as she waited for him at home and he did not appear, she thought of the kind of person he was and went off to Santa Maria Novella and asked for her son. When Brother Giovanni heard that his mother was looking for him, he said to the prior, "Let me speak with her, since I hope to God that I can leave her satisfied." The prior agreed and accompanied him into the church.

When his mother saw him she was stricken with anguish, and when she came to herself she said, "My son, how can you take this habit and deprive your mother of her only son?" The son, seeing his mother lamenting greatly in such bitterness, said to her with great compassion, "Don't be upset, mother, for I still trust that my Lord, who has selected me for this holy order, will grant you the grace of being well pleased with me," and many other fine words. The prior too comforted her in similar terms, so that she went away consoled.

With my feeble talents, I could not recount his fine beginnings and how his obedience, poverty, chastity, and other virtues made him a good example to everyone. He was sent to Paris soon thereafter and returned full of great learning. He said that he had always longed to convert many souls to God but doubted that he could be understood because he stuttered. Hearing of the virtues of Saint Catherine of Siena, who died about that time and performed some great miracles, he appealed to her that he might be understood; and he received from her that grace so that in his day there was no preacher more outstanding.

He produced good fruits in every city he went to, especially Venice. He was not yet thirty years old when he was sent to San Zanipolo as lector; he spoke so effectively that he spread profound peace where there had been the most tremendous strife. Whoever was troubled and tempted would go to him, and all would leave consoled.

He converted many people in Venice during this period: upon hearing his sermons, merchants abandoned their crooked practices, the greedy gave alms, the dissolute became chaste. In short, he uprooted many vices from this city. Many people would not do anything at all without his advice. He gave such consolation and comfort to all during the twelve years he stayed in this city, as lector and as preacher at the government's request, that the Holy Spirit seerned to speak through him.

He was much beloved by everyone. He restored unity and peace between the Franciscans and Dominicans: he arranged that on the feast of Saint Francis all the Dominican friars would go as a group to hear the office and preach there, and the Franciscans responded in kind on the feast of Saint Dominic.

He was so zealous for unity and peace that he bore some fruit in whatever city or place he visited.

He brought the friars of San Zanipolo back to true obedience, so that those who did not want to observe the rule wanted to kill him. When his daughters learned of this, they prayed heartily for him. One in particular insisted with many tears that Lord Jesus Christ rescue him from these wicked men; she got an answer from the Holy Spirit, who said, "Don't worry, for I have sent the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Iacob to watch over and protect him."

And he truly was well protected by these three patriarchs, since San Zanipolo maintained the proper observance for more than thirteen years, while in this city alone, on more than seven occasions he was in danger of being killed for the salvation of souls. For he followed in the steps of Lord lesus Christ, who said, "I have not come to bring peace on earth but a sword, and to let sons against their father."

Many men and women left their relatives and their children to become friars and nuns, and for this reason their relatives grew angry with him, saying, "This traitor is leading our children astray; let us remove him from the world." They got it into their heads to kill him when he came to say mass; but when one tried to lift his dagger his hand was held back and he could not harm the man of God, who was protected by those three patriarchs because he sought God's honor and the salvation of souls. When these people witnessed this miracle, they converted and became his dearest friends.

This holy man also restored the regular obedience in the friaries of San Domenico in Venice and Chioggia, in Citra di Castello and in Cortona, and the one in Fiesole near Florence.

In short, he gave aid and counsel to all those who wanted to live well. His advice and his sermons were so gentle and full of wisdom that no one who heard them could deny their truth. In every city where he sowed the word of God, he reaped an abundant harvest. He preached twice a day during Lent and three or four times a day on holidays: in the morning he went wherever he was invited; after lunch, at San Zampolo, the third time, here with us; and then he went to the palace to preach for the doge's wife.

The people who followed him around, both men and women, all marveled that he could draw four sermons from a single gospel passage, each one different from the others and all of them beautiful; but his mind was full of natural intelligence and wisdom, and he had little need to study. All those who knew him-popes, cardinals, bishops, friars, and secular clergy-said they had never heard a man with such a memory, prudence, and eloquence in the Holy Scriptures, sermons, and preaching. One could say of him, as of Saint Paul, that he suffered many perils for the salvation of souls and the defense of the holy church.

He profited the holy church not only with his preaching but also with his holy writings, beginning with us. For as long as he remained in this city, after he had enclosed our convent, he wrote and annotated the books for singing the office throughout the year, the gradual of the saints, and one of the large psalters, and after he was banished, upon hearing of our troubles, he wrote us many letters of consolation and helpful instruction, which have all been recopied to form a book.

Even as he traveled throughout the world preaching and converting many people, he never forgot about us. He wrote a book called the Itinerario because he went wandering around the world and, wishing to comfort us and his other friends but being unable to return to Venice until his period of exile expired, he wrote this book that contains an exposition of the Song of Songs so marvelously lucid that there is no mind so foggy that it wouldn't be enlightened by reading it. He also wrote on Genesis, drawing a parallel between this convent and Noah's ark.

He wrote an exposition of the Magnificat and a book on the perfection of charity, and another book on the seven beatitudes; all the aforesaid books are in this convent.

Such a lot of lovely sermons and treatises against heresy and the papal schism and in defense of the holy Catholic faith!

There is no way I could recount all that this holy man labored to do for the honor of God and for the holy church usque ad mortem.

This holy man was of such sobriety and humility that I am totally inadequate to the task of describing his virtues. However, I do not want to take refuge in my inadequacy and so will speak as best I know how.

His venerable mother told me that he was sixteen years old when he entered the order, and he lived to be sixty-five without ever being heard to say an idle word or do a dissolute act. He was always sober and proper in his speech, his movements, and his glances: he was so reserved even toward his mother that she called him her prickly son. He loved chastity and virginity so much that he could never be sated with preaching about and praising this virtue, with the result that many young men and women who heard those elegant sermons made vows of virginity, some in religious orders and some outside them. He was equally sober about eating, in that he followed his order's rules in all circumstances until he fell ill. He also remained and always wanted to be poor, so that he had nothing of his own. Whoever entered his cell found nothing but books and straw, while all the coins and other alms that might be given to him were turned over to the community.

When he was banished from this city, he happened to have only five shillings; and with that sum he walked all the way to Florence. Not long thereafter he was made bishop of Ragusa, and subsequently he was named cardinal-not through simony or money, but on account of his great virtues, since Pope Gregory, knowing him to be a man of great deeds and much learning, was very happy to have him by his side. When this blessed father received these honors, he did not puff himself up pompously but instead humbly maintained a level of poverty consonant with his station in life.

One could also say of his humility that while he was vicar of the friaries that he had brought back to the [regular] observance, he was the first to rouse the friars to action when it was time to knead the bread; and when wood or wine or stones or mortar arrived for the work being done on the friary, he was the first to heft it on his shoulders and so set an example for the other friars to follow. He would get up and sweep the friary while everyone was sleeping; when the friars woke up, they would marvel to find it swept and dusted. There were those who noted and kept in mind how he himself behaved, and so the good shepherd taught his flock.

He was also much given to vigils and prayers and devotion. That holy man never remained idle: he meditated, prayed, and studied the Holy Scriptures or wrote, annotated, and illuminated. He was always thinking up more things to do so as not to remain idle. Every day he would say the first mass, since he was kept so busy with preaching, hearing confession, and offering advice; and his masses were always accompanied with tears.

He had the gift of prophecy. When some troubled or tempted person asked for his prayers, with great compassion he placed his hands on that person's head, saying, "Be comforted, for help will soon be with you", and those hands would seem to carry away all the heart's troubles.

He had great spirit and was always eager to do grand deeds for God. Just as he did great deeds for the order, so he did great deeds and endured great hardships for the holy church during the thirteen years that he was part of its leadership-and for all that, he would say and write that he felt he was accomplishing nothing, and that he hoped to return to the order so that he could preach and do something for love of the Lord God. He did all he could to get permission to return to it, but the holy father held him very dear and would never agree to let him go. And so he finished the course of his life amid good intentions and good deeds and went to receive the reward for his labors.

We believe that he is greatly glorified in that eternal homeland.

As a sign that this is true, while one of our sisters was in prayer, praying to the Lord for his soul with many tears, she was rapt in spirit and seemed to see a great light. In that light she saw and recognized the face of this blessed father, which seemed to cast rays like the sun, and the whole church was filled with the faces of little children that hovered in the air around this light. This sister was utterly amazed, and she pondered to herself, saying, "My Lord, what do all these children signify?" She heard a voice that said to her, "Be of good cheer. You should know that those children are the souls that have been brought back into the bosom of the holy church by his preaching and his advice, and that is why you see him in such glory." She gazed upon that face and said, "Oh, blessed father, may your daughters be entrusted to your care," and she reported that he laughed as if with pleasure at hearing these words. This sister came to herself very joyous, firmly believing that he enjoyed life eternal and great honor in the sight of the Lord.

Indeed, many things could be said of this holy man and venerable father. I have recounted only a few of them, since my abilities cannot match what his sanctity deserves; but the little bit that I have 'written, I have written in order that we not be ungrateful daughters of such a father, and that those who come after us may know who was the founder of this blessed convent, and that in hearing some portion of his virtues they may have an incentive to strive to imitate him, so that with him they might enjoy life eternal ad quam nos perducat ille qui sine vivit et regnat."

For a much more detailed study of the Life and Works of Blessed Giovanni Dominici, see
Debby, Aryeh. (2002, March 22). Political views in the preaching of Giovanni Dominici in Renaissance Florence, 1400-1406. (*) The Free Library. (2002). Retrieved March 21, 2010 from