Sunday 19 November 2017

What lies beneath: All Saints

All Saints by Fra Angelico, Egg tempera on wood, The National Gallery, London

All Saints by Fra Angelico
All Saints by Fra Angelico

Niall MacMonagle

Hallowe'en used to be monkey nuts, apples bobbing in a basin of water, and a gouged-out turnip. Battery-operated spiders and skeleton-body suits are all the rage now, and few trick-or-treaters think about souls and saints even on November 1, today, All Saints' Day.

But the saints are there in legion if you want to give them the time of night. There are 10,000 of them, and counting. Recent arrivals include St Therese of Lisieux's mother and father, Zelie and Louis Martin, who had nine ­children and were praised by Pope Francis for raising The Little Flower. There's many a parent, uncanonised, who've brought up Flowers - and Briars! - deserving sainthood.

Saints are an odd bunch. Christopher and Philomena were 'decanonised', and no Pope ever pronounced Patrick a saint. Yet, saints are to be admired and imitated? A bit dodgy, that. St Agatha's breasts were cut off with pincers, St Dymphna was decapitated by her father when she refused his inappropriate advances, St Bartholomew was skinned alive, St Veronica Giulani, in pre-Domestos days, cleaned toilets with her tongue - ah, now - and St Lucy gouged out her eyes and gave them to an admiring suitor. St Oda cut off her nose on her wedding day, and St Angela of Foligno drank pus from open wounds.

But in this image the saints look clean and proper. Fra Giovanni Angelico, real name Guido di Pietro, was given the name 'Angelic Brother John' by his fellow Dominican friars and this detail from The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, painted circa-1423, is known as 'All Saints'.

And aren't there queues of them? They're all dressed up but it's not as if they're going anywhere: they have arrived - in Heaven!

Fra Angelico himself was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982, and Vasari wrote in Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects wrote that Fra Angelico's pictures were painted with "facility and piety". And as for our most famous Irish saint? He's really Welsh. If we were very, very correct and obedient to the Church's teaching, next March 17 would be a Mr Patrick's Day.

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