Fra Angelico & the Miracle of the Roses

by | Oct 23, 2016

A brace of pigeons fluttered away from the Scriptorium window as Fra Angelico threw open the shutters.

The morning sunlight streamed into the cool interior like a warm waterfall, and he paused to bask in the light for a moment. He inhaled deeply, the vigorous scents of rosemary and mint filling his nose and lungs.

Squinting, he watched a cluster of friars chatting happily down in the courtyard, shouldering shovels and tools for working in the fields, leading a donkey and cart out toward the wheat fields.

He stretched, his mind still ringing with the chants of morning prayers. He turned back toward the tables to start work for the day. There was much to do; most of the paints for ornamenting manuscripts were made then and there, so he set to work deciding the colors he needed for that day.

From the shelves along the back wall, he selected the pottles of ground powder, picking out pinks and reds for people and raiment. Then he carefully picked up a bottle of glair, a substance mixed with the powder to create a paint. Glair was often made from beaten egg whites, with a couple of cloves thrown in, and then sealed tight and stored for years.  Over time it became very sticky, almost gummy, perfect for dipping with a quill or brush.

He set them up on mixing table, a great pine surface stained from years of mixing and accidental spills. Humming softly, he selected a handful of different bowls, about the size of sea shells, and ranged them in a circle.

Several of the other friars who worked in the Scriptorium came in, and he glanced up to smile. They greeted him and went about their work.

Young Fra Leonardo had his arms full of logs for the fire, his black cloak thrown back over his shoulders. He stoked up the embers, and then settled to his desk, entering his air of silence as he stared at the penciled work from the day before, preparing to apply ink linework made from fresh charcoal.

Fra Rizardo, a middle aged ex-soldier with a full beard had already taken his cloak off, and rolled up his sleeves. He went around to each desk to check that the penknives were sharpened, the stack of quills replenished and the ink wells refilled. When he finished, he headed into the library in the next room to refill the lamp stands with fresh olive oil and trim the braided, cotton wicks.

Fra Angelico wrinkled his nose and held his breath as he scooped a little of the smelly glair into a bowl, tapping in some of the ground up, red ochre and stirring it quickly with a rod.

“Are you ready?” A now familiar voice sounded in his ear.

He jumped and looked around.

Eändelion stood at his elbow, watching him and smiling. Once again, he was wingless, his long, golden hair pulled away from his face by a headband, his red robes studded with bright copper stars. His burnished gold eyes threw back the sunlight like warm gems.

Fra Angelico glanced at the other friars. They hadn’t seen anything. In fact, they acted as if they hadn’t heard anything either.

And that was when Fra Angelico noticed the tiny lines of light edging every object, the faint curls of brilliance easing off the corners and crevices of books and bricks. Angel sight. He saw what others didn’t.

Eändelion wrapped him in a great hug. “We have some good work to do today. Much simpler than baking bread, I assure you.”

Fra Angelico turned back to the desk, thinking to set aside his work with the glair.

He saw himself standing at the desk, working. He blinked in surprise.

He stood before himself, as if he was a spirit staring at his body. He watched as the other Fra Angelico quietly finished mixing up the ochre, then headed over to his desk to dip the brush and start painting.

“How… what is happening? Is that me?” He stuttered.

Eändelion grinned. “This is a grace called bi-location. You are in two places at once. Heaven has allowed you to continue your work, and at the same time come with us to do other things.”

“So… is my mind there?”

“Yes, you are fully there, and fully here.”

“I’m not a ghost right now?”

“No.” Eändelion smiled. He headed over to a stretch of empty wall near the window and knocked on the stone, as if it was a door. “You’re still fully alive. But for now, you’re with me.”

Fra Angelico shrugged his cloak back over his shoulders and flexed his knuckles. “Do with me as you will. I’m ready.”

A line of light streaked across the wall, drawing out the shape of a door. Then it pulled open and Fra Angelico saw a snowy forest path, bleak, afternoon sunlight filtering through a canopy of stark branches. He recognized a mixture of pine, beech and dark, green firs.

Beside the door stood Milanwen in his grey robes, also wingless, his grey eyes friendly with a smile. The letterheart was exploring a stiff leaf poking from the snow, and it swung around to approach the door, tilting from side to side like a happy child.

“Let’s go.” Eändelion said. “Time always presses for us.”

“Which reminds me,” Fra Angelico said, hurrying past and through the door in the wall. “I have a question for you about time.”

His shoes crunched into snow and fallen sticks, the bite of frozen air catching in his mouth. He closed his eyes and pulled his cloak tightly about himself. “Maybe next time you can let me know where we’re going, and I’ll dress for it.”

“And take away from your two crowns?” Milanwen smiled, clapping him on the shoulder.

Fra Angelico nodded. “You’re right. I shouldn’t complain.” He shifted on his feet. “But this is going to get very cold. Very fast.”

“Then lets keep moving,” Eändelion said, pulling the door in the air closed, the warm sunshine and flickering firelight disappearing. “That will get your blood going and warm you.”

The angels took off along the forest path. Fra Angelico shivered, took a deep breath and watched his exhale fog the air. Then he flipped up his hood to cover his bald tonsure and followed.

Overhead, the silhouette of a silent eagle flew through a cloudy sky. He thought he heard the faint bellow of a distant stag. Old willows lined a stream to his left, the fronds tracing the pools and rivulets of spilling icemelt.  Through the tall, ancient beeches and dense firs, they walked through a valley between a range of forested hills and mountains. Streams and hidden waterfalls sent mists seeping through the forest, the dull roar a soft echo off the crags.

“So, I still have a question,” the friar panted, trying to keep up. The air was so cold his lips, chin and nose already felt frozen.

“Yes?” Milanwen glanced at him.

“First, where are we now?”

Eändelion gestured at the forest. “This is Hungary, an ancient kingdom to the north east of Italy.”

“And… when are we?”

“Almost two hundred years before your birth.”

Right, so that’s my question.” Fra Angelico puffed, blowing warm air through his fingers. “How are we travelling through time?”

The letterheart bobbed before his face quickly. G.o.d… i.s… o.u.t.s.i.d.e… t.i.m.e…

Milanwen nodded. “That’s right. God does not experience time like we do. Heaven exists in eternity, and looks in on time at any point, the way you might look at a clear lake and see its floor and its surface.”

Eändelion gestured with his hands. “Some choirs can see more of time than others. We of the First Triumvirate of Choirs are more limited than others. As a guardian angel, I can see what Heaven permits me, otherwise my presence and attention is bound to yours.”

“So you see more of time, as a Virtue?” the friar asked Milanwen.

“Yes,” Milanwen nodded again. “I can see more at once of what you call the past and the present. Our glorious God knows all of time at once within Himself, so He knows how to send us whenever we need to be somewhere.”

Eändelion agreed. “We angels travel through God to any point in time He wishes. For Him, and the higher choirs, everything is an infinite present. When you consider it, time is actually what is strange.”

Milanwen smiled. “Yes, eternity makes sense. Time is the real miracle, all these discrete moments of the present creating the past, and foreshadowing your future.”

Fra Angelico shook his head. “I’m so confused right now.” He felt like his mind was trying to take a big bite, as if trying to eat an apple the size of a house, and he couldn’t get a part of it to fit in his mouth.

“Don’t try too hard to understand,” Eändelion laughed. “There are many things that are bigger than your mind. That doesn’t make them less real, just hard to understand.”

“Well, if it makes sense to you, then I believe you.”

“Good man,” Milanwen said with a smile. “Someone’s coming, so we will be changing our appearance.” He handed each of them a cloak, a soft, almost orange colored fabric.

As Fra Angelico swung it around his shoulders, it became a harsh, earthy cotton. His chin suddenly felt strange. He touched it, and found a ragged beard. Panicking slightly, he touched the top of his head to find his tonsure filled in.

“Don’t worry,” Eändelion said, watching the road ahead. “It’s a disguise that will disappear when we finish.”

Both angels looked like Fra Angelico, a brace of poor men wrapped tightly against the midwinter winds.  The letterheart seemed unchanged, flitting through the branches and disturbing the blades of snow on the twigs, sending frozen flakes flying into the air.

A donkey-drawn cart rumbled by, an old couple wrapped in blankets and huddled close together. They held a warm, flickering lantern on their laps, the back of the cart piled high with sticks and logs.

They waved at the three travellers.

“They can see us?” Fra Angelico said, stepping aside as one of the tall wheels bounced through a rut and passed them by.

“Yes, we look like normal men,” Eändelion nodded, cupping his hands to his reddened face and puffing warm air through frozen fingers.

Milanwen watched them disappear around a curve in the path, and then tucked his hands into his sleeves for warmth. “Many’s the time that we walk through your world,” he said, his grey eyes twinkling, “and you are never the wiser.”

Fra Angelico wondered if he’d ever met an angel and not known it.

“So, what are we doing this time?” Fra Angelico felt strange talking through a fringe of hair. He shrugged. If Fra Rizardo did it comfortably, he could get used to it.

“A young queen often gives bread to the poor from her own kitchens,” Milanwen replied. “Without her kindness, many would starve in these harsh, Hungarian winters.”

“Her husband is a Christian like her, but he doesn’t approve of her generosity,” Eändelion added. “The miracle we are to work is intended to inspire his trust and faith in Heaven.”

“First,” Milanwen said, “we must get the permission of the local Virtue. I already gained the permission of the Principality of this forest to proceed.”

“This forest has a Principality?” Fra Angelico said, amazed.

“Yes, it was consecrated not long ago by the priests,” Milanwen replied. “The queen responds to many graces to keep evil at bay in her kingdom. Nevertheless, the Principality stays quite busy coordinating with Powers and Virtues to prevent things from getting out of control. Men always find ways to break the sacred seals.”

Fra Angelio shook his head slowly. “Someday, I’ll get used to all this. So what are we asking permission for?”

The letterheart spun around his head, tracing the outlines of petals in the air with light. The petals shrank together to form a rose made of light.

“Exactly,” Eändelion said. “We need an armful of roses.”


“You’ll find out soon. Try to keep up,” Milanwen replied. He turned off the path and headed into the forest, pressing past the tall, silver-streaked boles of white beeches, brushing snow from the million green needles of the fir trees, hopping the stream through a gap in the waving willow fronds.

They kept up with him as he led the way. Ahead, a dip in the ground formed a natural garden, blankets of snow almost hiding the outlines of boulders and sleeping bushes. Milanwen waved, as if greeting a friend. He spoke, and his language had changed.

Fra Angelico glanced at Eändelion. “Who is he talking to?”

“You can’t see him yet. The Virtue of the rose bush.”

“Why can’t I understand him?”

“He speaks Angelic, one of many languages that angels use to communicate.”

Milanwen gestured at the stiff thorns and ice-bright stems of a dormant rose bush, waving toward the distant hills. Fra Angelico could see spires of smoke sifting into the afternoon air.

“I though angels spoke instantly, through thought,” Fra Angelico said, watching the Virtue.

Eändelion grinned. “All this is for your benefit, my friend. Your mind is still bound by time and matter, so we must present you with impressions and information that you can understand. If we showed you all as it really is…”

Fra Angelico nodded. “It would be like the Beloved Disciple trying to make sense of what he saw in Heaven.”

“Yes. There is only so much that can be given to an un-glorified mind. Now, tip your head back.” Eändelion drew a quill from a pocket inside his cloak. It glowed with a warm light, made from polished bronze and etched with graceful lines that flowed up into the burnt orange vanes and downy afterfeathers.

“What is it?”

“Angel sight. It will allow you see what we see for now.”

“No little vial that I can drink?”

Eändelion smiled. “Must everything be the same all the time?”

The friar shrugged. “I guess not.” He opened one eye wide with his fingers and tipped his head back. Eändelion held up the quill and tapped once over each eye, a drop of swirling, red-gold inkmomentarily blacking out the world.

The angelic ink was warm, and felt like a rush of wind across his face. He straightened, thanked his guardian angel, and looked back at Milanwen.

The Virtue stood shoulder to shoulder with another angel. Fra Angelico couldn’t guess his age, but his hair was a dark orange, long and bound at his brow by a copper circlet. His robes were a cascade of glorious red, like a pattern of petals hemmed by brown embroidery that tapered into bright green tips.

“Who is it?”

“That is the Virtue of this rose bush.”

Fra Angelico stared. “Of this rose bush?”

Eändelion nodded.

“Every rose bush has a Virtue?”

Eändelion pursed his lips. “Yes, almost the same way you have a guardian angel.”

Fra Angelico shrank a little from the forest around him, looking around at the trunks and billows of snow-covered underbrush. “Does every tree have a Virtue?”

Eändelion nodded. “Each thing in this cosmos has its own angel. Each thing is the best way that an angel can express his love for God.”

Fra Angelico stared blankly. “That’s incredible… I need to think about this.” He turned to face the talking angels, shifting from foot to foot. “And we need to keep moving. My feet are starting to freeze.”

“Mine froze already,” Eändelion winked.

Fra Angelico thought about himself back in Tuscany, painting in a warm Scriptorium. “I bet the other me is warm right now.”

Eändelion nodded. “He is.”

“Wish I was him.” Fra Angelico winked.

Eändelion grinned.

Milanwen gestured at them to come over. “This Virtue has agreed to provide us with roses for our task. We’ll gather them and continue.”

Eändelion and Fra Angelico bowed to the Virtue and stepped forward. Eandelion indicated to the friar that he needed to hold out his black, Dominican cloak like a bowl.

The Virtue of the rose bush bent his head in silent prayer, reaching toward the plant. At first Fra Angelico could see nothing. And then he thought he saw faint light coursing through the stems and spines, puckering at tiny nodes, bursting out into buds and flaring into flowers. The winter air instantly filled with the rich, heady scent of roses, each rose fully as large as the friar’s hand.

“Roses don’t grow in winter,” Eändelion was saying. “We need a special favor to acquire them for this task.”

The Rose Virtue and Milanwen started plucking them, passing them to Fra Angelico hands to hide in his robe. Within a moment they had cleared the bush of flowers, Fra Angelico struggling to keep up with their pace. He finally just stepped forward and held out the edges of the robe so that they could drop them in.

When they had done, his robe was filled with a mass of brilliant, glossy petals, and the sweet fragrance was so strong he needed to look away for a deep breath of fresh air.

They all bowed to the Rose Virtue, and it faded from sight, standing in silent prayer amid the hillocks of snow and sleeping trees.

“Time to move.” Eändelion muttered. “The queen has left the castle by now.”

“And the king is returning from the hunt,” Milanwen added. “We will be just in time.”

Fra Angelico lumbered clumsily, trying to keep up with them as they hurried through the forest back to the path, and grappling to keep the roses from being crushed and buffeted by his knees.

As they reached the path, Milanwen glanced back and said, “Close up your robe. No one must see those yet.”

“Won’t they smell them?”

“Not if you keep it closed.” Eändelion helped him gather up the corners of his black robe and hide it under his cotton overcloak. The scent vanished.

The letterheart swept closer, signing c.a.s.t.l.e… n.e.a.r.b.y…

They looked up, and through the trees could see the great walls of the castle overlooking the spires of the forest, broad battlements rising from sheer cliff faces that surrounded a tall, central tower. Fra Angelico guessed there were at least two courtyards, and the windows on the palace tower indicated it was three storeys high.

“The town is in that direction,” Milanwen said, pointing north east.”That is where the poor come from awaiting the queen.”

Fra Angelico tried to see where he gestured. About them rose multiple, low-rising mountains, and the castle had been built atop one of the tallest. It was distant from the town, and completely surrounded by dense fir, beech and pine.

Ahead, the main road leading up to the castle snaked back and forth up the side of the mountain. Fra Angelico stared intently at a crowd of beggars huddled off the side of the road where it bulged widest. His eyes followed the road up to the great gateway of the castle, a deeply shadowed mouth bordered by waist-high walls.

A young woman came walking down the road with a bulging cloak, followed by several handmaidens. They were all wrapped warmly against the cold, the maidens cupping their gloved hands around lanterns.

The young woman — Fra Angelico guessed was the queen — wore a dark red dress heavily embroidered with black silk and gold thread. Her heavy overcloak was a sunset orange, broadly hemmed with fur and gilt stamps. Silver buckles clasped it together at her neck, and she wore a white wimple, veil and delicate golden crown. Her nose and cheeks had turned red from the cold, but she held onto her cloak as if carrying a baby.

“Wait for it…” Milanwen said, glancing back along the road. The stomp and jangle of horses and bridles grew like soft thunder behind them.

The angels hustled the friar into the crowd of beggars, who all watched the queen approach with great gratitude in their eyes. Fra Angelico was surprised to find even children dressed in rags, shivering in the snow, waiting for bread.

As excited as he was, he wanted to growl at the stinging in his hands. At this point, he couldn’t feel his nose, fingertips or feet at all.

The queen was smiling broadly at them, extending one hand in greeting and speaking in a language the friar didn’t understand. She obviously loved these people.

She had almost reached them when a royal hunting party burst from the forest and gathered with a riot of hounds on the road. Laughing and panting, the host of young and old men followed the king up the road, the dogs barking and baying from exhausted excitement.

As soon as the young king saw his wife, he reined in his horse, a great roan stallion saddled in heavily tooled leather. The rest of the hunting party skidded to a halt around them, creating a ring of steaming, sidestepping horses that champed at their bits, swishing their tails and heaving their breaths.

The king barked something to the queen, pointing with a gloved hand out from under a heavy, fur overcoat. His head was bare, his long hair falling free. She turned to stand between the beggars and the king’s prancing stallion.

“And this is our moment,” Milanwen whispered,. He held out his hand, pointing his finger toward the center of the group.

Everything stilled to silence, everyone froze in place.

Fra Angelico whipped his head around, looking from horse to rider to queen. Everything had stopped, the steam hanging from their mouths like balls of still cloud, the hair from the flying manes paused in mid air, the faces fixed in their last expression.

One child was even still in the air, jumping in excitement at the prospect of fresh bread from the castle kitchens.

“What did you do?” Fra Angelico gasped.

“I suppose you could say… I stopped time.” Milanwen replied, giving him a helping hand.

“Oh, is that all?” Fra Angelico stood up, picking his way out from the cluster of beggars. “This is incredible.”

The letterheart happily explored the different expressions on the faces before settling above the queen’s head like a halo.

Eändelion clapped his hands softly. “Let’s keep moving. The queen is holding an armful of bread for the beggars. We’re going to change it all out for these roses.”

“Why?” Fra Angelico asked.

Milanwen slipped into the ring created by the statue-like horses. He gestured at the king. “He has just demanded that the queen show him what she’s hiding in her cloak. He knows what she’s holding. He hopes to humiliate her into never again wasting castle food on the poor.”

Fra Angelico tried to chuckle through chilled lips. “By Heaven, I want to see his face when all these flowers come falling out.”

He followed Milanwen toward the queen, who stood still and strong before the king, her chin up, her eyes still smiling, her hand paused about the bulk of bread in her cloak.

Eändelion teased out a corner of the cloak from her fist, and Fra Angelico saw a wealth of oat, barley and white wheat loaves, still crisp from ovens, each one as large as his forearm.

Milanwen reached in and fished them out. The friar lost count at eleven as Eändelion stepped in to help them. Their arms full of bread, the angels gestured with their elbows. “Go on.”

Fra Angelico approached the young queen, staring at the strength in her eyes as she held the king’s gaze. He held up the edge of his black robe and tipped the mass of roses into her cloak. It was over in a second, the scent of roses filling the air like a warm haze.

The friar pressed the hem of her cloak back into her fist, and then hurried back toward the angels. They now stood clear of the crowd, behind the beggars.

Milanwen held out his hand again, and passed it over the scene.

Sound and motion exploded back into the air, pent up steam bursting from mouths, laughter and anticipatory mutters stilling the hunting party. Every one waited to see what would happen between the royal couple.

No one had noticed any change in the flow of time at all.

The king barked his command again, using his knees to urge his horse closer to his wife.

The young queen didn’t flinch, or look away. She took a deep breath, and then let her cloak fall open.

Everyone gasped and fell silent.

She glanced down for a second, surprised at the sudden scent, and then a beautiful smile split her face. Eyes shining, she looked back up at the king, who had frozen in his saddle at the impossible sight of roses in midwinter, cascading from her cloak across the snow and dirt of the road.

Fra Angelico craned his neck to see the royal expression. He grinned. It was as satisfying as he’d hoped. The king’s mouth was agape in shock, an almost stupid stare in his eyes.

The queen said something, clearly so that all could hear.

Eändelion smiled, and translated. “She said that Heaven is happy with her kindness to the poor, and has worked this miracle for his majesty. How can he obstruct her further?”

The king leapt from his horse and dropped to his knees before her, grabbing her hands and kissing them. Milanwen nodded. “He’s a good king. Weak, but he does love her.”

“Alright, our work here is done,” the angel continued. “Let’s leave the food here; the poor will find it soon enough. My good friar,” he gestured at Fra Angelico’s earthy cloak, “Put that on the ground and we can set the bread on it.”

They left the loaves behind, and Eändelion pressed his hand against the air, breaking a seam of light from a glassy door that led back into the late summer Scriptorium back in Tuscany.

With a final, backward glance at the royal couple walking hand in hand back toward the castle, Fra Angelico grinned and stepped through the door.

In an instant, the chill had gone from his body.

He was warm, and his back was now stiff and aching from leaning. Blinking, he realized that he held a paintbrush in his hand, his ornamentation almost finished of a rose-bound painting of Christ.

The angels had vanished, and about him, the soft humming of his fellow friars broke the silence.

He ran his mind over what had happened, and found that he had two memories, one of the trip to Hungary, and another of himself calmly grinding up his powders, mixing up the glair and painting all morning.

His stomach growled; he was famished after all that exercise. He sighed. It wasn’t yet time for a meal.

“Blessed be God,” he whispered, smiling, ready for the next task, whatever it might be.


Fra Angelico & the Angelic Bread


Fra Angelico & the Centurion’s Servant

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Dominic de Souza

Geeks over epics, mystics, science, the angelic, & movies. I am riveted by the Catholic frontier between faith, science, and history. I converted from radical traditionalism by a strange route – through archaeology. That led me to quantum physics, psychoanalysis and mythology, evolution and angels, and our Holy Father Pope Francis. I believe it’s important to read widely, from all sides, and to celebrate the good, true, and beautiful wherever it is found. See more posts
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