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Formative Frescoes

By February 15, 2017 4 Comments

When I was in Italy last month for Calvin’s interim term, I took my students to one of my favorite places in Florence: San Marco, home of the 15th century painter Fra Angelico. In the (almost) decade Fra Angelico lived and labored there, he painted a number of well-known works, including a famous Annunciation painting that greets you as you ascend the stairs to the monks’ living quarters.

Much as I love the art in the public spaces of the monastery, however, something else really moves me. In each tiny cell, Fra Angelico painted an incredible fresco as a devotional aid for the brother who occupied that room. Imagine that: masterworks produced not for a noble patron, but for the average believer. The commitment to encouraging the contemplation of the beautiful as central to cultivating a life of devotion.

I asked my class to enter each cell and examine its painting. How did it help them more fully “see” the aspect of the life of Jesus that was represented? How might have it encouraged discipleship and right action in the man who lived with it?  And how would this “seeing” every day change him over time?

IMG_8976My own favorite (no surprise) is an unusual painting of Martha. But it’s not the expected story of Martha in the kitchen, worrying over unneedful things.  Instead, as Jesus prays and James, Peter, and John sleep, Martha and Mary are portrayed in their house, wide-awake. Reading and praying. She persisted indeed!


We all acknowledge (at least tacitly) that what we spend time contemplating is formative. But I’m not sure our actions bear that out. We talk blithely about powers of discernment, wanting to believe in the ways we ourselves will resist any shaping forces, positive or negative.

But I confess: I’ve been spending too much time of late online, transfixed by the latest news. And it’s changing me already. One of my colleagues told me he’s fighting the same battle: that he knows he needs to stop constantly scrolling, but somehow, it feels like every time he looks away, he misses some new development. Of course, there’s something to that—the urgency of the news does demand our attention and our action as responsible citizens.

At the same time, I also know that we’re going to have to figure out strategies of looking and listening that lead to flourishing, not floundering.  Whatever those may be (and I don’t have great answers at the moment).  But recently, for example, one NPR-loving friend turned off her radio for the weekend to cultivate silence and to combat the frenetic despair that the news seems to promote. That felt quite wise to me—and inspiring.

Still, it’s not just what we say “no” to, but to what we say “yes.” Because what we choose to paint on the metaphorical walls of our brains and hearts will surely shape the disciples we become.IMG_8975

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


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