Fra Angelico Makes Two Cappuccinos for Mark Rothko
The Great Artistic Studio in the Sky, where our story takes place, is a spacious area with all the clear northern light that any artist could want. It is conveniently located in an area that has all the amenities of midtown Manhattan such as delis and coffee shops, but has the peace and tranquility of a Tuscan hill town. It has canvases of different sizes, in addition to numerous easels, stacked against the walls. Although it has readily accessible tubes of paint, organized by color, on convenient shelves, no paint splatters mar its immaculate wooden floors. It also features a gleaming, high-end Italian coffeemaker, which is placed on a table between two comfortable leather armchairs. This is, in short, the Platonic Ideal of the Artist’s Studio—the Primal Site of Creativity.
The spirit of Mark Rothko enters the Artist’s Studio partially and transparently at first. When Mark has fully manifested, he first senses unconsciously, and then sees, a man dressed in a medieval monk’s habit who appears gradually, as Rothko himself had done. “Who…Who are you?”
“I am but a humble monk. My name on earth was Fra Angelico.”
“Fra Angelico The fresco artist? Nobody who paints like you has any reason to be humble. But what are you doing here?””
“I have come to show respect to you as a fellow artist who believed. Your belief was deep and pure.
“If my belief was so pure, how come I committed suicide?”
“Mark, my brother, you suffered so much without Our Lord.”
“My fellow Jews and I suffered greatly with your Lord.”
“Mark, we are all sinners…”
“And that’s not to mention the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the Holocaust and all the rest of it.”
“Even in Paradise I grieve for the sins of those Christians. I did what I could to show them the true way. That’s why I painted pure paintings. That’s why I was so drawn to the Immaculate Conception—the purest of all acts.”
“The Catholic Church has never been pure. Just look at the Renaissance Popes.”
“Grievous sins have been committed in the name of the Church. I know that people believe in pure doctrine, and yet they commit grievous, mortal sins. I cannot understand this…It goes beyond my feeble understanding…”
“So what? What’s your point?”
“The Church has sent me here in the name of all Christian sinners to beg your forgiveness for all the injustices done to Jews by the Church and those who believe in Her. I beg this on bended knee.”
Fra Angelico kneels in front of Mark and folds his hands in prayer. Mark looks at him in astonishment.
“Well, I gotta say, this is a first for me. No Catholic priest has ever begged for my forgiveness before.”
“I make angelic visits to other artists on behalf of our all too sinful Church and beg their forgiveness. Jewish artists are a specialty of mine. The sins of the Church before Jews are so great that I can only do a little, but we all do what we can.”
“But what about us being brothers, and all that?”
“As a token of my fraternal love, it would be a privilege to make a cappuccino for you. May I do that?”
“But you didn’t have electricity back in the Middle Ages.”
“What one Italian can design, another Italian can operate.”
“Okay, then. Go for it.”
Fra Angelico stands up and goes the coffeemaker. Mark adds, “I admired your frescoes, you know.”
Fra Angelico nods. “Yes, when you visited Florence in 1950.”
“How do you know when I visited Florence?”
Fra Angelico nods and holds up an index finger as if to say, “Give me a moment.” He puts coffee in the coffeemaker. While it steams and hisses, he opens a cabinet and takes out two colorful Italian cups. He fills them with steaming cappuccino. He puts one in front of Mark and the other one on the other side of the table. He gestures toward the cup in front of Mark and says, “Please be my guest.” Mark takes a sip of the cappuccino and nods his approval. “Good coffee.”
Mark adds, “I liked your paintings…”
“Okay, frescoes. I liked your frescoes in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence. Is that specific enough?”
“You did more than ‘like’ them. That’s just the way you Americans talk.”
“I was just a tourist with a guidebook, you know?”
“Mark…Mark…please remember…We are kindred spirits, and I used our connection to draw you to two of my key frescoes. The first one was the fresco of the mocking of Christ.”
“Oh yeah. I remember that. I wondered why he was blindfolded. “
“Oh, Mark my brother. You of all people can’t deny that the church is blind to its sins. What better way to show that than to paint Christ blindfolded? But more to the point, you’ve finished your cappuccino. Would you like another and perhaps some biscotti with it?”
“Well, sure, if you’re offering. I gotta say, this is like a Starbucks in the sky, only everything is free.”
“We Italians should have created Starbucks, but we didn’t. We missed an opportunity there, no doubt about it. I’ll get started on your cappuccino right away.” Fra Angelico puts more coffee in the coffeemaker.
“Aren’t you going to fix another one for yourself?”
“I didn’t take holy orders so that I could drink all the cappuccino I want. One a year is my limit. Walnut or chocolate biscotti?”
“Oh, one of each, I guess.”
“One walnut biscotto and one chocolate biscotto coming up.”
“Is biscotto the singular of biscotti?”
“Sure. It’s a masculine noun.”
Fra Angelico picks up the tongs, takes two biscotti from the canister and puts them on a plate with a napkin. He hands Mark the plate and also his fresh cappuccino. He sits down and looks at Mark.
“Mark, we need to talk about purity, my brother. I painted the Immaculate Conception, the other fresco that you admired so much, because I was so drawn to purity. You and I shared a lifelong quest to represent purity so that people could see it and experience it and maybe bring it into their lives. I showed you examples of what a painter could do with purity. The exquisite paintings that you created for that chapel in Houston were your response to my frescoes in Florence. It never occurred to any other American painter to do anything like that.”
“Your culture, your society, failed to give you any stories—true, false, or whatever—that you could believe in. Your society failed you because it could never provide the purity that you so ardently sought.”
“In America, every Jew is impure, an outsider.”
“Irvin Berlin was not an outsider in America. Irving Berlin wrote ‘God Bless America,’ for God’s sake—if I may put it like that.”
“So there you were, an outsider, a Jew. Your lifelong dilemma was that you had a relentless drive for purity, but no outlet for that drive. You had belief without anything to believe in. Marc Chagall had already used up all the Jewish stories, after all. You had nothing to illustrate, so all you could do was create abstract paintings.”
“So that’s why I committed suicide?”
“That’s a story about why you committed suicide. You needed stories, and now you have one.”
“So you’ve given me one story, two cappuccinos, and two biscotti.”
“More than that, I hope I’ve given you some peace. You had very little peace when you were alive.”
“Thank you, Fra.”
“When I serve fellow artists, duty and pleasure are combined. May Almighty God cause His blessings to rain down upon you.”
And with that, Fra Angelico slowly starts to fade. He gradually becomes more and more transparent, and then he disappears.
Mark sits in his chair. He thoughtfully sips his cappuccino and chews his biscotti.
Jim has a PhD from Columbia University and taught at the University of Missouri-Columbia for 31 years. He’s now an art educator and writer living in Pennsylvania.
This story about Fra Angelico and Mark Rothko will form part of an anthology of high-concept short stories that Jim is working on. These stories work out the implications of two what ifs: 1) What if all the distinctions between space and time were to collapse? And 2: What if all artists in all time periods could talk to each other? Jim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for any comments or questions regarding his writing.