On St. Thomas Aquinas & "The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas" by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1471
© Fr. Michael Morris, OP
Known through the ages as "The Angelic Doctor," Saint Thomas Aquinas and his teachings act as a beacon of orthodoxy in a world of diverse approaches in theological history. This painting by Gozzoli, an apprentice to the Dominican artist Fra Angelico, is a visual tribute to Thomism's supremacy by the end of the fifteenth century. Yet the road to that pinnacle of acceptance was not easy. Thomas Aquinas had personal and professional challenges to overcome before the splendor of his theology became established.
Thomas was born in 1225, the son of the Count of Aquino and a distant relative of the Holy Roman Emperor. Because of his aristocratic birth he was made Benedictine oblate as a child with the expectation that he would mature in that Order and someday become abbot of the great monastery of Monte Cassino. But during his religious formation Thomas was attracted instead to the new order of mobile mendicants, the Dominicans, who professed evangelical poverty, and engaged in study, preaching, and teaching. As he made his move to join the Dominicans his family went so far as to kidnap him, hoping that he would change his mind. A legend arose that during his year of incarceration they even tempted him with a prostitute in order to subvert his vocation. But Thomas remained resolute and returned to the Dominicans where he became the pupil of Saint Albert the Great, a wise and holy teacher who saw his student's intellectual talents surpass his own.
As a student Thomas thought much and spoke little. His bulky figure and apparent dullness earned him the nickname "The Dumb Ox." He was an exemplar of piety and humility, virtues that further concealed his hidden talents. But when his intellect was tested it became apparent that beneath that unprepossessing exterior an engine of brilliance was ready to engage the world of ideas and penetrate the mysteries of philosophy and theology. Albert was the first to see his potential and declared to the brethren, "We call Brother Thomas ‘the dumb ox'; but I tell you that he will make his lowing heard throughout the entire world."
Gozzoli portrays Thomas seated, wearing his Dominican habit and holding up a book with a passage that reads: "the truth my mouth recounts, but wickedness my lips abhor." Taken from the Book of Proverbs (8:7), this passage points to that quest for truth that Thomas undertook while not speaking ill of others. But this does not mean that Thomas was not eager and willing to patiently disagree with and correct those whom he felt were in error and straying from the truth. He refuted the Muslim philosopher Avveroës, shown lying prostrate at his feet, whose interpretation of ancient thought led Christians to heterodox ideas. As Thomas sits in honor at the center of the composition, an array of his writings are spread open over his lap radiating beams of light as does the sunburst over his breast (a symbol of Christian wisdom that connects Truth and Love). His Summa contra gentiles is a brilliant apologetics of the Catholic faith and his Summa theologiaeprovides a likewise excellent synopsis and ordering of theological questions and ideas. Thomas's great contribution to scholastic thought was the careful integration of Aristotelianism into speculative theology. That plus the synthesis of Plato and St. Augustine in the quest for natural and supernatural knowledge became the hallmark of his work. Gozzoli has included the figure of Aristotle standing on Thomas's right holding open his work on Ethics. On Thomas's left stands Plato holding his work, the Timeus.
At the pinnacle of the painting Christ appears in an aureole and imparts a blessing. He is flanked by Moses with the Tablets of the Law, representing the Old Testament, and by Saint Paul and the four Evangelists representing the New Testament. For Thomas there was no conflict between revealed truth and reason. He raised questions in order to confirm belief. "You have written well of me, Thomas," reads the Latin inscription above. It refers to an appearance Christ made to the friar. When asked what he wanted as a reward, Thomas replied: "Only you, Lord." Indeed, the very presence of Christ in the Eucharist inspired the saint to compose an office of the Blessed Sacrament and the classic hymn Pange Lingua.
When Thomas began to teach at the University of Paris a conflict over jurisdiction between the secular clergy and the mendicants reached its apex. That plus a residual doubt over the appropriateness of integrating the teachings of the pagan Aristotle while penetrating the mysteries of the faith triggered not just controversy, but outright violence. Aquinas had to lecture at times behind an armed guard sent into the classroom by the French king. Yet as Gozzoli's painting attests in the bottom register, the teachings of Thomas were skillfully defended and embraced by the popes in succeeding generations.
Clement IV wanted to make Thomas a bishop but he shrank from such ecclesiastical honors. Nevertheless, the role of the pope's theologian with the title Master of the Sacred Palace, an honor traditionally given to a Dominican, can trace its roots to the importance to the Magisterium of Thomas's teachings. From the Council of Trent to the modern era when Pope Leo XIII decreed that all seminarians base their education on the work of the Angelic Doctor, the light of wisdom that radiated from the heart of Saint Thomas continues to influence our quest for knowledge and truth.