The New 'Fra Angelico' of the Dominican Order: Fr. Marius J. Zerafa, OP

Image of Fr. Zerafa with a banner he painted over fifty years ago in Vittoriosa, Malta
The students of Rome's Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (a.k.a. the "Angelicum") agree he is one of their favorite professors.  Meet Rev. Dr. Marius Zerafa, O.P. a Dominican friar who teaches Sacred Art in Rome.  I myself have to admit I have a soft spot for him -- if he behaves (he-he-he).  In all my years of studying in Rome I can say he was my favorite professor.  He is also known to smoke an occasional pipe, which of course gets him extra points.  

Fr. Zerafa on his ordination day on March 21st, 1953, giving his first blessing to his friend and companion, Fr. Guido Schembri, O.P.
An old-school gentleman Fr. Zerafa has led a charmed and eventful life.  Indeed, he is a true Renaissance man: a prolific painter, sculptor, designer, administrator, museum curator, conversationalist, art historian, poet and in many ways design architect.  He studied at Oxford in England, the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Florence and the Angelicum in Rome.  In conversation he quotes from memory intellectual giants such as Newman, Vasari, Aquinas, Shakespeare and others.  Perhaps Fr. Zerafa's most quotable line is from Cardinal Ratzinger: "The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb."  He is also an expert on Caravaggio.  Fr. Zerafa joined the Dominicans at age sixteen.  He is a friend of popes and presidents.  In fact, his uncle was Sir Paul Boffa, the Prime Minister of Malta after World War II (in office from 1947-1950).  Fr. Zerafa first arrived in Rome during the reign of Venerable Pius XII.  In his day he has met many popes and once conspired to take a photo of John XXIII when in audience with him, something forbidden in those days.  Fr. Zerafa held the prestigious title of "Director of Museums" in Malta since 1981 after having joined the museums department in 1970.  It was during those years he inaugurated his own creation: a well-organized National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta, the capital of Malta.

                             The front cover of Fr. Zerafa's book, illustrated with the image of St. Jerome by Caravaggio 

It was also during this period that he was involved in the famous recovery of the priceless original painting of St. Jerome by Caravaggio.  This was after it had been stolen by the mafia from a museum in Malta.  Fr. Zerafa was contacted by the criminals and had to cleverly disguise his new role as sleuth in order to successfully get it back after many months of negotiating with the bad guys.  The unfortunate episode finally ended with a police sting at a shoe factory in Malta where the precious work of art was finally retrieved.  Today it is kept safe and protected on display for the word to see in St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta.  Fr. Zerafa's biography of that harrowing and intense drama that took place from the end of 1984 is called the Caravaggio Diaries -- it is an excellent read that I highly recommend, available for purchase online here.  Speaking of the experience these many years later, Fr. Zerafa says with a twinkle in his eye, "At times it was easier to deal with the mafia than with ministers and monsignori!"  During those memorable years he also escorted Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro on his 1974 visit to the Co-Cathedral of Valletta, a museum-like church built by the Knights of Malta.  Aldo Moro was later kidnapped and martyred in Rome in 1978, sacrificing his life for a post-war Italy free of the menace of atheistic communism.

The laying on of hands during the rite of ordination, fittingly held at Sant'Agnese in Piazza Navona, a splendid 17th century baroque church in Rome
Fr. Zerafa's ordination was spectacular and fitting for the likes of an artist, at Sant'Agnese in Piazza Navona on a beautiful spring morning.  Can anyone think of a more beautiful church in Rome for an artist to be ordained in?  The date was March 21, 1953.  How splendid to become a sacerdos in aeternum in such a divine location, amid sung Gregorian melodies, with the recessional emptying into Piazza Navona.  The Dominicans in the group are recognized by their tonsure (a wonderful tradition that is related to the story that the Blessed Apostle Peter was bald).  The rites were conducted under the watchful gaze of Innocent X of the Pamphili family who is buried there. Pope Innocent is perhaps best remembered for his condemnation of the heresy of Janesenism in 1683.  This is the same heresy that St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominicans, put a serious dent in, thanks be to God.  

Fr. Zerafa on his ordination day at Sant'Agnese in Agone, an excellent liturgical space with a near-circular interior, Greek cross in design. 
Fr. Zerafa has generously given his time and talent to students.  By God's grace he has dedicated his life to teaching and inspiring young students in the classroom.  At age 90 he is unstoppable, still teaching his course on sacred art at the Angelicum every autumn while also dedicating his time to hearing confessions at the Roman Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore each summer during the sweltering month of August.  He keeps busy lecturing around the world at foreign universities, museums and cultural venues.  For many at the Angelicum Fr. Zerafa is the last connection with 1950's Rome where he studied from 1952-1954 ("it was a torture," he explains, "after being at 'Blackfriars in Oxford" from 1945-1952).  He was in Rome during the era of the Dolce Vita before everything changed in the 1960's.  He celebrated as a young priest the Dominican Rite, which for many of us younger generation is a spectacular kaleidoscope of liturgical arts we have never seen or imagined.      

Professor Zerafa at the Vatican for a student event with the Pope
I myself call Fr. Zerafa the "Fra Angelico" (the "angelic friar") of the Dominican Order.  This is because he paints as did Beato Angelico, an Early Renaissance painter who was described by Vasari as "a rare and perfect talent."  Fra Angelico earned his reputation for a series of exquisite and totally unique frescos that he created for his own friary in Florence at San Marco.  I once had the privilege to visit San Marco with Fr. Zerafa as he led one of his insanely popular student day trips for a VIP tour of the best museums of Florence.  This event was a real treat for his students and one of the most memorable experiences from my studium days in Europe.  The highlight of his tour was to see the magnificent fresco of the oft-reproduced "Annunciation" by Fra Angelico at the San Marco chapter house, found at the top of the staircase leading up to the friary cells.  Here one student in our group, an Aussie, was so inspired by the moment and overcome with emotion and beauty that she was given the grace of conversion to the Catholic Faith.  Fr. Zerafa later witnessed her entrance into full communion with the Catholic Church and witnessed her wedding in the Vatican to a Swiss Guard commander.  This same fresco of the Annunciation Fr. Zerafa copied perfectly, presently on display in his priory in Malta.  Today he still paints and sculpts and creates works of art there, to be found in collections in Malta and abroad.  Far from retired, his current title is Director Emeritus of National Museums. 
A beautiful Maltese Dominican crest designed may years ago by Fr. Zerafa and approved magna cum laude sed simpliciter reiecta.
Fr. Zerafa's heart pines for Florence, the renowned birthplace of the Renaissance and in particular Renaissance painting.  His favorite art is Italian Renaissance, a period from the 13th century to the 16th century.  This makes perfect sense.  The influences upon the development of his artistic interests are those that also affect philosophy, architecture, literature, theology, science, law, beauty and so much more.  

                                               A colorful sample of awards and decorations received by Fr. Zerafa.  

Some of the more famous international recognitions and orders he has received are also worth mentioning: Officer National Order of Merit, Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Des Lettres, Cavaliere al Merito della Repubblica Italiana, Associate of the Royal Historical Society (London), Member of the Accademia Tiberina (Rome).   

Great memories after the Sacred Art Exhibition was held at St. John's Co-Cathedral in 1960, the artists were invited to a reception at the Archbishop's palace in Valletta.
Earlier this year I was privileged to visit him at his home and tour his Dominican Priory of Jesus of Nazareth on the Tigne seafront in Sliema, with its gorgeous view of the Marsamxett Harbour and beautiful chapel.  We also had the distinct pleasure to tour his studio and his living quarters (what he affectionately calls "my mess").  Such a peaceful place overlooking the sea!  When I would take a taxi by his priory the following days I always made a point to look up at his window and wave.

                            Fr. Zerafa's home in Malta - his quarters are next to the church, overlooking the Med

His studio in particular is an atmosphere full of creativity, spirit, paintings and mysterious feelings of inspiration.  His walls are decorated with awards and framed diplomas.  He even has a splendid aquarium with a manger scene in the water and not to mention a mythical pipe collection.  Fr. Zerafa has been at the center of artistic activity for the Dominicans in Malta for a great many years.  He is very generous and gifted us with the head of an adorable baroque cherub he created from a plaster mold.  Below are samples of some of his projects. 

It has been said the Maltese are either more Italian than the Italians or more English than the English.  Indeed, Fr. Zerafa is very English and a perfect balance, to me in many ways more American than anything: he has a limitless sense of optimism and vitality of life.  He is someone who has genuinely found sheer happiness in a busy life.  Although he would never admit it, he is one of the national treasures of Malta.  He is happiest in the company of faithful friends and students.  And most importantly, he is a holy and humble priest. 

                                                                       Fr. Zerafa with fans from Canada.

This brings to mind a quote Vasari wrote of Fra Angelico that "it is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety."

A poster for Vocations Day in Rome that Fr. Zerafa painted and setup in the Vatican's Domus Mariae during the reign of John XXIII
Finally, Fr. Zerafa is a an eyewitness to history and the in particular the Second World War.  He saw with his own eyes the wartime Mediterranean theatre that witnessed many dramatic operations.  He and the inhabitants of Malta were marked for sure death by the Nazi war machine.  He survived and as a boy rather enjoyed some of the drama.  He came out to see on their visits Churchill, Roosevelt and Spellman when they came on their wartime missions.  He lived in the underground air raid shelters during the constant bombings.  He also witnessed the arrival of the famous Allied supply convoys which included the "coincidental" arrival of the SS Ohio, the unlikely savior of Malta, manned by a brave British crew that arrived miraculously through a fierce tornado of Nazi fire on August 15, 1942 -- the Solemnity of the Assumption.  Fr. Zerafa recounts the epic moment when it arrived.  He recalls with fire in his eyes the sight and sound of the spitfire that arrived in Malta in March 1942 and helped lead the Maltese to victory, thanks in no small part to the courage and guts of the locals and the RAF pilots.

                                                                             Yours truly with the legend, aka El Grande!  

Fr. Zerafa is one of the last living Maltese recipients of the glorious George Cross, given to the brave people of Malta for their epic heroism during the ferocious second siege of Malta during the Second World War.  The king gave this to honour the brave people of the "island fortress," to "bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history."  Fr. Zerafa remembers well his homeland before and during the bombings as well as the aftermath.  Unfortunately, thanks to the Nazis and Italian Fascists (and before them the Islamists during the first siege of Malta in 1565), Malta holds the record as the most bombed place on the planet earth.   The George Cross was awarded from Buckingham Palace on the 15th of April, 1942.  Once Fr. Zerafa held the original medal in his hands and kept it in his office safe.

Prayer from the Dominican Breviary, so kindly shared by Fr. Zerafa for an end to the COVID-19 pestilence

May God continue to bless Professor Zerafa with the choicest of blessings.  We look forward to seeing him again in Urbe and ask for his blessing!

 A splendid farewell dinner on our last night at the Malta Hilton (at the Blue Elephant, an excellent Thai Restaurant)

A beautiful old Dominican prayer for professors shared by Fr. Zerafa with handwriting and signature of Blessed Hyacinth Cormier, OP.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.