Antonio Ciccone is a world-renowned artist who has had hundreds of exhibitions and showings throughout Europe and the United States. One of the world's foremost portraitists, his works are to be found in museums and private collections from California to London. A spiritual child of Padre Pio, he grew up in San Giovanni Rotondo and was encouraged in his vocation by the saint. He is the artist responsible for two magnificent frescoes adorning the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in San Giovanni Rotondo. This is the church that was consecrated in 1959, and was at that time called the “new church” to distinguish it from the adjacent 16th century monastery chapel, where Padre Pio had received the stigmata. These two works are the Resurrection fresco and St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata. The room where they are located was once the Baptistery of the church, but now has been transformed into a place of prayer and devotion, enshrining the remains of Brother Daniele Natale, another spiritual child of Padre Pio.
After Antonio's First Holy Communion, which he received from the stigmatized hands of Padre Pio, he began to sense his spiritual presence. He had great desire to be near him and started to frequent the friary, where he often made his confession to the saintly monk. Antonio says he owes everything to Padre Pio: career, family, children, success . . . and even his life.
One day he was at work high upon the scaffolding in order to paint one of these great frescoes in the church, working about fifty feet above the ground. In order to see from a distance the result of his labors, he started to descend on a ladder from the platform – but he made a misstep. Losing his balance, he found himself beginning to plunge below. Then all at once, an unexpected force pushed him and turned him around suddenly, so that he was able to grasp a rung of the ladder and hold himself firmly in place. Once he felt secure, he looked down below and saw Padre Pio, who was there and had seen everything. Immediately he understood that he was saved through the providential help of the Friar. “It is true, such help is always from God, but Padre Pio was his direct instrument.”
|By Antonio Ciccone|
At the year of his birth in 1939, His family had a farm not far from the friary. The first of nine children, his tasks included milking the cows and pasturing the sheep and goats. One day, while he was tending the animals, he raided a neighbor's cherry tree, unable to resist the temptation to taste them. The next time he saw Padre Pio in the confessional, before he could say anything, Padre Pio looked him straight in the eye and said, “And the cherries, they tasted good?” Anthony's face became redder than one of those cherries. He lowered his head and with a meek smile promised he would never do it again. Then Padre Pio gently touched his head, blessed him, and assigned him a very long penance. “I remember that I exited the confessional stunned but light-headed, my spirit was in the clouds.”
As he grew older, he decided he did not want to be a farmer or rancher, but instead wished to be a painter. In fact, he had been drawing pictures from the age of 5. He loved to draw pictures of Padre Pio with a charcoal pencil, and admits that sometimes he went to confession just to observe and study up-close the particulars of his face. Sometimes the Padre would shoo him away from the confessional if it seemed Antonio was not there to make a sincere confession. But when he was 12 years old, he went to confession one day carrying a roll of drawings. Kneeling before the priest, Antonio told him that he wanted to study to be a painter, but his father could not afford it. “I am aware that you know so many people, Padre, throughout the world, and if you can help I will accept it willingly!” Then Padre Pio asked him what he was holding in his hands, and Antonio gladly showed him his drawings. One of them was of Padre Pio himself, but he was more interested in a drawing the budding artist had made of the Crucifixion by Guercino. “These are your own drawings?” he asked. After Antonio responded in the affirmative, the Padre said “E Bravo!” Then like a broken record, Antonio kept saying he wanted to be painter, and Padre Pio told him to have patience. “You will see that one day Divine Providence will assist you!”
In the evenings, Antonio along with others including Brother Daniele Natale and Padre Pellegrino, who were very close to Padre Pio, often accompanied him to the friary garden. There they sat down around the saint and listened with great attention as he recounted little stories and anecdotes. At the same time, Antonio would closely observe him to insure that his portraits and sketches would accurately resemble him. Often however, Padre Pio would seem annoyed at such intense scrutiny. “I did not look at him as the others did, but scrutinized him in order to impress his spirit in me. And he, in fact, every once in a while, stopped what he was talking about and looked right at me, saying, 'What are you looking at? Why are you looking at me that way?' I justified myself by admitting I was studying him, and he would respond with an engaging smile.”
|By Antonio Ciccone|
As time went on his skills and portfolio grew. With the support of Padre Pio, it was not long before Ciccone was able to find sponsors for his artistic endeavors, and he left home for Florence to study with the painter, Pietro Annigoni, famous for his portraits of Queen Elizabeth II. Periodically, about once a year, Antonio returned to his family in San Giovanni Rotondo, and never failed to visit Padre Pio, who was eager to learn of his protégé's progress. “I told him about my experiences, and he would reply in his Benevento accent 'Don't make me lose face!' He reminded me to always thank God.” Young Antonio, who was still rather timid and uneasy, liked to be accompanied on these visits by Padre Pio's friend, Brother Natale. Antonio would ask Padre Pio for a blessing for his friends, family and sponsors. “At these encounters, he would look at me intensely with his dark eyes, and with just a few words took away my anxieties, encouraging me to be confident and pray to the Lord, and to be patient with myself and others.” He told the saint that certain situations were not easy to handle. The Padre responded, “It is for this very reason that you must pray and be patient! My child, if you cannot resolve on your own some problems, you must continue to humbly ask the help of our Heavenly Father, and patiently wait until you receive an answer.”
But Padre Pio was not always easy on him. Sometimes he instilled in him a real fear. “I felt I was before a judge, a man strong in spirit, who with authority rebuked me for my indecisions, my thousands of excuses and delays, and forced me to meet, face to face, the responsibilities of life.”
Antonio became settled in his career, and in addition to studying in Florence and working in parts of Italy, he spent many years in the United States where his works were favorably received. He espoused an American woman, Linda, who bore him a daughter Tiana. With Padre Pio's blessing, the couple also adopted six children of various nationalities and ethnicities. Antonio currently maintains a spacious studio in the historical district of Florence.
When he was commissioned to paint the Resurrection fresco in the Baptistery of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in San Giovanni, he approached Padre Pio to ask him for advice on how he could adequately represent such a magnificent event. But Padre Pio told him, “Do not be afraid, you will see that the right sentiments will unfold within yourself.” Padre Pio passed by the fresco every morning to see its progress as Antonio worked on it. When it was completed, Padre Pio happily expressed his approval, joyful with the spirit of a child. “I realized how much the Padre, before art works or the so many things that happened to him, reacted like an innocent child. He was pleased just to look and appreciate, rather than analyze the techniques of how the painting was made.”
While Antonio was working on the Resurrection fresco, he witnessed a dramatic event. A possessed woman began shouting and throwing herself down, striking her head on the marble floor, a prey to indescribable sufferings. Many people gathered around attempting to calm her, or at least keep her from hitting her head against the floor. Antonio had never seen anything like this, and was so petrified and shaken that he was unable to take any action. At a certain point, however, one of the bystanders, who had a prayer card with a picture of Padre Pio on it, laid it upon the woman. At the initial contact, she shrieked and cursed, slamming every part of her body on the floor. But shortly thereafter, she completely settled down, and an interior calm pervaded her. It was then that Antonio conceived the idea of painting the event, and a year later executed a work showing the woman cured by the prayer card with the image of Padre Pio: “Padre Pio e la Posseduta.”
On September 23, 1968, while he was in America working on a painting, he read about Padre Pio's death in the newspapers. “For me it was a day of great suffering and solitude. From that moment my thoughts of Padre Pio became more constant. Since I would no longer be able to visit him in person, I had to visit him within myself. At that period of time, I felt a special union with him. What struck me most was his humanity, the force and power of his attraction as a person. His soul was pure, totally rapt in God. I believe that Christ expressed Himself through him freely and openly, in childlike fashion. That is the explanation of the fascination that he exercised on the people that sought him out from all parts of the world.”
This article is based on a chapter from I Miracoli che Hanno Fatto Santo Padre Pio, by Enrico Malatesta, pp. 362-374.
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