The Angelus by Millet

The Angelus

    God grants each of a special set of gifts, one of the most amazing gifts to me is the ability to depict an everyday occurrence in a profound manner that it causes you to stop and reflect on what you are seeing or experiencing. It could be by book, film, photographs, drawing or painting. This painting is a wonderful depiction of giving praise to God.  The subject matter always makes me stop and look a little closer to the painting. The subject is beautiful:  a man and a woman are reciting the Angelus in a quiet field. Because they have paused in the middle of working, all the tools of their labor–a potato fork, basket, sacks, and a wheelbarrow–are right beside them. What is the meaning behind the name of the painting, The Angelus is?

Millet reportedly wrote of the painting, “The idea for The Angelus came to me because I remembered that my grandmother, hearing the church bell ringing while we were working in the fields, always made us stop work to say the Angelus prayer for the poor departed very religiously and with cap in hand.”

The painter, Jean François Millet, was born in Gruchy near Gréville on Oct. 4, 1814. His parents were peasants, and he grew up working on a farm. In 1837 Millet moved to Paris to study painting. To learn the traditions of classical and religious painting, he entered the studio of Paul Delaroche, a successful academic imitator of the revolutionary romanticist Eugène Delacroix. He and Delacroix were not a successful pairing but Millet stayed on in Paris, supporting himself by making pastel reproductions of rococo masters, occasional oil portraits, and commercial signs. During the 1840s Millet’s painting gradually shifted from classical and religious subjects to scenes of the rural and peasant life with which he was familiar. As it did, he gained increasing support and recognition from other painters in his generation. Among these were Narcisse Diaz de la Peña and Théodore Rousseau, two landscape painters who were instrumental in forming the loose association of artists known as the Barbizon school. Millet and the other Barbizon artists resisted the grand traditions of classical and religious painting, preferring a direct, unaffected confrontation with the phenomena of the natural world. During the 1830s and 1840s their works were generally regarded as crude, unfinished, and unacceptable to the official tastes of the Parisian Salons. After mid-century, however, the Barbizon artists slowly gained increasing recognition, and their achievement became an important inspiration for the younger generation of impressionists. Millet moved to Barbizon in 1848. The village was his home for the rest of his life, and he died there on Jan. 20, 1875.

The story the Angelus tells is first of all one of willingness, of actively embracing a task at hand, just as Mary rose to her calling as Mother of God. She not only conceived but, as the prayer continues, exclaimed, Be it done unto me according to thy word. Second, the prayer is one of embodiment and immanence: And the Word became flesh / And dwelt among us. This is an old devotion that was already well established 700 years ago. The Angelus originated with the 11th-century monastic custom of reciting three Hail Marys during the evening, or Compline, bell. The first written documentation stems from Italian Franciscan monk Sinigardi di Arezzo (died 1282). Franciscan monasteries in Italy document the use in 1263 and 1295. The current form of the Angelus prayer is included in a Venetian Catechism from 1560. The older usages seem to have commemorated the resurrection of Christ in the morning, his suffering at noon and the annunciation in the evening.  In 1269, St Bonaventure urged the faithful to adopt the custom of the Franciscans of saying three Hail Marys as the Compline bell was rung. The picture, even after interrupting work with a divine injunction, the prayer insists that the divine is also present in the people and things at hand, however fleshy and messy they appear. Upon returning to work, then, we take that incarnation with us.

From the tones of the colors, the humbleness of the people and the innocence of the surroundings this painting express a devotion and commitment to their Faith. That is always a beautiful thing.