Tag: humanities

An Angel Among Us

“Yet within our reach is joy.”

Fra Angelico

Encountering an angel in the museum was the last thing I expected to happen that Friday night. Earlier in the evening, my drawing classes had met for a docent-led tour but now it had ended and the students had dispersed. Before heading home myself I wanted to take advantage of the museum’s extended evening hours for a little research about framing elements used on Medieval and early Renaissance paintings.

So under the watchful eyes of amused gallery guards, my iPhone on camera mode, I purposefully marched from one painting to another. Here was one of the Madonna and Child, in a gold gilded frame. Click. Jesus with the crown of thorns, more gilding and carved framing. Click. Over there was a series of religious paintings, with (again) the requisite Madonna, saints, episodic depictions from the life of Christ. Click. I photographed one after another, frames that were carved, embellished, painted and gilded, with lots of gold that seem to spill inward from the frames onto the artworks themselves.

Dashing from one painting to another, click, click, click, I focused on the frames, hardly noticing the artwork. Suddenly, I was brought face to face with one of the most transcendent beings I have ever seen. There, in a gallery that I must have hurried through so many times in the past, was the Angel Gabriel.


“Annunciatory Angel”, Fra Angelico, c. 1432 (source: WikiArt.org)

Okay, it wasn’t really the Angel Gabriel. Rather it was a painting, small in size (at almost 13 x 11 inches, just a bit larger than a sheet of copy paper), by the 13th century Italian friar and artist Guido di Pietro (c. 1387-1455), now known as Fra Angelico. Yes, an angel painted by Brother Angel. And what a heavenly being he created. Hazel-eyed, with a cap of curls the color of marigolds, wearing a rose gown embellished at the collar, cuffs and sleeves with real gold leaf, Gabriel is pink-cheeked and luminous. His face is in profile, a gold halo encircles his head. With his right arm angled up, he points heavenwards with his index finger. Any real space he may occupy is hidden, for around him the very air is infused with a golden atmosphere.

Ethereal and celestial, Gabriel nonetheless seems so solid that it is easy to imagine grabbing him by the upper arm and inviting him to stay for drinks and dinner. But he is the Annunciatory Angel, with gold tipped wings, sent to deliver a divine message, and there is no time to waste on mere frivolities. Who is the intended recipient of his message and where can we find her?

“Virgin Annunciate”, Fra Angelico, c. 1432 (source: WikiArt.org)

There she is, the Virgin Annunciate, depicted in the companion painting hanging on the wall a few inches to Gabriel’s right. She is Mary, the Madonna, soon to be the Mother of Jesus. “Ave Maria” says the Angel Gabriel, “gratia plena!” Fra Angelico shows her at this moment, head bowed and with her eyes lowered, so as better to hear the messenger. She is indeed full of grace, and the grace has infused the surrounding space with the same golden light that surrounds Gabriel.

I am struck at that moment, while standing in the empty gallery, by the power of art. At the basic level, these paintings are made with pigment and egg yolk, painted on wooden panels, enhanced with gold leaf. Yet they are transformative, and their small size is not really small, but expansive. They grow, traveling through time from the mid 1400s to 2016, filling the gallery with their presence; arriving from a convent in Fiesoli, Italy through a circuitous route to a museum in Detroit; from a monk-artist, to a fellow artist; from Fra Angelico’s paintbrush directly into my heart.


A Christmas Addendum

Several years ago, when I would first hand-letter a Christmas quote and then take it to the local printer to be turned into our holiday card, I used this  “Letter to a Friend”, which was supposedly written by Fra Angelico in 1513. I share it with you this year as a missive of hope and courage.

“There is nothing I can give you which you have not already, but there is much, very much, which though I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this precious little instant. Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach is joy. There is radiance and courage in the darkness could we but see; and to see, we have only to look.

Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their coverings, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, and wisdom, and power. Welcome it, greet it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there, the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing Presence. Our joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts. . .

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, not quite as the world sends greeting, but with profound esteem now and forever. The day breaks and the shadows flee away.”

A Letter to a Student of the Humanities

The calling of the humanities is to make us truly human in the best sense of the word.

J. Irwin Miller


It was several months ago when we first met, me presenting the whys and hows of our pledged encounter, you unsure and doubting of your decision. I could sense that you wondered if this was the best way to spend your time, together two days a week for several weeks, sacrificing a portion of your long awaited summer. Not everyone in a commitment such as ours sticks it out and many fall away. But you, you stayed all this time, and aren’t we both the better for it?

You began our relationship only wanting to know how to get what you desired, that perfect affirmation, that A+ grade. Oh, I sensed your skepticism when I explained that our journey was bigger than that, that we were going to spend time exploring what it means to be human. I wanted, and still want, more for you— for your third eye to open and for you to view yourself and the world differently.

So I’ve played Scheherazade, telling stories about how a grouchy Renaissance genius sculpted, from flawed marble, an enduring symbol of pride for a small city-state. How that same artist not only depicted the moment of animation of the Biblical first man, but how he also slyly showed Eve already formed and tenderly sheltered in the Creator’s embrace. That led to a discussion of time as being experienced simultaneously, in the present now and the far distant past, and that led to more talk about physics, time, and creation.

There were stories of an artist whose tortured sense of self meant his actions kept him away from the one thing he truly longed for— to love and be loved; and how he turned that ache into paintings and drawings and all kinds of wonderful things like stars that spun in the sky and planets whirling and whirling and whirling.

We looked at a painting that showed the fate of a teacher from Ancient Greece, a gadfly, who insisted his students question everything. I joked that whenever anyone asked me what I did for a living that I answered that I corrupted the youth of Detroit, and we laughed, because you understood what that meant; we all agreed that I shouldn’t face the same end as Socrates, and I remain pretty confident that I won’t.

Like giants we stepped from continent to continent, and like time-travelers we went from prehistoric caves in France, to Imperial China, to revolutionary France, and back home again before we took off on another world tour. All creative doors were open, and if sometimes the folks we met were different than us, that was okay too, because they were honest and interesting and very human.

Then one day we stepped outside the classroom to visit our local museum. It was there, in front of a painting that you had first seen in our text book, by an artist who had been sorely misused, who dealt with her pain and injustice with story, legend and paint, that you said the very words every humanities and art teacher longs to hear from her students:

“Art is about more than just paintings and drawings, isn’t it? It’s about things that happen in real life.”

It was then I knew that, although our time together would shortly come to an end and other commitments would soon take precedence, and in time you would turn to others in your quest for knowledge,  at this moment you really understood what I was trying to show you. You understood that art is not a frivolous pastime or a casual undertaking; that to study the humanities is to connect to others through time and space, and to truly see you need only open your third eye, and your mind and your heart will follow.

Wishing you much wisdom and continued insight, I remain yours truly,