The Angelus is a prayer practice rich in doctrine and devotion. This practice commemorates the mystery of the Incarnation by reciting certain versicles and responses with three Hail Marys and a special concluding prayer. It used to be recited morning, noon and evening. The church bells rang--three tolls for each of the invocations and nine for the concluding prayer.
The Angelus traces its beginnings to the thirteenth century. In that era bells were often inscribed with the angelic salutation. Before the Vatican II liturgical renewal the concluding prayer was the post-communion for Masses of Our Lady in Advent, but now is the opening prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
Although the origin of the Angelus is obscure, it is certain that the morning, midday and evening Angelus did not develop simultaneously. By the sixteenth century the various customs were unified. The morning prayer was recited to commemorate Christ's resurrection; at noon, Christ's passion; and in the evening to recall the Incarnation, since St. Bonaventure taught that the angel's visit to Mary came at evening.
Since the fifteenth century to our day, the Angelus prayer has been recommended by many popes. In our time Pope Paul VI has expounded, at great length, the value of the Angelus in the last section of his apostolic exhortation on proper devotion to Mary, Marialis Cultus (1974).
There is a renowned painting by Jean-Francois Millet entitled the Angelus [see right]. It depicts a man and a woman standing in a field. They are farmers. He holds his cap reverently as he stands with bowed head, and she in a white cap and long blue apron over her dress clasps her hands as a prayerful look sets her face. They pause in prayer near the end of the work day. At the woman's feet is a basket of potatoes, and at her far side rests a wheelbarrow full of empty sacks. At the side of the man is a pitchfork spiked upright in the ground. The breaking clouds are blushed with light as birds flit in the twilight. The viewer can almost hear the bells ringing in the spire of the church in the distant right of the painting.
The artist, Jean-Francois Millet, was born in 1814 in Gruchy, a hamlet ten miles west of Cherbourg in northwest France. This inland area off the rugged coast was a countryside of undulating downs beyond the moors.
Jean-Louis, the painter's father, possessed real artistic talent, though all his life was spent tilling the fields. He loved music and directed the village choir, he studied the forms of trees and plants and he modeled in clay when time permitted.
Jean-Francois absorbed his father's appreciation of beauty and art. In his father he found an exemplar to emulate. Jean-Francois also was impressed by his parent's piety and devotion.
As a boy, Jean-Francois traced prints from the family Bible and then tried freehand. From the beginning his parents and the parish priests recognized that he was extraordinary. The priests were careful to educate him the best they could in mythology, Greek, Latin and in translation, Shakespeare, Milton and Burns. All this time Jean-Francois was at home working on the family farm. He became a man of culture with the heart of a peasant. Later he declared of himself, "A peasant I was born and a peasant I will die."
His parents and the villagers commented favorably on his work. His father realized that he must go to Cherbourg to study art. At this point began Jean-Francois' lifelong work as an artist. Later in Paris he fine-tuned his painting skills for twelve years. Because he disliked Paris and city life, he was delighted to return to the country. Barbizon became his home until the time of his death in 1875. It was in 1859 that Jean-Francois Millet painted The Angelus. Vivid were his memories of the Angelus bell ringing while peasants were still working at twilight. Often he had seen his father standing, bare-headed, cap in hand, and his mother with bowed head and folded hands at the sound of the evening Angelus bell.
Millet recorded that impression to show the quiet peace of twilight, the rosy glow of sunset engulfing the fields, the church bells filling the evening air, and the devout attitude of the peasants. Surely he succeeded. When his agent, Sensier, first saw the picture on Millet's easel, the painter turned to him and asked, "Well, what do you think of it?"
"It is the Angelus," replied Sensier. "Yes," Millet said with satisfaction. "Can you hear the bells?"
Millet believed he had painted a great picture, but his genius was not recognized and acknowledged until after his death. In 1889, fourteen years after his death, Millet's painting of The Angelus was put up for auction. The person who had bought the painting from Millet had died. Eventually, The Angelus found its way into the Louvre Museum in Paris.
This text was adapted by Fr Johann G. Roten, SM from an article written by Brother John M. Samaha, SM.
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