by Kath

We have just been to Italy where we spent a week in Florence.  We had a brush with criminality when Mike had his pocket, or rather his rucksack, picked but we also came across rather a lot of angels.  They are everywhere; in paintings, on friezes, as statues in every, church, convent, monastery, museum, gallery and palazzo.   They are pictured with their halos and beautiful youthful faces clustered about the deity, worshipping the infant Christ or hovering about on the edge of various depictions of scenes from the bible.  They all have strong wings and in the paintings their long flowing is always fair.

The angels are often show escorting the virtuous to heaven while on the opposite side of the picture or carving the sinners are experiencing a variety of horrible tortures in hell.  It’s best not to look too closely.   Those that were neither properly good, nor properly bad, hang disconsolately about between them in purgatory.  Unless one led a truly blameless life it must have been quite hard to keep cheerful in Florence in the Renaissance or the Middle ages.

These scenes made me think of my first mother-in-law.  She was the only child of parents who both became Catholics against the will of their families.  They were fervent in their new belief and sent her to a convent boarding school which she hated.  She grew up to develop a strong abhorrence of religion in general and Catholicism in particular but she remembered that as a little girl she would look at pictures of angels and cry bitterly because she had inherited a beautiful olive skin and black curly hair from her Romany great grandmother.  She was sure that despite her name being Angela, her colouring meant that she would never be able to join the golden haired heavenly throng.

My favourite angel is Gabriel who appears in the many, many pictures there are of the Annuciazione.    He kneels or bows towards Mary, almost invariably to the left of the picture.  Sometimes his arms are folded sometimes out stretched.  Splendid wings spring from his back as he stands sideways but he is always at an angle that makes it impossible to tell how the flowing robes he wears fit over them.  In the Museo di San Marco you climb several wide flights of stairs to be greeted at the top by a very appealing annunciatzione by Beato Angelico.  Gabriel, dressed in pink with many-coloured wings is semi kneeling while giving Mary the news.  She is seated, looking back at him in an open room with the traditional vaulted creamy ceilings found all over Florence.  Outside the room is some grass divided from a forest of trees by a startlingly suburban looking wooden fence.  Mary’s hair is uncovered in this painting and like Gabriel hers is fair and surrounded by a halo.

In most of the pictures of the Annunciation Mary’s hair is covered like a nun.  Her expression is one of acceptance rather than astonishment at this surely amazing event in her life.  We saw one painting in which she looks rather cross but in most she looks modestly and chastely down.

I once came across a rather different interpretation of this story in a nativity play written entirely by the infant school children who enacted it.  The performance opened with a little girl dressed as Mary sitting on a chair.  A little boy with paper wings pinned to his back strode onto the stage.

‘Hello Mary’, he said ‘I’ve come to tell you God says you’re going to have a baby’.

Looking absolutely delighted Mary sprang to her feet and cried, ‘Oh good!  Thank you.  I’m not ready to get married yet, but I do have a crib’.

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