Christmas 2013: festive  bookshelves in the vicarage

Christmas 2013: festive bookshelves in the vicarage

My  favourite way of displaying Christmas cards has to be tucked into books on bookshelves. In this way they can be all viewed together en masse in a wonderful higgledy piggledy jumble and yet, because they are confined to the bookshelves, the rest of the room can be kept card free and comparatively clear. No sellotape, ribbon or little washing lines and pegs are needed. And for all the changes in card fashion, intermingled amongst the photos of engaged couples, people’s dogs and smiley American families, there are still a fair number of angels – usually from Renaissance paintings and almost always with flowing golden curls and fine sets of wings. 

Angel by Clare Belfield (copied in pastel from Peiro della Francesca's Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery, London)

Angel by Clare Belfield (copied in pastel from Peiro della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery, London)

Appropriately last week in Rome there was a conference on angels and during interviews with the press the Catholic theologian, Father Renzo Lavatori was keen to update their image and put them in a modern context. Renaissance painters made angels corporeal. Creatures of ethereal beauty and gentle demeanour, their message was suggested in a physical context. For today’s world, Father Lavatori suggests that we forget the wings and halos and think of angels as shards of light pinpointing and focusing on the immaterial, on the spiritual. “You do not see angels so much as feel their presence… They are a bit like sunlight that refracts on you through a crystal vase”. Pope Francis, he points out “talks more about the devil than about angels … But it’s still early, he will get round to angels too.”

John Donne in his poem ‘Air and Angels’ which is about the early stages of being in love, compares the sharp, intangible vividness of feeling to that of the presence of angels when he says, 

So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame

Angels affect us oft, and worshipp’d be;

         Still when, to where thou wert, I came,

Some lovely glorious nothing I did see.

For Donne, a Christian priest, angels were a tenet of faith, but for us less gifted he gives fluent and poetic expression to that rush of delight when we experience goodness, beauty or a sudden elucidation of life’s meaning which is beyond our own power to express.

Ronald Blythe, that wonderful Anglican voice on the back of the Church Times, echoes what  Father Lavatori says here  in his book Talking to the Neighbours. He too feels art has obscured their meaning and that angels may be a part of a religious imagination which is now beyond our comprehension. 

Angel by Clare Belfield (copied in pastel from Piero della Francesca's Madonna di Senigallia in Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino)

Angel by Clare Belfield (copied in pastel from Piero della Francesca’s Madonna di Senigallia in Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino)

But, however eagerly I assent to the unbodied (not quite disembodied as on one reading they never had bodies in the first place) version of angels, I have to admit to  taking much pleasure from looking at their Renaissance manifestations – delightfully perfect in form, with flowing robes, cascading hair and halos of incised gold and yet the two pictures that accompany this post, though Renaissance angels,  are of  a very different demeanour. Both are individual angels taken from different paintings by the enigmatic Piero della Francesca. Clare Belfield, a friend who trained in Fine Art at the Ruskin in Oxford, copied these figures in pastels. I bought them at an open studio sale quite a few years ago and have found them a source of fascination ever since. In general and in contrast to the standard Renaissance angel, Piero della Francesca’s are unusually inactive, immobile, almost unexpressive, with a serenity and tranquility suggestive of  recognition of the complexities of the human condition. The second angel pictured above stares directly at the viewer with a steady intelligent gaze – rather like the look of a small baby in whose eyes I often think I see a wisdom beyond rational explanation. This somewhat intimidating angel stands to the right of Mary in the Madonna di Senigallia (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, the ducal palace in Urbino) and rather than adoring the child, he issues his direct challenge to the viewer.

Angel: detail of face (from a copy by Clare Belfield of an angel in the Senigallia Madonna in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino.)

Angel: detail of face (from a copy by Clare Belfield of an angel in the Senigallia Madonna in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino.)

The first  angel above (with the wreath of leaves) is one of three depicted in the Baptism of Christ in the National  Gallery in London. We know we are to view them as angels as the one on the extreme left has wings but the wings seem to be almost irrelevant  here  for at least two pairs of feet are very firmly planted on the ground (the third pair are hidden by a tree trunk). Art historians have pointed out these angels hint at the Trinity (colours of clothes, interaction of hands, etc) but their importance to me is that though they are angels (and perhaps the wings are important here in underlining this) their reactions to what is happening are all too human. The one in the middle is confused but fascinated and  holds firmly on to the one in my picture who looks alarmed and has turned away from the baptism fearful of what it means. The third angel with the wings is thoroughly absorbed in what is happening and holds out a restraining hand in a gesture indicating that they should wait and watch before drawing conclusions. It is a comfort that Piero suggests these mysteries may be just as difficult for angels to fathom as for human beings.

Angel: detail of face (from a copy by Claire Belfield of  an angel in Piero della Francesca's Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery in London)

Angel: detail of face (from a copy by Claire Belfield of an angel in Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery in London)

Angelic activity is also at work in the village on Christmas Eve. Each year (6 so far) when we return from Midnight Mass, a little package awaits us on the doorstep – usually a tiny box of chocolates. Various of us have accused each other of being the secret giver but no one looks quite uncomfortable or guilty enough. This year, on our return from church, there was no little package and as one of our direct neighbours was away, I thought, “Ha Ha”. However, when he vicar put his head out of the front door to greet the world on Christmas morning, there sitting on the step was a little mesh bag of gold coins and my sleuthing was back to square one. Ruminations subsequently have led me to consider who in the village is the most unlikely person  to have done  this and I have now come to the conclusion that the most likely candidate on this basis is our neighbour on the other side who is a bit reclusive in village terms, though outgoing enough to follow his football club, Newcastle United all over the place. When you get to know him a bit (and the vicar has – a bit) you find he has a mischievous sense of humour. He’d just love mystifying the village. Now, the question is do I confront him (and risk our midnight surprise ending) or do I leave well alone and just enjoy the ritual. There’s no competition, really. Let’s not rock the boat.

On another light note, Dove Grey Reader  has photographed here  what she calls a cloud formation known as Angel Wings (or even Archangel Wings) which she witnessed before Christmas. I’d never heard this term and when I googled it I was amazed at entire Pinterest selections with the most amazingly angel like clouds  – have a peak for yourself, I don’t feel I should encourage anybody as it is all just a little bit weird – might  people actually think they’re angels? (Not Dove Grey Reader, obviously, who is a woman of profound common sense and much wisdom.) 

This post has been very problematical technically and a real trial of my shortening patience. I am hoping for angelic intervention on a personal level – and soon. Daughter No 1 is 2 weeks overdue in giving birth and as I write is in the process of having her baby induced. We are all on tenterhooks and all be she in a swish high tech hospital rather than a stable snippets of carols come unbidden into my head. 

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  1. Posted December 28, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Mary, for a wonderful, thought-provoking post, and all good wishes to your daughter for a safe delivery!

    • Mary Addison
      Posted December 30, 2013 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

      It’s so kind of you all to express good wishes. A little boy has been safely delivered. Phew. Now some of us can have a bit of a rest – though for the new parents, it’s just the start of a completely new adventure.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted December 30, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

      Your good wishes are greatly appreciated. It is also extremely kind of you to have put my blog on your blog roll. I’m so touched by your kind comments about the ‘angels’ post.

  2. Bev S.
    Posted December 30, 2013 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    Praying that all goes well with your DD’s delivery.

    About angels–I remember when I preached about angels and how crestfallen one teenager looked when I said that ,”No we would not become angels when we died.”

    • Mary Addison
      Posted December 30, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

      How kind of you to be so thoughtful. My husband always semi jokes that the invention of moveable type was a bit of a disaster for spiritual ideas as they become ossified in text and their meaning quite fixed.

  3. Penny Miller
    Posted December 30, 2013 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    I was induced with my first son and will be thinking of your daughter and wishing her well. My mother went into cleaning overdrive whilst awaiting news of his arrival; you are perhaps going down a more serene path with a blog post about angels! Best wishes to you all and I look forward to following your blog in 2014.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted December 30, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

      Every birth and every baby are startlingly unique and I was very privileged to be able to be allowed to be there at the birth most of the time. It brought back all sorts of things I’d quite forgotten about. Thank you for you good wishes.

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