Angelic Curiosity

On Saturday I visited the Sistine Chapel – a long-awaited visit to see art I had studied in books. Michelangelo’s ceiling somehow left we strangely unmoved – perhaps it’s just too far away. I need to be up on the scaffolding with my nose a few feet from the plaster – I always thought you had a better view on the TV than you did at the cricket match – perhaps the ceiling is the same….

Yet, as I cricked my neck to follow the story of creation, fall and redemption I noticed a detail which had passed me by before. My eyes had always been drawn by the iconic touching of finger tips, as God gives life to Adam. But what struck me as I looked again was the group of cheeky cherubs trying to strain around God in order to see what he was up to now.

Here are the angels wanting to know more, straining to see, trying to understand, what the human project was about. Perhaps the child-like cherub is meant to suggest a naive innocence amongst the angelic host. Perhaps, but it took my mind to Psalm 8:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made a little lower than the angels

and crowned them with glory and honour…

O Lord, our Sovereign,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!



Madonna and Child

Thursday 19th May

Arrived in Rome. I have settled into the Venerable English College where the hospitality has been warm and gracious. From my window I can see the clock tower –  and hear it every quarter of an hour – but not, thankfully, at night.

Friday 20th May

Today I crossed the Tiber into Trastevere and visited the church of Santa Maria. It was fairly early and the church was quiet. The mosaics were stunning but I was more affected by the play of light and shadow outside in the portico. I recrossed the Tiber – was distracted by some ancient columns behind the Theatre of  Marcellus (which I drew) and visited the Gesu Jesuit church – but the Baroque triumphalism left me cold. Strangely, I was also unmoved by the Pantheon, apart from technical wizardry of that concrete dome. The real find was the basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva which contains the tombs of the great mystic, Catherine of Sienna, and the great artist Fra Angelica.

There was a great stillness in the side chapel which contained an image of the Madonna and child – once thought to be by Fra Angelica but now attributed to his pupil Benozza Gozzoli. Tempera painted on silk and then mounted on board, the painting is exquisite but, far more, it invites reflection and prayer. I photographed it (hand held in poor light) and then simply sat and looked.

Mary, in blue, has a star on her shoulder, the traditional prompt that she is the queen of heaven. Yet there is a reversal here: while Mary is portrayed as the queen of heaven, Jesus who has come from heaven is holding a globe – the reason for his descent from glory. He is presented as a miniature adult as a sign that his coming is for the saving of this world. On the globe are marked Asia, Europe and Africa – all the known world when this was painted over forty years before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic. Salvation is world embracing – speaking of which – Mary is not actually holding Jesus who is standing of a balcony. Yet it is as though she is cradling him with reverence, cradling yet not holding him, protecting him yet not touching him. And over them both the Holy Spirit hovers – because incarnation (then and now) is through the work of the Spirit. God with us – God in us – God through us – the Spirit of creation, the Spirit of new birth, the Spirit of Christ. And here is the invitation for us to cradle with reverence Emmanuel, Christ in you the hope of glory. No wonder its called Madonna and Child giving Blessings…

crammed with heaven

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries…
from Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lines have often been quoted by writers on spirituality.They are an invitation to see in the world signs of God’s presence and glory.

Yet they carry a caution about eating blackberries which could be misunderstood. Such sentiments could be seen as a form of elitism. ‘I can see what you can’t see!’ We might even call it a form of aesthetic gnosticism if we wanted to coin some fancy language, suggesting that you have to be in the know, or part of a special group, in order to see the glory. The teaching of Jesus goes in quite a different direction:

Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’ (Luke 10.23f.)

This business of seeing is elusive – it is about having eyes open – about not being distracted by accumulating things – about seeing the world as gift – about a readiness to appreciate what we see (or hear) without immediately assuming it is for our gain – remember the story of Winnie the Pooh and the bees!

It’s not straightforward – but, then, simplicity often isn’t , because the labyrinthine workings of our hearts are not straightforward. But I hope my musings on this blog will be an invitation to see the glory – or be wanting to see the glory (which is a good start). I’ll muse on other themes as well, but I hope we can develop a conversation which encourages us to see better and see more consistently the glory of God.

One closing thought: it isn’t only in beauty that we see the glory of God (see Isaiah 53.2f.) but that’s a theme for another day…