Welcome to Medievalish, Grace Hamman's monthly newsletter!
Featuring Fra Angelico, Madeleine L'Engle, and a medieval prayer...
Happy Advent and Merry Christmas, friends!
I’m so pleased you’ve signed up for my brand-new monthly newsletter. I’ve named it “Medievalish” because I will share some really fun medieval items with you each month… but other interesting older literature and theology could make appearances as well. It will also include other projects I’ve worked on, updates on my podcast, Old Books With Grace, and my recent reading.
After the recent Art & the Annunciation episode with Victoria Emily Jones on Old Books With Grace (available on either YouTube or the podcasting platform of your choice), a local ministry here in Denver invited me to write a bit about one of the paintings we discussed. And I was glad, because the longer I look at it, the more the wondrous Annunciation by Fra Angelico (ca. 1435) calls me to think.
Madeleine L’Engle, the twentieth-century writer of A Wrinkle in Time, was famously interested in (what else?) time. Time has two forms: chronos, ordinary time measured in seconds and hours, the time in which we spend our days, and kairos, the moments outside of time, where we are suddenly brought close to moments and people with whom our lives have never intersected here on earth, in which time’s ordinary movements seem to fade away. L’Engle writes:
…kairos has nothing to do with chronological time. In kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we are constantly checking our watches for chronological time. The saint in contemplation, lost (discovered) to self in the mind of God is in kairos. The artist at work is in kairos. The child at play, totally thrown outside himself in the game, be it building a sand castle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos. In kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation. (Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water, 98)
L’Engle includes the Annunciation in such kairos moments, and I wonder if she was thinking of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. The altarpiece, originally from San Domenico, Fiesole and now in the Prado in Madrid, captures that moment beyond chronological time in which we catch a glimpse of eternity. There’s the Angel Gabriel, Mary, the beam of light with the dove of the Holy Spirit descending from Heaven, even God’s hand, barely visible in the gleam of gold surrounding his person. And simultaneously, there’s another angel, behind Adam and Eve out of Eden, who have dropped the forbidden fruit at their feet. Adam and Eve are expelled from God’s paradise. Mary welcomes Gabriel. And this is all in the same scene.
Fra Angelico recognizes something that is easy to forget: because God is outside of time, not bound by chronology like us creatures, this painting offers a “God’s-eye view” of salvation history. The fourteenth-century contemplative writer Julian of Norwich offers us similar insight, when she writes that as Adam and Eve fell, Christ fell into the Virgin’s womb. There was never a moment, even in the expulsion from Eden, that Emmanuel was not with us, if one is given the eyes of kairos.
But there are touches of chronos that remain. Did you catch the little bird sitting on the bar above Mary and Gabriel. What is that black and white bird doing on the bar above, amidst the divine collapse of time and space in Christ’s coming? There are no other animals in the scene—except the dove, the actual Holy Spirit of the Lord! Because Fra Angelico was a medieval painter, and because medieval painters always had many reasons for painting what they did, this bird had to have some kind of significance.
I tried to look up what kind of bird it was. Google offered me several answers, all slightly unsatisfactory. One suggested that it was a sparrow, fitting reminder of God’s perfect provision and loving attention from Jesus’s words in chapter 10 of the Gospel of Matthew: “are not you worth more than many sparrows?” Sparrows were also historically a symbol of the common people, around, drab, easy to find, begging for scraps. In short, they’re the peasant of birds. Yet sparrows, as any respectable birder would know, are not black and white. They always have at least some brown in their feathers.
Another explanation I found argued that this little bird was a magpie. Magpies, those large black and white birds, are fascinating. They are among the most intelligent creatures in the world. Their brain development is comparable to the great apes, and they are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror (only a few animals are able to do that!). In folklore, magpies are believed to be attracted to shiny things, like the gold leaf of this Annunciation. Fra Angelico was a Dominican friar, and the colors of the Dominican order are black and white, as art historians have pointed out. Some have postulated that it represents that order, or Fra Angelico himself.
Yet if the bird is a magpie, Fra Angelico has shrunk it down quite a bit. I’m not an art historian, but perhaps it is a magpie, but purposefully and meaningfully adapted to cleverly represent Fra Angelico himself. The sparrow-sized magpie could become a play on his Dominican vocation, which even includes his own attraction to sparkling beauty. The small size emphasizes his created littleness, and sparrow-like commonality.
[Edited update: an intrepid reader has emailed me the suggestion that this bird is a swallow, and a reference to Psalm 84. This does seem like a very likely suggestion! Google them and you’ll notice that Fra Angelico’s bird is quite swallow-like. Thanks for the tip!]
It was fairly common to paint oneself, or one’s patron, into art during the medieval and Renaissance periods to show one’s devotion or generosity. But Fra Angelico’s choice to include a bird instead of himself makes his representation easy for us to enter into as well. We too can place ourselves as that bird in the scene of Christ’s miraculous conception. As you look at the painting, imagine yourself as the nondescript bird in the rich world of lapis lazuli and gold. It faces Mary worshipfully, oblivious to angelic presence and the massive kairos-narrative of Fall and Resurrection, able only to be attentive to the first yes to Christ on Earth, the initial inkling of the holy embodiment of Jesus.
We cannot see the big picture of God’s eternal goodness, the “All Shall Be Well” of Julian of Norwich who sees Fall and Incarnation never separated. But we can sometimes have a kairos moment, with our limited birdbrains and attraction to beauty, our ability to recognize ourselves in a mirror, when we see human Mary and her human child, Emmanuel, God with us. I am trying to imitate Fra Angelico’s faithful, tiny bird this Advent.
What I’ve been up to this month:
An article of mine, on Jane Austen and conversation, is up on Plough Quarterly.
The current Old Books With Grace series is on Advent & Christmas carols: Listen on Spotify, Apple, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.
I’ll be on the Fountains of Carrots podcast episode that airs on December 21, talking about the English medieval mystics. I had a blast… look out for this one if you’re ready for a full dose of enthusiastic nerd.
Creating this newsletter… invite a friend if you enjoy it!
What I’ve been reading this month:
Nonfiction: Sophfronia Scott’s The Seeker and the Monk. Scott reads Thomas Merton’s journals, and beautifully, the whole book becomes a living dialogue between this talented, modern writer, and the famous contemplative monk who died 60 years ago.
Fiction: I am re-reading the Harry Potter series. Magical, as always. If you haven’t heard me wax eloquent on the power of re-reading (especially books from your childhood!), don’t worry, you will at some point. Take the opportunity to re-read something you loved when you were young.
Article: Technically not an article, but I am absolutely loving Malcolm Guite’s poetry emails for Advent. I look forward every morning to a poet in my inbox.
A Prayer from the Past
I’m excited for this section, which will end each monthly newsletter. I will include a prayer from the past—some more user-friendly and “modern” than others. All, however, are a glimpse into the prayers of the Body of Christ and an opportunity for your own prayer, or for self-reflection and thought. Pray with them, or wonder about them, however you please. Here is a selection from St. Thomas Aquinas’s prayer, “To Acquire the Virtues,” from The Aquinas Prayer Book: The Prayers and Hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, translated and edited by Robert Anderson and Johann Moser.
O God, all-powerful and all-knowing, without beginning and without end, You Who are the source, the sustainer and the rewarder of all virtues, Grant that I may abide on the firm ground of faith, be sheltered by an impregnable shield of hope, and be adorned in the bridal garment of charity. Grant that I may through justice be subject to You, through prudence avoid the beguilements of the devil, through temperance exercise restraint, and through fortitude, endure adversity with patience. Grant that whatever good things I have, I may share generously with those who have not and that whatever good things I do not have, I may request humbly from those who do. Grant that I may judge rightly the evil of the wrongs I have done and bear calmly the punishments I have brought upon myself, and that I may never envy my neighbor's possessions, and ever give thanks for your good things...
Thanks for reading!
Until next time,
A cool comment from a reader that I wanted to share with you: Fra Angelico's bird could also be a barn swallow, a reference to Psalm 84. This seems like the most promising guess yet.
I love the prayer you posted at the end. It brought me back to the texts my grandmother sent almost daily until two weeks before she died, always highlighting a verse, prayer, or quote from a book, ancient or modern.
I need more kairos in my life. Thank you for this thoughtful newsletter; I look forward to your next one.