Touched by angels and by saints

This morning was spent in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin. It is a distinguished collection to which I cannot do justice. As usual, I am left at the mercy of my quirks - what did I notice especially and what resonated with my current play of feeling?

To which the first answer was this small painting by Rembrandt of Joseph's dream. Jesus is born and his life is under threat. For the moment he lies safely next to his mother and though they are not the centre of the action of the painting, they are naturally the centre of its regard. The shaft of light falls on them.

However, the action lies with the angel, illuminated both as from within and by the neighbouring shaft of light, who touching Joseph's shoulder grants a dream that will lead them to exile in Egypt yet safety. You see the weight of the hand and the angel's other hand pointing to Mary and Child as the substance and urgency of the dream. It is a beautifully realized, quietly stated drama.

I was reminded of  a friend who described 'significant dreams' as one's that 'pushed you into the mattress' -perhaps a better phrase would be one's that suggested an angel had taken you by the shoulder. It was not the only such image on display in the gallery - another painting by Rembrandt alluded to Daniel's dream with the same ministering angel taking his shoulder.

The second was the Lamentation over the death of St Francis by Fra Angelico. It was part of a triptych - the first panel celebrates the meeting of St Francis with St Dominic in Rome, the second is the Lamentation, the third a post death appearance by St Francis to his brothers. It was moving, first, because here was a Dominican painter transcending an historical rivalry between orders and celebrating St Francis. It was moving, second, because it is a lovely painting - each friar is depicted individually in his grief and yet the painting, with St Francis ascending to heaven at its centre, is full of hope. It was moving, finally, because it is St Francis, that most noble and lovable of saints, wholly of his time and yet continually breaking its bounds, pushing it towards a more open and tolerant and inclusive future.


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