Every month, the Catholic monthly missal Magnificat features a painting on its cover and a little write up in the back about the painting. March’s cover is a painting that copies the face of the Virgin from the Annunciation in Florence’s Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation. Now, as my followers know, I take lessons in oil painting, and one of the most important lessons to learn is how to see. Now when I look at painting or a picture I notice more than I used to. I see the interplay of darks and lights. I see the composition–or at least I try to. I try to understand why a painting appeals to me. Sometimes I see more than other times, but I have learned to look. Yet a response to a painting is also an emotional one; in fact, that is often the first response. “I like it.” “I don’t like it.” Then, I look to figure out why. Frequently, I can then learn to appreciate a painting that I don’t necessarily “like.”
So on Sunday, March 1, I take out my copy of Magnificat, and I am struck by the cover. I am drawn to it. Because I am in church, I contemplate it emotionally rather than analytically at first. It is beautiful. It is calming. I want to draw it. I want to paint a copy of it myself. When that thought enters my mind, I start to look at it a little as an artist. Could I do this? Is it within my reach? Why do I like it? There is something soothing about the gray background that allows the eye to be drawn towards the center to the Virgin’s face. There is a beautiful juxtaposition between the realistic, yet incredibly pure, face and the iconographic halo surrounding it. The interplay of lights and darks in the Virgin’s hair suggests a slight wave and a light source emanating from the right–the direction she faces. Her beauty is simple, young, and pure.
Next I turn to the write up which is where I find the title and the place of origin. And then, I read this:
“Legend has it that in 1252 one of the Servites undertook to decorate the basilica with an Annunciation. Yet his completed work failed to convey the beauty of the Virigin’s face. The pious artist was in despair. But one day, having fallen asleep over his work, he awoke to discover that the face of Mary had been wonderfully depicted while he slept. The good people of Florence immediately attributed it to the hand of an angel” (Dumont 432).
Oh, great, I thought, this is what I want to paint!? Something completed by “the hand of an angel”?
Yet, the more I look at the painting, the more I still want to try it. Could I? Should I? Naturally this has led me to thinking about art and creativity. We must take risks to improve our skills and nurture our creativity. Yesterday, a student came to me to “talk” about her grade in English class and asked me how she could do better. That is a fair enough question. The trouble started when she said that she doesn’t change anything she does when I give comments and/or suggestions for improvement. She does what she does, and that’s it. But she wants a better grade. I tried to convince her that if you do the same thing every time, you will continue to get the same result. After a half hour of talking with her (or perhaps to her), I am still not convinced she “heard” me. Today at art class, a student complained to the teacher that “I can’t do this,” to which the teacher replied, “I don’t want to hear anyone say she can’t do something or that something looks terrible. Instead, ask how can I make this look better, or what do I do next.” She’s absolutely right. We need to try something and if it doesn’t work, try something else.
So, I will try this painting. And, if worse comes to worst, and I find myself in despair over the Virgin’s face, like the original artist, I’ll take a nap and hope for angelic assistance.
Dumont, Pierre-Marie. “The Face of the Virgin and the Angelic Self-Portrait.” Magnificat. Vol. 16:13. March 2015.
To see the painting (though it is better in print than on screen) and read Dumont’s commentary see here: https://www.magnificat.net/english/popup_couv.asp