This famous painting is by the artist Jean-Francois Millet. A friend who saw it on Millet’s easel recognised immediately that the peasant couple were praying ‘The Angelus’. Pointing to the distant steeple, Millet asked him, “Can you hear the bells?”
It was France in 1857. Older people could still remember the silencing of church bells in the days of the Revolution. Before then, people would stop at the sound of the Angelus bell and pray quite unselfconsciously, wherever they happened to be. Millet’s painting stirred a wave of public nostalgia for a vanished way of life; a longing to return to a humbler, more thankful, reverent way of being. The coronavirus has recently re-awakened the same kind of yearning in many people.
We are witnessing more than piety here. This is a moment of transcendence. There is more to the life of these two people than toil and hardship. They are dignified by their shared recognition of a reality beyond. Their work is hallowed, too. The handles of the barrow, worn smooth by their hands, gleam in the rays of the setting sun. A meagre basket of potatoes, all they have to take home for their supper, is glowing.
Millet challenges us all to greater mindfulness. “Can you hear the bells?” he asks.
The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary,
And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee,
Blessed art thou among women
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…