On that June day in Washington, D.C., I sought refuge from my tourist wanderings in the air-conditioned National Gallery of Art. I was delighted to discover a special exhibit highlighting Jan van Eyck's "Annunciation." The painting, created around 1434 in Holland, was just back from a two-year cleaning and restoration.
I majored in art history in college and particularly enjoyed the Northern European painters, so this was going to be a real treat. The exhibit rotunda was packed with people, so I waited with the rest of the crowd for my turn to view it. I attentively read the information in the cases around the room and examined the displays and examples of the "pre-cleaning" work of art
"Annunciation" depicts, as the exhibit brochure explains, "one of the fundamental events of Christianity...recounted in Luke 1:26-38, in which the angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin that she will conceive and give birth to Jesus, the Son of God." The scene is set in a church interior of the period, rather than in Mary's home. The artist's gift for texture and detail is dazzling, especially in the angel's clothing and crown. (To see a reproduction of "Annunciation," click here.)
For those with an iconographic, or "hidden picture," bent, there are enough Old Testament references hidden in the nooks and crannies of the painting's church interior, floor panels, carpet, and furniture to keep them happy for a lifetime. Thermal-imaging photography during the restoration process uncovered even more symbolic stories, as well as a few false starts by the artist in positioning the figures of Mary and Gabriel.
One of the display cases explained that art historians for years had thought Van Eyck intentionally set Mary against a dark, dull church interior, making the background two-dimensional and shallow. With the cleaning, centuries of old varnish and grime disappeared, revealing a bright, colorful, three-dimensional church interior that Mary filled with substance, depth, and compelling presence. In another display case, I paid close attention to the words of Scripture written on the painting. They are familiar for the scene. Gabriel greets Mary as in Luke 1:28, with careful gold lettering: "Hail, full of grace." What caught my eye--and my heart--was Mary's response, from Luke 1:38, also in gold lettering: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord." The words were not new. I had read them a thousand times before in the Scriptures and every year during the Christmas season.
But this time, there was a new twist. They were written upside down, so that it could be read only from above by the Lord. She wasn't announcing this for all the world to see; she wasn't even telling the angel so he could take the message back. She was in immediate and very personal communication with God.
Could I, like Mary, develop this kind of focus? Could I remember Who it is who really needs to know my heart? Knowing that the Creator had originally set a three-dimensional-me in a three-dimensional-setting, could I act for God alone, regardless of what viewers think, what conclusions they draw from layers of lacquer and grime? Surely Mary's task remains unparalleled, but in the service required of me, can I approach her kind of humility and present myself also as a "handmaid of the Lord"?
You'd think this might be enough spiritual punch, but I hadn't even gotten to the real work of art yet. All this was from the display cases and photographs. Finally, my turn arrived to look at the painting. What immediately drew me was not the Scripture in gold lettering, not the lavish red and gold of the angel's robe, or the stunning blue of Mary's gown.
It was Gabriel's wings. They were multicolored, almost Disneyland bright. For all the images I'd seen in the cases up to that point, I was not prepared for the brilliance of those wings. It was as if the artist had placed a prism in the wings of that angel. There was the whole rainbow spectrum, with a yellow so bold it literally took my breath away. I stood there staring at this surprising angel, these spectacular symbolic wings, until the folks behind me started nudging their way in. I left the museum in a daze, awash with the images and impressions of the afternoon.
All that day, I thought about the angel references I knew, from the sublime to the ridiculous. I remembered an earlier Mormon prophet, Spencer Kimball, saying that God often answers our prayers, but He generally uses other people to do it. In those cases, aren't those people through whom He answers prayers "handmaids of the Lord" and angels, too? With that in mind, I thought about all the common women, men, and children who had been "angels" and "handmaids," affecting my life whether they knew it or not. I thought about the stories of angels appearing at the Kirtland Temple, of Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith, of ancestors appearing in "dreams" to comfort living descendants or to urge them into genealogy. I even thought about the old Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie "It's a Wonderful Life," where a little girl announces, "Whenever a bell rings, an angel gets his wings!"