John Gayford explores the beauty of the Angelus
The French artist Jean-Francois Millet completed his painting later entitled “The Angelus” between 1857 and 1859. It was commissioned by the American Thomas Appleton with the title Prayers for the Potato Crop but he never came to collect it. Millet added a steeple to a church on the horizon and change the title to The Angelus. It depicts two peasants bowing in prayer at dusk in a field. We are to presume the Angelus bell has just sounded from the church. Millet claims the idea came to him from his grandfather who would stop for prayer when the Angelus bell sounded. By the end of the 19th century this became one of the most reproduced paintings in France. Famous artists copied or made their own version of the theme. The original depicts the true spirit of the Angelus as a moment for private prayer.
The Angelus has become a traditional Western Catholic prayer usually said privately three times a day, in churches, monastic houses and colleges, to commemorate the Incarnation. The name comes from the start of the devotion Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae (The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary). The sounding of a bell invites all to pause, reflect and pray. Basically a silent prayer, it can be said or sung in Latin or vernacular. The sung versions can vary even if based on Latin Gregorian Chant. Now by tradition the Angelus is recited morning, noon and night; as the day starts, mid-day and as the day ends. The exact times vary according to the establishment but usually at 6.00am, 12noon and 6.00pm.
It would be good to say that the history of the Angelus goes back to St. Luke 1:26-38, the event it honours. This may be so but the use of the Angelus as a devotion comes much later with some confusion as to when it started. Anglo-Saxon history demonstrates evidence of Marian devotion and prayer but there is no verification of the Angelus being used, this had to wait until after the Norman Conquest. A strong case can be made for it starting in the eleventh century. The tolling of a monastic bell summoning the monks to Compline became the Compline Bell. Sounding in the surrounding area the hearers were encouraged to say three Hail Marys. Alternatively a case can be made for it being the curfew bell at which again the pious were encouraged to pray with three Hail Marys. Pope Gregory IX (d. 1241) asked for these prayers at this time of day for the Crusades. By 1269 there was a Franciscan custom of three Hail Marys at the end of the day and St. Bonaventure urged the faithful to follow this custom at dusk and asked Franciscan preachers to encourage the devotion.
The morning Angelus came later and again was associated with monastic bells summoning the monks to Prime. We do not hear about this until the fourteenth century. This coincided with the start of the secular working day. The monks sometimes preceded the office of Prime with thee Hail Marys. The mid-day Angelus was adopted on Fridays later still, with memory of the Passion and crucifixion of Our Blessed Lord. Then this was extended to each day of the week. In 1386 the Synod of Prague extended the devotion to praying for the peace of the world. It was not until the sixteenth century that Angelus prayers were standardised. There are now in some Catholic countries radio programmes that are interrupted by the Angelus.
The Reformation in England brought any public Angelus to an end but could not stop secret devotion. With catholic emancipation in nineteenth century England, the Angelus bells began to sound again, became a mark of catholic practice and were adopted by some High Church Anglicans at the end of nineteenth and beginning of twentieth centuries, with the text included in prayer manuals. Where there is a mid-day Mass the Angelus can be recited before. If the Mass is earlier the Angelus follows the Mass; and there is an Anglican custom in some churches to recite or sing the Angelus after the principal Mass on Sundays. This may be extended to other mid-day Masses. Where the Angelus is not a regular feature it is welcomed by Catholic societies at their gatherings, for this reason the Angelus is most commonly used at noon.
The Benedictine Congregations have never used the Angelus communally but value this devotion to Our Lady for private use. The same can be said for the Cistercians, Carthusians and other religious orders. If members of the community are working together when the Angelus bell sounds they may recite it together. Nor is there any reason why the Angelus bell cannot be used as a moment for recollection and a call to prayer a few minutes before an office, especially at the start of the day. Both the Dominicans and Franciscans claim a special devotion to Mary and the Angelus. There are recordings of them singing the Angelus (in Latin or English) which can done at conferences. There are now a few sung versions of the Angelus that are quite modern (some in Latin and others in the vernacular). Some are based on Gregorian chant for the Ave Maria. The cantor or leader may sing the first part and all respond with the second part. In modern times the Pope comes to a window in the Vatican to lead the Angelus at mid-day on certain Sundays and Solemnities with an exhortation and his apostolic blessing.
In the Easter season the Angelus is replaced by the Regina Caeli.
Historically the Angelus is a devotion to Our Lady of the Western Church. The evening Angelus came first and celebrated the Incarnation, the morning Angelus came next celebrating the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ and finally came the mid-day Angelus reminding us of the crucifixion and the passion. Some like to recite the Angelus kneeling or at least genuflect at the versicle et Verbum caro factum est (The Word was made flesh).
The Angelus consists of a set of versicle and responses followed by an Ave Maria, with a bell sounding three times, followed by second and third versicles and responses again with the bell sounding three times. There is a final versicle and response followed by a prayer during which the bell rings nine times. Those who use its gentle familiarity may find a grace and refreshment far outshining the more usual break for coffee.
Suggested further reading
- Boss, S.J. (editor) Mary: The Complete Resource Continuum London 2007.
- Graef, H. and Thompson, T.A. Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion. Christian Classics Ave Maria Press. Indiania 2009.
- O’Carroll, M. Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopaedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary Fowler Wright Books Limited Leominster 1986.