The early twilight of autumn has overtaken two peasants at the close of a day's work in the field. They are gathering the potato harvest. The dried plants are first pulled up, and the potatoes carefully dug out of the holes. Then the vegetables are taken from the furrows by the basketful, and poured into brown linen sacks to be carried home on the wheelbarrow. One of these sacks is not yet quite full, and the work has been prolonged after sunset.

The field is a long way from the village, but in the still air sounds are carried far across the plain. Suddenly the bell of the village church peals forth. The man stops digging and plunges his fork into the earth, and the woman hastily rises from her stooping posture. The Angelus bell is ringing, and it calls them to prayer.

Three times each day, at sunrise, midday, and sunset, this bell reminds the world of the birth of Jesus Christ. The strokes are rung in three groups, corresponding to the three parts of The Angelus, which are recited in turn. The first word gives the bell its name,—Angelus, the Latin for angel.

"The angel of the Lord announced to Mary,
And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.

"Behold the handmaid of the Lord,
Be it done unto me according to thy word.

"And the word was made flesh
And dwelt among us."

Thus run the words of the translation in the three couplets into which they are separated, and then this prayer is added: "We beseech thee, O Lord, pour forth thy grace into our hearts; that as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought into the glory of his resurrection, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord."

Besides this, after each couplet of the Angelus, is recited that short hymn of praise, beginning with the words which the angel of the annunciation addressed to Mary,[1] "Ave Maria." This is why the hour after sunset is so often called the hour of Ave Maria. The English poet Byron has written of this solemn moment:—

"Ave Maria! blessed be the hour!
The time, the clime, the spot, where I so oft
Have felt that moment in its fullest power
Sink o'er the earth so beautiful and soft,
While swung the deep bell in the distant tower,
Or the faint dying day-hymn stole aloft,
And not a breath crept through the rosy air,
And yet the forest leaves seemed stirred with prayer."
From a carbon print by Braun, Clément & Co. John Andrew & Son, Sc. THE ANGELUS

The atmosphere of prayer pervades the picture. The woman stands with bowed head and hands clasped over her breast. Her whole body sways slightly forward in the intensity of her devotion. Her husband has bared his head and holds his hat before him. Though he may seem somewhat awkward, he is not less sincerely reverent.

The sunset light shines on the woman's blue apron, gilds the potato sacks in the wheelbarrow, and gleams along the furrows. Farther away, the withered plants are heaped in rows of little piles. Beyond, the level plain stretches to meet the glowing sky, and, outlined on the horizon, is the spire of the church where the bells are ringing.

As the meaning of the picture grows upon us, we can almost hear the ringing of the bells. Indeed, to those familiar with such scenes in actual life, the impression is very vivid. The friend to whom Millet first showed his painting immediately exclaimed, "It is the Angelus." "Then you can hear the bells," said the artist, and was content.

The solemn influence of the picture is deepened by the effects of the twilight on the plains. A wide outlook across a level country, like a view of the sea, is always impressive, but it has peculiar power in the vague light which follows the sunset. Many poetic natures have felt this mystic spell of the gloaming as it descends upon the plain. Robert Louis Stevenson was one of these, and upon visiting Barbizon he described vividly his feelings at such an hour. We are told also that Millet loved to walk abroad at nightfall and note the mysterious effects of the twilight. "It is astonishing," he once said to his brother in such a walk, "how grand everything on the plain appears, towards the approach of night, especially when we see the figures thrown out against the sky. Then they look like giants."

In nearly all of Millet's pictures people are busy doing something. Either hands or feet, and sometimes both hands and feet, are in motion. They are pictures of action. In the Angelus, however, people are resting from labor; it is a picture of repose. The busy hands cease their work a moment, and the spirit rises in prayer. We have already seen, in other pictures, how labor may be lightened by love. Here we see labor glorified by piety.

The painting of the Angelus has had a remarkable history. The patron for whom it was first intended was disappointed with the picture when finished, and Millet had no little difficulty in finding a purchaser. In the course of time it became one of the most popular works of the painter, and is probably better known in our country than any other of his pictures. In 1889 it was bought by an American, and was carried on an exhibition tour through most of the large cities of the United States. Finally it returned to France, where it is now in the collection of M. Chauchard.

The Angelus is one of the few of Millet's works which have changed with time. The color has grown dark and the canvas has cracked somewhat, owing to the use of bitumen in the painting.


"Hail Mary"; see St. Luke, chapter i., verse 28.