Newsletter 47: Where Angels Fear to Tread

17 March 2021

Breakfast time. I am battling with some under-set marmalade (made by me) that slurps everywhere; I am using a tea-spoon. Katie is having similar trouble with honey. When bought in Siena, it had looked non-runny, denso in Italian, but on opening months later it turned out to be sloppy. So I ask her if she would like a spoon. What I actually say is ‘would you like a potato?’

    To have asked if she required something in the same category as ‘spoon’ — a ‘fork’ or ‘knife’, any eating utensil or kitchen-ware, even ‘saucepan’ — would have been sort-of comprehensible. But ‘potato’? I muddle up children’s and grandchildren’s names, and have done so for ages. I once gave a lecture on Shakespeare and called him Wordsworth more or less throughout; or was it the other way round?

    Things have no doubt worsened during these strange times of idleness and social isolation. The hours and days pass slowly but the weeks seem to flash by. I seem to be half-awake all night and half-asleep all day. Is this old age? Or is the decay incremental and non-reversible? Is ‘potato’ a new phase of nominal aphasia? Even the onset of dementia? Those of a nervous disposition are asked not to read the following paragraph.

    If I were lucky enough to be visited by an angel (in fact it should be an archangel, one of the top-notch messengers in the angelic host), and given the choice ‘Succumb to the pandemic after a couple of weeks, or live out a long dementia’, I would start by trying to wangle a bit more time, but I think I know which I would have to choose, both for myself and for my family. I am not expecting to be offered this choice, so I shall just struggle on, meanwhile keeping an eye or ear on the potato problem. Also archangels deliver orders: they don’t seem to offer choices.

    Newsletter 27 discussed angels. Versions by Piero (stolid helpers beside Mary and the baby Jesus) and Lotto (a strangely alarming Gabriel) were mentioned. Angels exist in all the major religions. Amongst the Christian churches there is disagreement about how many archangels there are. Gabriel, Michael and Raphael are common to all. The Anglican Church accepts Uriel as a fourth, but the Orthodox churches have a wider variety of archangels ranging from seven to ten. In Western art Michael is almost always depicted with a large sword escorting Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, or defeating various forces of wickedness, not least the Fallen Angels (about whom there is also considerable variety of disagreement). Raphael helps Tobias in his search to find a cure for his father’s blindness; many readers of this newsletter have visited a church in Venice dedicated to this subject. Of the Big Four, the Archangel Gabriel is certainly the one most familiar to us, from innumerable paintings of the Annunciation, imagined in a thousand different styles and characterisations, from soppy to strangely threatening.

    Tiepolo is an artist with a particular, even a peculiar way of depicting Gabriel and other major angels. There are two extraordinary frescoed versions in the Patriarchal Palace in Udine; the subjects are angelic visitations to Sarah and Abraham. When Abraham arrived at his ninety-ninth year God ordered that the old man should be circumcised, along with all males, including servants, in his household; and promised that Sarah aged ninety should at last give birth. Sarah had laughed when she was told of this forthcoming happy event, a scarcely unsurprising reaction at her age, but which annoyed God because it seemed to reflect on his power. Later ‘three men’ visit Abraham and reiterate God’s commands. A year later Isaac is born.

    First, the picture depicting Sarah. She is kneeling on the left of the picture, wearing an ornate purple dress, eighteenth-century in style, with striped sleeves, a spiky white ruff and a brown cloak apparently draped over one shoulder and hanging down her right side. One critic (Roberto Calasso in Tiepolo Pink) remarks that she is a stock character in Tiepolo’s repertoire: the Elegant Old Lady. She has a saggy neck, arthritic hands and a few teeth. How should we interpret her expression, I wonder? An unsure watery grin seems to suggest her astonishment at the figure that confronts her and her disbelief at his message, mixed with pleasure at meeting such a brilliant young man on her doorstep.

    She is pictured in a dilapidated shed-like structure open to the sky, with a hat and shawl hanging on a hook behind her. Between Sarah and Gabriel is a tree with grey bark; it might be dead, but there are a few dried leaves on some of the twigs. Some dark flowers are growing at its base. Presumably this reminds us of her age.

    Gabriel towers above her. His clothes are sumptuous and exotic, even ‘frivolous’, a gorgeously patterned dress-like garb gathered in a large fold at the waist, hitched up perhaps for flight, or for pedestrian activity, and a brown cloak falling off a shoulder, not unlike Sarah’s but more abundant and luxurious. He has fair curly long hair. He looks down at Sarah perhaps with pity, and points imperiously at her with a bent fore-finger. But the most extraordinary thing about him is his bare left leg exposed to the top of his thigh, surprisingly more redolent of the Folies Bergère than the messenger of God. Please, what are we to make of this? My puzzlement is such that I have included the picture below so that all readers can offer their suggestions.

    Rereading the story in Genesis, it seems that Sarah overhears the bringing of God’s message to Abraham. So the idea that she had her own visitation from Gabriel is Tiepolo’s, or his patron’s. Tiepolo loves stark contrasts of opposites — Father Time and Venus, Agamemnon and Iphigenia — with all the painterly pleasures afforded by different textures of skin and apparel. Staging a meeting between the aged Sarah and an ageless super-handsome archangel affords exactly this kind of contrast, as well as an opportunity for the artist’s taste for gentle comedy, which is never far away. Is this picture perhaps a kind of peculiar inversion of the Annunciation, in which Mary is youthful and the angel is usually kneeling and subservient?

    In Tiepolo’s picture of Abraham and Gabriel (if it is Gabriel), the ‘three men’ are angels, one of some stature who is supported by two other angels of lesser size and degree and less ornately dressed. They are standing on a cloud. The old man is crouched in earnest prayer. There is another dead tree (and a surprising little town in the distant background behind the cloud). The triumvirate of angels are in a friendly huddle together, and all of them have one bare leg; Gabriel is showing most of his.

    The expression ‘show a leg’ I understand was used in the Navy on sailing ships before they set off for sea, when sailors would try to smuggle their wives and girlfriends aboard. Any female hiding in a hammock might be found out via this simple command. And in these frescoes (visible below), the angels’ legs are hairless, but are they male or female; or neither; or both?

    There are angels in paintings by Tiepolo in the Scuola Grande dei Carmini in Venice who share the same hitched-up skirt with a long glabrous leg exposed to view. Having to look up at them on the ceiling offers some small justification for their leggy look, as we are seeing so to speak their undercarriage. In Udine the two pictures of Sarah and Abraham and Gabriel are on side walls, so the upward look cannot be offered as an explanation for the leggy look here.

    Racking my brains for some explanation of the exposed thighs, I have been thrown back on the only material I can remember about angels, reading as a student A Preface to Paradise Lost by C.S. Lewis, which has a chapter entitled ‘The Mistake about Milton’s Angels’. Apparently in the middle ages angels and other such beings were thought to be ethereal and without substance, but by the seventeenth century theologians had decided they were in fact corporeal, perhaps by analogy with the gods of Greek and Roman mythology. Lewis explains that Milton’s archangels are meant to be corporeal in line with the angelology and pneumatology of his day. Milton and Lewis both get into a tangle about the degree of physicality. Raphael eats a meal in Paradise Lost, which may or may not seem strange. But their digestive paraphernalia are more easily dismissed than their sexuality. Milton has Raphael explaining to Adam that angels have ecstatic union with each other, much superior to anything humans can manage, of course. The archangels, although they are always called ‘he’, are in fact without gender. Lewis insists that this union was not homosexual, and he calls it trans-sexuality, but he was writing in 1942 and that term now has other possible meanings.

    Tiepolo was painting a century or so after Paradise Lost, but his archangels, like his mythical gods and goddesses, are extremely corporeal, especially so far as their legs are concerned. It may seem ridiculous, but I wonder if they ‘show a leg’ to demonstrate that they are indeed genderless. Not hermaphroditic, and not drag queens: these possess both genders. Perhaps rather a feeble explanation, but the only one I’ve come up with, apart from the artist’s sly humour, always omnipresent.

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Why all this leg work? When I set about writing this I was moving towards thinking I needed a new knee before the holiday season started again, if it ever does. This would have to be done privately in the current situation. To my surprise I was whisked into hospital and am now in Day 12 of recovery. It occurs to me that something about legs was moving about in my psyche and may have led me in the peculiar direction that this newsletter has taken.

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