This luminous scene is set on the lake of Pusiano, located between the two southern branches of Lake Como, in Brianza. This is a verdant area of Lombardy, and was beloved by the painter Giovanni Segantini.
A traditional wide rowing boat, with two hoops for mounting a tent as protection from the weather, is being used to ferry a small flock of sheep to higher pastures. It is a diminutive ‘transhumance’: the ancient seasonal tradition of the droving of livestock still practiced in the region. With the flock goes the family that owns it. The rowing is heavy work, but has now come to a standstill.
In the golden light of the sunset reflected in the still waters, the hoops of the boat encompass a sacred space framing the church on the far shore and the small family, so evocative of the Holy Family, at prayer in the boat. What we are invited to imagine, and to lend our ear to, is the sound of the bell from the church. It is the ringing of the Angelus, calling the faithful to halt their labour and join in prayer, quietness, and contemplation, wherever they are, as the title of the work tells us.
The Angelus evolved from the ancient monastic custom of reciting three Hail Marys during the ringing of the evening bell, to commemorate the Annunciation. It became a short prayer recited three times a day (at 06:00, 12:00, and 18:00), telling of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, her acceptance of God’s plan, and Jesus’s Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection: a concise Christian proclamation of the history of the world’s salvation.
In the hubbub of modern lives, the practice has now all but died out, but the painting captures for us a glimpse of earnest commitment to that tradition. In their quiet devotion, and in their own petitions to her, to ‘pray for us sinners’, this humble family imitates Mary’s own hearing the word of God (’Blessed is the mother’; Luke 11:27) and takes it up in the way Jesus commended when responding to the anonymous woman who called to him from the crowd (‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’; Luke 11:28).
27 As he said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” 28But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”