The first time I visited Sicily, I flew to Palermo. As we were landing, through the plane’s small window I noticed a distant plume of smoke rising out of a thick cloud cover toward the southeast. Could that be Mt. Etna, I wondered. It was. Etna erupted on October 30, 2002, as I was flying to Sicily. Fortunately, Palermo was some 120 miles safely away.
My guidebook said that “of all of Italy’s great art cities, Palermo is the most underrated.” Sicily’s history includes waves of settlers and rulers from Greeks to Carthaginians, Romans to Arabs, Normans and Spaniards and more. The Catholic presence is deeply impressed on Sicily, and Palermo’s churches house a great deal of art.
On a hill near the gothic cathedral is the old Norman palace, and its chapel is a wonder, particularly for its mosaics. So too is the suburban cathedral of Monreale. Gothic and baroque churches abound in Palermo, the Jesuits’ Gesù among them.
Late one afternoon, I found my way to the Galleria Regionale, where I roamed the galleries, pausing at many beautiful artworks—madonnas, saints in cruel martyrdom, crosses—until one piece stopped me cold. It was on a stand, isolated from crowded walls, an image of the Virgin Mary, the Annunciation by Antonello da Messina. The painting is small, a bit under 18 inches by 14 inches, but it radiates power. I stood staring at the image for a while, then sat down in a chair poised for gazing at the painting. Minutes passed; the better part of a half hour went by. No one disturbed my meditation.
The Annunciation is a common religious subject, appearing in frescoes, mosaics, triptychs, canvasses, sculpture. It gave artists free reign to paint exotic angels with elaborate wings and gentle gestures, a white dove hovering overhead. Many Annunciations have a ribbon of words coming from the mouths of Gabriel and Mary.
The exotic touches do not account for all of the popularity of Annunciation paintings. For this image shows the beginning of the story of Jesus incarnate. From now on God is actually with us in our human form. Here the divine, through a messenger, approaches the human and looks for cooperation that exceeds whatever went before. Here a teenage girl confronts a destiny beyond her imagination. And this is any of us coming to grips with God’s divine breath breathed into us giving us life, offering us possibility.
What caught me with this painting is Mary’s attitude. She is dressed in stunning blue, of course, and she is looking up from a book, a common detail in Annunciations. It is a head and shoulders image, so we do not see her kneeling. And rare among Annunciations, we see no angel. Nothing distracts from the young woman. Her left hand seems to hold her veil close. And she raises her right hand, palm out toward the unseen angel.
What is she gesturing? I took it to be a quite natural reaction. Luke’s story has Mary ask one question and then give in: “Fiat!” In this image she seems to say, “Okay, angel. I am not saying no. But I have some questions. We have to get some things clear before we go on with this!” This I found totally believable. She was surprised, astonished. But she did not lose her control.
How do we, how do I react when the divine intervenes? Providence, God’s will—it enters our lives, upsets our expectations with bad news or good, with grief or joy, but always with challenge and opportunity. We can stop for a moment before saying yes.
I saw more of Sicily in the days ahead, and when my plane took off from the Catania airport we circled around the steaming smoke that swirled around Etna. After we cleared that excitement, I thought back on my Sicilian days. Besides Palermo, I had seen the Greek ruins at Agrigento, the door of the first Jesuit college at Messina, the many sights at Syracusa. Much beauty, historic interest, holy places, like where St. Paul had lingered in Sicily on his way to Rome. But beyond all the splendor, I recalled that simple Madonna, her look, her gesture, her question. That was Sicily for me.
Two years later I wandered into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which was hosting an exhibition of Antonello da Messina. The Madonna was there. But as I walked over I spotted there a young man, 20-something, staring at the painting. He stood there motionless, rapt in wonder. I stayed back, respecting what he was going through. After 20 minutes or so he moved away, and I took his place. I stood and gazed and prayed and wondered. The image had lost none of its power for me. The Madonna still worked her wonder.