‘A Hidden Angel’ –
For years I told people that this person peering through a doorway – or, at least, a gap in the wall – was a self portrait (I was going to type ‘a self portrait of the artist’ – but of whom else could it be a self portrait?) I said this, because that is what I had been told, and because the high-resolution photography which enables us to get in this close was not publicly available when I started working at the National Gallery. I certainly wasn’t ‘online’ back then, and I don’t know when the Gallery launched its first website. Now, though, every painting has its own ‘zoom’ function, and you can get in far closer to see the details than public access and the paintings’ safety can allow. It’s a great thing, but it will never beat seeing them ‘in the flesh’.
There are at least three problems with the hypothesis that this is a self portrait. The first is that we do not know what the artist looked like. There are no known portraits of him. The second is that this face is just not specific enough to be a portrait (and several faces in the painting are, although no positive identifications have been forthcoming). And the third is that, above the head of this curious creature, clearly picked out however dim the half-light, is the unmistakable profile of a wing. As far as I am aware, no artists have been winged, and I can’t think of any who have shown themselves as if they were (although Orazio Gentileschi did talk about lending a pair to Caravaggio).
This is not a self portrait – it’s not even a portrait. This is an angel who has landed on earth, and has crept as close as he dares, without getting in the way or causing a stir, to peer out on the saviour-made-flesh, right hand on his chest as a sign of devotion, and of awe. And he’s looking at you – yes, you – to see your response to this miracle. All of this is hypothesis, too, mind you, as nobody really knows why he is there. There is a theory that the nine angels flying in the sky represent the nine different choirs of their hierarchy, but with a tenth down on earth this doesn’t ring true. And in any case, the nine are not distinguished in any way to separate cherub from seraph, throne from power, angel from archangel, etc. They represent a number of the heavenly host, and the number that looks right for the sky in this painting. At times, the concerns are purely aesthetic. There is meaning, but there is also art, and this is something in which we participate. Which is why the angel is looking at you.