Jean François Millet's L' Angélus

Jean François Millet (1814-1875):
L' Angélus (1859), Museée d'Orsay, Paris

This painting holds a special place in my heart. I had viewed it at the Louvre in Paris during the summer of 1979. The National Science Foundation and Centre Européen de Calcul Atomique et Moléculaire awarded me a travel grant, stipend, and complete living expenses for six weeks in Paris (July 16-August 30, 1979), where I did research at the "Protein Folding Workshop" at the University of Paris, Orsay. During the week, my mind was totally absorbed in elucidating the secondary structures of 64 proteins to improve protein conformational predictions. But on the weekends, I would visit the museums in Paris, getting to the Louvre by 6 pm just before closing. However they do not clear the building of visitors until 9 pm, so I got 3 hours of extra viewing time when all the other museums are closed. On one of these occasions, I got to view Millet's L'Angelus and just stood in front of this painting in awe. Somehow this scene spoke to me more about gratitude, humility, and reverence than many of the religious paintings that tried to evoke a sense of spirituality within us. I bought a postcard of Millet's L'Angelus from the Louvre Museum for my collection and meditated on it often. [Note: In 1986, this painting was transferred to the ground floor of Museée d'Orsay.]

When I visited Paul Brunton (PB) in his home at Corseaux sur Vevey in September 1979, he received me warmly as always. PB would invite me out for a vegetarian lunch at one of his favorite restaurants. Then we'd walk by Lac Leman to feed the swans and ducks. Sometimes we would shop in a market buying vegetables for salads or to cook for dinner. On the walls of PB's living room were large tankas of Oriental sages whom he admired— the Neo-Confucian sage Chou Tun-yi, Wang Yang Ming, and Confucius Holding a Cherry Branch. There was a smaller scroll with Lao Tzu riding a water buffalo. But in PB's bedroom he just had a small postcard propped up on his dressing bureau— Millet's L'Angelus. I told PB about seeing this painting at the Louvre when in Paris a month ago, and had bought a similar postcard. PB said “Look at this couple— simple farm folks, yet how humble, thanking the earth for their daily food. We should keep our heart always simple and sincere just like that.”

Then I shared with PB a story from René Descartes last book, The Passions of the Soul (1649). Descartes is speaking to farmers in his opening chapter about his Cartesian philosophy and the mysteries of life. The farmers protested: “You're wasting your time talking to us. We don't understand philosophy.” Descartes told them, “The academians have too much pre-conceived notions and pride in accepting new knowledge. You folks are more in tune with nature, the change of the seasons, and therefore can discern God's mysteries much better.” I always kept this story in mind while doing scientific research, and in meditating about life's mysteries and its grandeur. PB liked this story of Descartes.

Whenever we ate together whether it's lunch or dinner, PB would always say a short prayer: “Thank you for this food on the table. May it nourish our body, illumine our mind, strengthen our spirit— O Mind of the World.”

And everytime when I eat, I think of PB's prayer and Jean François Millet's L'Angelus.

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: peter(at) (1-18-2006)