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A painting showing the interior of a woman’s bedroom where a woman is sitting up in bed, being offered a cup by one of two saints with halos on their heads, and two women standing behind the headboard on the left. On the right, a woman is standing outside of her doorway handing a saint a giftbox, who has his body turned but is accepting the gift.

What Do We Owe Each Other?

In mid-March, just as the pandemic hit America, I exchanged my daily routine at the National Gallery of Art for total isolation inside my studio apartment. I managed at home for more than two weeks thanks to the help and care of many people: my husband, 3,000 miles away, who FaceTimed with me for hours on end; other loved ones and colleagues who called, texted, and e-mailed with messages of support; and the friends and essential workers who delivered supplies and checked in on me daily.

On my first day back outside, as I walked across the deserted National Mall, I wondered how I could express my appreciation to all these people. Beyond my words of thanks, I felt an urge to give something tangible to those who had shown me so much care and kindness. A small painting by Fra Angelico in the Gallery’s collection reminds me that this impulse connects me to others around the world and throughout history who have faced illness and adversity with the support of their communities.

Fra Angelico, The Healing of Palladia by Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, c. 1438/1440

Fra Angelico, The Healing of Palladia by Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, c. 1438/1440, tempera and oil on poplar panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.3

The Healing of Palladia by Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian depicts an act of giving motivated by profound gratitude. It focuses on an episode in the life of the brothers Cosmas and Damian, doctors in third-century Asia Minor who refused payment for their services. At left, Fra Angelico has shown the two saints tending to their patient, Palladia, who sits up in bed to take the glass offered by one of the saints. This vessel serves as the crux of the interior scene, the object of the subjects’ gestures of giving and receiving. With this simple brown tumbler Fra Angelico has suggested the physical, social, and material ties that bind us in the reciprocal relationship of care.

At right, the story continues. Palladia stands at her door, extending her arms toward Damian. Her upper body echoes the pose she had in bed, but now she gives him something in return for his assistance. Damian’s posture reveals his hesitation. He holds out one hand to take the small box, but his twisted torso and raised foot suggest that he is uncomfortable receiving it. The Golden Legend, a medieval compilation of saints’ lives, tells us that Damian at first refused Palladia’s gift, but he finally relented not because he was greedy, but rather “to satisfy the donor’s kind intention.”

Fra Angelico himself understood that gift-giving was a ritual necessary for building strong relationships. The friar did not use his painting practice to increase his personal wealth, but rather to support the Dominican order of which he was a member. In 15th-century Tuscan society, furthermore, many rites of passage were celebrated with customized gifts, such as dowry chests for brides and painted wooden trays for new mothers.

The Healing of Palladia resonates with me at this moment not because of its beauty or quality, but rather because it reminds me that in the Renaissance, just as now, artists were deeply tied to local networks of family, friends, and neighbors. And it was the devotional rituals and social customs of these communities to which Fra Angelico and his contemporaries responded when they applied paint to panel. Now more than ever, the painting leads me to reflect on what we owe each other as members of our own local, national, and global communities. The answers—respect, care, kindness, safety, and equality, for a start—are what have driven our collective actions over the past few months: the decision to wear masks when we leave our homes, to isolate when we feel sick, to gather in protest against violence and racial injustice. As we set out on the road to recovery, Fra Angelico reminds me that the ties that bind us in times of crisis thrive only if they are recognized, valued, and reinforced every day.