In Praise of the New Knighthood, by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Saint Bernard of ClairvauxPrologue

To Hugh, Knight of Christ and Master of Christ’s Militia: Bernard, In Name Only, Abbot of Clairvaus, Wishes That He Might Fight The Good Fight

If I am not mistaken, my dear Hugh, you have asked me not once or twice, but three times to write a few words of exhortation for you and your comrades. You say that if I am not permitted to wield the lance, at least I might direct my pen against the tyrannical foe, and that this moral, rather than material support of mine will be of no small help to you. I have put you off now for quite some time, not that I disdain your request, but rather lest I be blamed for taking it lightly and hastily. I feared I might botch a task which could be better done by a more qualified hand, and which would perhaps remain, because of me, just as necessary and all the more difficult.

Having waited thus for quite some time to no purpose, I have now done what I could, lest my inability should be mistaken for unwillingness. It is for the reader to judge the result. If some perhaps find my work unsatisfactory or short of the mark, I shall be nonetheless content, since I have not failed to give you my best.

Chapter 1 – A Word of Exhortation for the Knights of the Temple

It seems that a new knighthood has recently appeared on the earth, and precisely in that part of it which the Orient from on high visited in the flesh. As he then troubled the princes of darkness in the strength of his mighty hand, so there he now wipes out their followers, the children of disbelief, scattering them by the hands of his mighty ones. Even now he brings about the redemption of his people raising up again a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.

This is, I say, a new kind of knighthood and one unknown to the ages gone by. It ceaselessly wages a twofold war both against flesh and blood and against a spiritual army of evil in the heavens. When someone strongly resists a foe in the flesh, relying solely on the strength of the flesh, I would hardly remark it, since this is common enough. And when war is waged by spiritual strength against vices or demons, this, too, is nothing remarkable, praiseworthy as it is, for the world is full of monks. But when the one sees a man powerfully girding himself with both swords and nobly marking his belt, who would not consider it worthy of all wonder, the more so since it has been hitherto unknown? He is truly a fearless knight and secure on every side, for his soul is protected by the armor of faith just as his body is protected by armor of steel. He is thus doubly armed and need fear neither demons nor men. Not that he fears death—no, he desires it. Why should he fear to live or fear to die when for him to live is Christ, and to die is gain? Gladly and faithfully he stands for Christ, but he would prefer to be dissolved and to be with Christ, by far the better thing.

Go forth confidently then, you knights, and repel the foes of the cross of Christ with a stalwart heart. Know that neither death nor life can separate you from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ, and in every peril repeat, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” What a glory to return in victory from such a battle! How blessed to die there as a martyr! Rejoice, brave athlete, if you live and conquer in the Lord; but glory and exult even more if you die and join your Lord. Life indeed is a fruitful thing and victory is glorious, but a holy death is more important than either. If they are blessed who die in the Lord, how much more are they who die for the Lord!

2. To be sure, precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his holy ones, whether they die in battle or in bed, but death in battle is more precious as it is the more glorious. How secure is life when the conscience is unsullied! How secure, I say, is life when death is anticipated without fear; or rather when it is desired with feeling and embraced with reverence! How holy and secure this knighthood and how entirely free of the double risk run by those men who fight not for Christ! Whenever you go forth, O worldly warrior, you must fear lest the bodily death of your foe should mean your own spiritual death, or lest perhaps your body and soul together should be slain by him.

Indeed, danger or victory for a Christian depends on the dispositions of his heart and not on the fortunes of war. If he fights for a good reason, the issue of his fight can never be evil; and likewise the results can never be considered good if the reason were evil and the intentions perverse. If you happen to be killed while you are seeking only to kill another, you die a murderer. If you succeed, and by your will to overcome and to conquer you perchance kill a man, you live a murderer. Now it will not do to be a murderer, living or dead, victorious or vanquished. What an unhappy victory—to have conquered a man while yielding to vice, and to indulge in an empty glory at his fall when wrath and pride have gotten the better of you!

But what of those who kill neither in the heat of revenge nor in the swelling of pride, but simply in order to save themselves? Even this sort of victory I would not call good, since bodily death is really a lesser evil than spiritual death. The soul need not die when the body does. No, it is the soul which sins that shall die.

Chapter 2 – On Worldly Knighthood

What, then is the end or fruit of this worldly knighthood, or rather knavery, as I should call it? What if not the mortal sin of the victor and the eternal death of the vanquished? Well then, let me borrow a word from the Apostle and exhort him who plows, to plow in hope, and him who threshes, to do so in view of some fruit.

What then, O knights, is this monstrous error and what this unbearable urge which bids you fight with such pomp and labor, and all to no purpose except death and sin? You cover your horses with silk, and plume your armor with I know not what sort of rags; you paint your shields and your saddles; you adorn your bits and spurs with gold and silver and precious stones, and then in all this glory you rush to your ruin with fearful wrath and fearless folly. Are these the trappings of a warrior or are they not rather the trinkets of a woman? Do you think the swords of your foes will be turned back by your gold, spare your jewels or be unable to pierce your silks?

As you yourselves have often certainly experienced, a warrior especially needs these three things—he must guard his person with strength, shrewdness and care; he must be free in his movements, and he must be quick to draw his sword. Then why do you blind yourselves with effeminate locks and trip yourselves up with long and full tunics, burying your tender, delicate hands in big cumbersome sleeves? Above all, there is that terrible insecurity of conscience, in spite of all your armor, since you have dared to undertake such a dangerous business on such slight and frivolous grounds. What else is the cause of wars and the root of disputes among you, except unreasonable flashes of anger, the thirst for empty glory, or the hankering after some earthly possessions? It certainly is not safe to kill or to be killed for such causes as these.

Chapter 3 – On the New Knighthood

But the knights of Christ may safely fight the battles of their Lord, fearing neither sin if they smite the enemy, nor danger at their own death; since to inflict death or to die for Christ is no sin, but rather, an abundant claim to glory. In the first case one gains for Christ, and in the second one gains Christ himself. The Lord freely accepts the death of the foe who has offended him, and yet more freely gives himself for the consolation of his fallen knight.

The knight of Christ, I say, may strike with confidence and die yet more confidently, for he serves Christ when he strikes, and serves himself when he falls. Neither does he bear the sword in vain, for he is God’s minister, for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of the good. If he kills an evildoer, he is not a mankiller, but, if I may so put it, a killer of evil. He is evidently the avenger of Christ towards evildoers and he is rightly considered a defender of Christians. Should he be killed himself, we know that he has not perished, but has come safely into port. When he inflicts death it is to Christ’s profit, and when he suffers death, it is for his own gain. The Christian glories in the death of the pagan, because Christ is glorified; while the death of the Christian gives occasion for the King to show his liberality in the rewarding of his knight. In the one case the just shall rejoice when he sees justice done, and in the other man shall say, truly there is a reward for the just; truly it is God who judges the earth.

I do not mean to say that the pagans are to be slaughtered when there is any other way to prevent them from harassing and persecuting the faithful, but only that it now seems better to destroy them than that the rod of sinners be lifted over the lot of the just, and the righteous perhaps put forth their hands unto iniquity.

5. What then? If it is never permissible for a Christian to strike with the sword, why did the Savior’s precursor bid the soldiers to be content with their pay, and not rather forbid them to follow this calling? But if it is permitted to all those so destined by God, as is indeed the case provided they have not embraced a higher calling, to whom, I ask, may it be allowed more rightly than to those whose hands and hearts hold for us Sion, the city of our strength?

Thus when the transgressors of divine law have been expelled, the righteous nation that keeps the truth may enter in security. Certainly it is proper that the nations who love war should be scattered, that those who trouble us should be cut off, and that all the workers of iniquity should be dispersed from the city of the Lord. They busy themselves to carry away the incalculable riches placed in Jerusalem by the Christian peoples, to profane the holy things and to possess the sanctuary of God as their heritage. Let both swords of the faithful fall upon the necks of the foe, in order to destroy every high thing exalting itself against the knowledge of God, which is the Christian faith, lest the Gentiles should then say, “Where is their God?”

6. Once they have been cast out, he shall return to his heritage and to his house, which aroused his anger in the Gospel, “Behold,” he said, “your house is left to you desolate.” He had complained through the Prophet: “I have left my house, I have forsaken my heritage,” and he will fulfill that other prophecy: “The Lord has ransomed his people and delivered them. They shall come and exult on Mount Sion, and rejoice in the good things of the Lord.”

Rejoice Jerusalem, and recognize now the time in which you are visited! Be glad and give praise together, wastes of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people. He has ransomed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm in the sight of all peoples. O virgin of Israel, you were fallen and there was none to raise you up. Arise now and shake off the dust, O virgin, captive daughter of Sion. Arise, I say, and stand on high. See the happiness which comes to you from your God. You will no longer be referred to as the forsaken one, nor your land any more termed a wilderness; for the Lord takes his delight in you, and your land shall be peopled. Raise your eyes, look about you and see; all these are gathered together and come to you. Here is the help sent to you from the Holy One! Through them is already fulfilled the ancient promise, “I will make you the pride of the ages, a joy from generation to generation. You will suck the milk of the nations and be nourished at the breasts of their sovereignty.” And again, “As a mother consoles her children, so will I console you, and in Jerusalem you will be comforted.”

Do you not see how frequently these ancient witnesses foreshadowed the new knighthood? Truly, as we have heard, so we have now seen in the city of the Lord of armies. Of course we must not let these literal fulfillments blind us to the spiritual meaning of the texts, for we must live in eternal hope in spite of such temporal realizations of prophetic utterances. Otherwise the tangible would supplant the intangible, material poverty would threaten spiritual wealth and present possessions would forestall future fulfillment. Furthermore, the temporal glory of the earthly city does not eclipse the glory of its heavenly counterpart, but rather prepares for it, at least so long as we remember that the one is the figure of the other, and that it is the heavenly one which is our mother.

Chapter 4 – On the Life Style of the Knights of the Temple

And now as a model, or at least for the shame of those knights of ours who are fighting for the devil rather than for God, we will briefly set forth the life and virtues of these cavaliers of Christ. Let us see how they conduct themselves at home as well as in battle, how they appear in public, and in what way the knight of God differs from the knight of the world.

In the first place, discipline is in no way lacking and obedience is never despised. As Scripture testifies, the undisciplined son shall perish and rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, to refuse obedience is like the crime of idolatry. Therefore they come and go at the bidding of their superior. They wear what he gives them, and do not presume to wear or to eat anything from another source. Thus they shun every excess in clothing and food and content themselves with what is necessary. They live as brothers in joyful and sober company, without wives or children. So that their evangelical perfection will lack nothing, they dwell united in one family with no personal property whatever, careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. You may say that the whole multitude has but one heart and one soul to the point that nobody follows his own will, but rather seeks to follow the commander.

They never sit in idleness or wander about aimlessly, but on the rare occasions when they are not on duty, they are always careful to earn their bread by repairing their worn armor and torn clothing, or simply by setting things to order. For the rest, they are guided by the common needs and by the orders of their master.

There is no distinction of persons among them, and deference is shown to merit rather than to noble blood. They rival one another in mutual consideration, and they carry one another’s burdens, thus fulfilling the law of Christ. No inappropriate word, idle deed, unrestrained laugh, not even the slightest whisper or murmur is left uncorrected once it has been detected. They foreswear dice and chess, and abhor the chase; they take no delight in the ridiculous cruelty of falconry, as is the custom. As for jesters, magicians, bards, troubadours and jousters, they despise and reject them as so many vanities and unsound deceptions. Their hair is worn short, in conformity with the Apostle’s saying, that it is shameful for a man to cultivate flowing locks. Indeed, they seldom wash and never set their hair—content to appear tousled and dusty, bearing the marks of the sun and of their armor.

8. When the battle is at hand, they arm themselves interiorly with faith and exteriorly with steel rather than decorate themselves with gold, since their business is to strike fear in the enemy rather than to incite his cupidity. They seek out horses which are strong and swift, rather than those which are brilliant and well-plumed, they set their minds on fighting to win rather than on parading for show. They think not of glory and seek to be formidable rather than flamboyant. At the same time, they are not quarrelsome, rash, or unduly hasty, but soberly, prudently and providently drawn up into orderly ranks, as we read of the fathers. Indeed, the true Israelite is a man of peace, even when he goes forth to battle.

Once he finds himself in the thick of battle, this knight sets aside his previous gentleness, as if to say, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord; am I not disgusted with your enemies?” These men at once fall violently upon the foe, regarding them as so many sheep. No matter how outnumbered they are, they never regard these as fierce barbarians or as awe-inspiring hordes. Nor do they presume on their own strength, but trust in the Lord of armies to grant them the victory. They are mindful of the words of Maccabees, “It is simple enough for a multitude to be vanquished by a handful. It makes no difference to the God of heaven whether he grants deliverance by the hands of few or many; for victory in war is not dependent on a big army, and bravery is the gift of heaven.” On numerous occasions they had seen one man pursue a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight.

Thus in a wonderous and unique manner they appear gentler than lambs, yet fiercer than lions. I do not know if it would be more appropriate to refer to them as monks or as soldiers, unless perhaps it would be better to recognize them as being both. Indeed they lack neither monastic meekness nor military might. What can we say of this, except that this has been done by the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes. These are the picked troops of God, whom he has recruited from the ends of the earth; the valiant men of Israel chosen to guard well and faithfully that tomb which is the bed of the true Solomon, each man sword in hand, and superbly trained to war.

Chapter 5 – The Temple of Jerusalem

Their quarters indeed are in the very temple of Jerusalem, which is not as vast as the ancient masterpiece of Solomon, but is no less glorious. Truly all the magnificence of the first temple lay in perishable gold and silver, in polished stones and precious woods; whereas all the beauty and gracious charming adornment of its present counterpart is the religious fervor of its occupants and by their well-disciplined behavior. In the former, one could contemplate all sorts of beautiful colors, while in the latter one is able to venerate all sorts of virtues and good works. Indeed holiness is the fitting ornament for God’s house. One is able to delight there in splendid merits rather than in shining marble, and to be captivated by pure hearts rather than by gilded paneling.

Of course the facade of this temple is adorned, but with weapons rather than with jewels, and in place of the ancient golden crowns, its walls are hung round about with shields. In place of candlesticks, censers and ewers, this house is well furnished with saddles, bits and lances. By all these signs our knights clearly show that they are animated by the same zeal for the house of God which of old passionately inflamed their leader himself when he armed his most holy hands, not indeed with a sword, but with a whip. Having fashioned this from some lengths of cord, he entered the temple and ejected the merchants, scattered the coins of the money changers, and overturned the chairs of the pigeon venders, considering it most unfitting to defile this house of prayer by such traffic.

Moved therefore by their King’s example, his devoted soldiers consider that it is even more shameful and infinitely more intolerable for a holy place to be polluted by pagans than to be crowded with merchants. Once they have installed themselves in this holy house with their horses and their weapons, cleansed it and the other holy places of every un-Christian stain, and cast out the tyrannical horde, they occupy themselves day and night in both pious exercises and practical work. They are especially careful to honor the temple of God with zealous and sincere reverence, offering by their devout service, not the flesh of animals according to the ancient rites, but true peace offerings of brotherly love, devoted obedience and voluntary poverty.

10. These events at Jerusalem have shaken the world. The islands hearken, and the people from afar give ear. They swarm forth from East and West, as a flood stream bringing glory to the nations and a rushing river gladdening the city of God. What could be more profitable and pleasant to behold than seeing such a multitude coming to reinforce the few? What, if not the twofold joy of seeing the conversion of these former impious rogues, sacrilegious thieves, murderers, perjurers and adulterers? A twofold joy and a twofold benefit, since their countrymen are as glad to be rid of them as their new comrades are to receive them. Both sides have profited from this exchange, since the latter are strengthened and the former are now left in peace. Thus Egypt rejoices in their conversion and departure while Mount Sion rejoices and the daughters of Juda are glad to acquire these new protectors. The former glory in being delivered from their hands, while the latter have every reason to expect deliverance by means of these same hands. The former gladly see their cruel despoilers depart, while the latter gladly welcome their faithful defenders; so that the one is agreeably heartened, while the other is profitably abandoned.

This is the revenge which Christ contrives against his enemies, to triumph powerfully and gloriously over them by their own means. Indeed, it is both a happy and fitting thing that those who have so long fought against him should at last fight for him. Thus he recruits his soldiers among his foes, just as he once turned Saul the persecutor into Paul the preacher. Therefore I am not surprised that, as our Savior himself has affirmed, the court of heaven takes more joy in the conversion of one sinner than in the virtues of many just men who have no need of conversion. Certainly the conversion of so many sinners and evil doers will now do as much good as their former misdeeds did harm.

11. Hail then, holy city, sanctified by the Most High for his own tabernacle in order that such a generation might be saved in and through you! Hail, city of the great King, source of so many joyous and unheard-of marvels! Hail mistress of nations and queen of provinces, heritage of patriarchs, mother of apostles and prophets, source of the faith and glory of the Christian people! If God has permitted you to be so often besieged, it has only been to furnish brave men an occasion for valor and immortality.

Hail promised land, source of milk and honey for your ancient inhabitants, now become the source of healing grace and vital sustenance for the whole earth! Yes, I say, you are that good and excellent soil which received into its fruitful depths the heavenly seed from the heart of the eternal Father. What a rich harvest of martyrs you have produced from that heavenly seed! Your fertile soil has not failed to furnish splendid examples of every Christian virtue for the whole earth—some bearing fruit thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundredfold. Therefore those who have seen you are most happily filled with the great abundance of your sweetness and are well nourished on your munificent bounty. Everywhere they go they publish the fame of your great goodness and relate the splendors of your glory to those who have never seen it, proclaiming the marvels accomplished in you even to the ends of the earth.

Indeed, glorious things are told of you, city of God! Now then we will set forth something of the delights in which you abound, for the praise and glory of your name.

Angels in Art – Archangels

The archangels alone have names, and being known to us by them, as well as in connection with certain important events in heaven and on earth, we involuntarily think of them with a more intimate and, at the same time, a more reverent and sympathetic feeling than we can possibly have for the numberless nameless angels of the heavenly choir.

In works of Art, these last are always beautiful, always smiling, and ever ready to appear in greater or lesser numbers whenever any notable religious event is taking place, thus apparently justifying those who believe that we are always surrounded by these celestial beings. They are a most decorative audience of witnesses, and when they are playing upon their musical instruments, or with open lips and upturned, rapturous eyes are singing praises to God, they contribute an enchanting element to the representation.

But the story of the archangels and their wonderful deeds, as told in Scripture and in the sacred legends, impresses us with a vivid sense of their marvellous power and wisdom, as well as of their tender sympathy for the human beings whom they protected and served in their office of guardians and defenders. The official duties that have been assigned them by the theologians have the effect of giving them a place, so to speak, in which we may think of them; and this serves to make them more positively existent to our minds than other angels are. In comparison with such a personality as we must involuntarily give to Saint Michael, the hovering, musical angels are so intangible, such veritable airy visions, that they elude all practical thought of them, and appear to be evolved upon occasion from the air into which they vanish.

Michael (like unto God) is the captain-general and leader of the heavenly host; the protector of the Hebrew nation, and the conqueror of the hosts of hell; the lord and guardian of souls, and the patron saint and prince of the Church militant. His attributes are the sceptre, the sword, and the scales.

Gabriel (God is my strength) is the guardian of the celestial treasury; a bearer of important messages; the angel of the Annunciation, and the preceptor of the Patriarch Joseph. His symbol is the lily.

Raphael (the medicine of God) is the chief of guardian angels, and was the conductor of the young Tobias. He bears the staff and gourd of a pilgrim.

Uriel (the light of God) is regent of the sun, and was the teacher of Esdras. His symbols are a roll and book.

Chamuel (one who sees God) is believed by some to be the angel who wrestled with Jacob, and who appeared to Christ during the agony in the garden. Others believe the latter to have been Gabriel. Chamuel bears a cup and staff.

Jophiel (the beauty of God) is the guardian of the Tree of Knowledge, who drove Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; the protector of seekers for truth; the preceptor of the sons of Noah; the enemy of those who pursue vain knowledge. His attribute is a flaming sword.

Zadkiel (the righteousness of God) is sometimes said to have stayed the hand of Abraham from the sacrifice of Isaac, while others believe this to have been the work of Michael. The sacrificial knife is the symbol of Zadkiel.

When the archangels are represented merely as such, without reference to their distinctive offices, they are in complete armor, holding swords with the points upwards, and sometimes bearing trumpets also. They are of a twofold nature, since they are powers, as are the princedoms, and fulfil the duties of messengers and ministers, as do the angels.

Although each of the seven archangels has been many times represented in works of Art, I know of no example in which they are seen together, and can be distinguished by name. There are occasional instances of the representation of seven angels, blowing trumpets, which are intended to illustrate the text in Revelation, “And I saw the seven angels which stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets.”

In pictures of the crucifixion, and of the Virgin with the body of her dead son, known as the Pietà, the instruments of the Passion are frequently borne by seven angels, and the same number appear in pictures of the last judgment. But as neither the Eastern or Western Church acknowledged the seven archangels, it is probable that these pictures represent the angels of Revelation.

A most interesting example of artistic symbolism is seen in a picture painted in 1352 by Taddeo Gaddi, and now in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence. Here seven angels attend on Saint Thomas Aquinas, and bear the symbols of the distinguished virtues of this reverend and learned saint. The symbols are a church – Religion; a crown and sceptre – Power; a book – Knowledge; a cross and shield – Faith; an olive branch – Peace; flames of fire – Piety and Charity; and a lily – Purity.

The Hebrews believed that Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel sustain the throne of God. The first three are reverenced as saints in the Catholic Church; and their divine achievements and celestial beauty have been a fruitful inspiration to painters and sculptors, resulting in the creation of many immortal works of art.

There have been many curious conceits introduced into some of the early religious pictures, and I have seen two instances in which little seraphim and angels are perched on trees, near the Virgin and Holy Child. The idea seems to be that these “Birds of God” – as Dante calls the angels – are making music and singing for the Divine Infant, some of them also praying for his solace.

Occasionally a series of pictures called the Acts of the Holy Angels has been painted. It consists of eleven strictly Scriptural subjects, usually as follows, but varied in some instances by the introduction of other motives of the same character, as, for example, the angel appearing to Hagar and to Elijah:

I – The Fall of Lucifer.
II – The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
III – The Visit of Three Angels to Abraham.
IV – The Angel Preventing the Sacrifice of Isaac.
V – The Angel Wrestling with Jacob.
VI – Jacob’s Dream.
VII – The Deliverance of the Three Children from the Fiery Furnace.
VIII – The Angel Slays the Host of Sennacherib.
IX – The Angel Protects Tobias.
X – The Punishment of Heliodorus.
XI – The Annunciation to the Virgin.

I have already said that of the seven archangels to whom Milton refers, when he says:

“The Seven
Who in God’s presence, nearest to his throne,
Stand ready at command,”

but three are recognized by the Christian Church; and when three archangels are seen together, they are Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. In the Greek Church this representation is regarded as typical of the military, civil, and religious power, and, accordingly, the costumes indicate a soldier, a prince, and a priest.

But Uriel has not been entirely ignored, even by the Christian Church, and an early tradition teaches that this archangel, and not Christ, accompanied the two disciples on their way to Emmaus. In the book of Esdras we read, “The angel that was sent unto me, whose name was Uriel.” His office was that of interpreter of judgments and prophecies, which Milton recognizes thus:

“Uriel, for thou of those Seven Spirits that stand
In sight of God’s high throne, gloriously bright,
The first art wont his great authentic will
Interpreter through highest heaven to bring.”

In several ancient churches four archangels are represented in the architectural decoration. An example in which they are very splendid is that in the mosaics above the choir arch in the Cathedral of Monreale, Palermo. These colossal, armed figures are impressive, not only from their size, but also because of their apparent realization of their illustrious rank in the order of created beings.

More frequently the four archangels are so represented as to appear to sustain the roof, or vault, in churches where the figure of Christ, or his symbol, the Lamb, is pictured as the central decoration. These are clearly intended to personate the four “who sustain the throne of God.” Their symbols are sceptres or lances; at times they stand erect, like faithful, watchful guardians; again with arms outstretched they seem to uphold the vault on which Christ is portrayed.

The representations of three archangels are more numerous than the above, and are variously treated. In some ancient pictures they have no wings, and appear like men of princely rank and noble character. I have seen the visitors of Abraham thus represented, which accords with the Hebrew idea of angels at the period when Abraham was thus honored; for, as I have mentioned, it was not until after the captivity, when the Egyptian custom of giving wings to their representations of messengers had been observed, that the cherubim and seraphim covered the mercy-seat with their wings.

One of the best known and most beautiful pictures of these angelic visitors is that by Raphael in the fourth arcade of the Loggia of the Vatican.

Angels in Art, by Clara Erskine Clement

cover of the ebook 'Angels in Art', by Clara Erskine Clement

Angels in Art – Angels in Pictures of the Virgin Mary

The pictures of the Madonna, or Virgin Mary, may be divided into two classes; the devotional, which illustrate the doctrines or teaching of the early Church, and the historical, or the representation of the actual scenes in the life of the Mother of Christ.

When the Virgin is represented wearing a crown or bearing a sceptre, and attended by worshipping angels, she is in the character of the Queen of Angels. The earlier examples of these pictures, as seen in the Florentine Academy, and in the Churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce in Florence, are charming in their simplicity, and represent a majestic and mystical womanhood, which entitles them to consideration as works of Art. But later, especially in the seventeenth century, these pictures degenerated into portraits of the self-conscious, unintelligent prettiness of the models from whom they were painted. This subject was a favorite one with certain decadent artists, and the contrast between the most ancient and the later pictures of it, gives one a strong impression of the lack of reverence or ideality in men who could thus represent that holy woman, whose heart found expression in her beautiful hymn, beginning, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” Saint Luke 1:46. These pictures have neither the humility, the intellectual power, nor the sublime faith which the face of the Virgin Mary should express.

A favorite devotional picture was the Coronation of the Virgin. This representation is an emblem of the Church Triumphant, and is one of the most beautiful, as it was one of the most approved, of the Middle Ages. It appeals to all hearts, since it pictures the reunion of the Mother and Son in heaven, after their separation by his death, and shows him no longer despised and rejected, but reigning in the fullness of power, and exalting his mother above men and angels, welcoming her to his throne, and placing a glorious crown upon her head.

In the most ancient Coronations, which are very interesting, no angels appear. From the time of Giotto, the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, angels were witnesses of this scene. Fra Angelico’s Coronation, in the Louvre, in which the Virgin kneels to be crowned, has a group of musical angels on each side. One of the most interesting pictures of this subject that I have seen is in the Academy of Venice, by Vivarini, an artist of the island of Murano, who lived in the fifteenth century.

It is a very large picture, having a throne in the centre, magnificently ornamented and upheld by six pillars on a splendid pedestal. Christ and the Virgin are seated on the throne, he already crowned, and engaged in placing the crown on the head of Mary. The celestial dove hovers between them, and the Heavenly Father appears above, and rests a hand on the shoulder of each. Above are nine choirs of angels; nearest are the glowing seraphim and cherubim having wings but otherwise so indistinct as to be formless; above these are thrones, holding the globe of sovereignty; to the right are dominations, virtues, powers, and to the left princedoms, archangels, and angels. In the lower portion of the same picture are prophets and Patriarchs with the Hebrew Scriptures, the Apostles with the Gospel, saints and martyrs, virgins and holy women, lovely children bearing the cross, nails, spear, and crown of thorns, and the Evangelists and Fathers of the Church. There are at least seventy heads in this picture without the angels; the children are beautiful, and all are finished with great delicacy and care. It is an invaluable example of symbolic art, as well as an exponent of an entire system of theology.

The Coronation was often a most splendid picture, as it warranted the use of magnificent draperies and other accessories. It was also a joyous picture. Every figure introduced had an air of happiness, and the angels were especially glad.

In the picture known as the Mother of Mercy, the Virgin is often attended by angels. In ancient pictures and bas-reliefs of this subject, she was frequently standing and wearing a long, full cloak, like that of Saint Ursula, which was held aside by two angels, thus disclosing groups of kneeling suppliants, praying to her for mercy.

Very often in this picture the Virgin holds the Infant Jesus in her arms. In other fine examples, notably in the masterpiece of Fra Bartolommeo, in the Church of Saint Romano, in Lucca, the figure of Christ surrounded by angels is seen in the clouds, as if he aided in these works of compassion. Such pictures are numerous in hospitals and charitable institutions, especially in those that are in the care of the Order of Mercy, where they are singularly appropriate. A bas-relief above the entrance to the Scuola della Caritas, in Venice, is a fine example of this subject.

Pictures of the so-called Pietà, represent the Virgin holding the body of the dead Christ on her knees. The greatest artists whose works are known to us have represented this subject in sculpture and painting. When it is a strictly devotional work, the Virgin, the Christ, and mourning angels are the only figures admissible. There are many examples in which there are no angels, the Mother being alone with the dead Christ.

The Pietà by Francia, in the National Gallery, is very beautiful in sentiment, and in execution is full of the tenderness of this master. The Christ is supported by two angels, and the Virgin, with an expression of anguish, seems to look at the beholder as if beseeching sympathy.

In the sublimely pathetic marble group, by Michael Angelo, in a chapel of the Vatican, there are no angels, but we have engravings of another Pietà by this master, in which the Virgin sits at the foot of the cross, her eyes raised and her arms extended towards heaven, while two angels support the Christ, seated lower down, and leaning against the knees of the Virgin. According to the custom of Michael Angelo, these angels have no wings, but their expression is such as would make it impossible to mistake them for earthly children.

There were no pictures of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary until the seventeenth century, when Spanish and Italian artists vied with each other in representing this subject, and these works may be said to abound in angels.

When the Virgin stands on the moon with full sunlight surrounding her, and wearing the crown of twelve stars, she is the personification of the woman described in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin was much in favor with the Spanish Church before its confirmation by the bull of Pope Paul V. in 1617, which was welcomed in Seville, not only by the most solemn religious services, but also by the booming of cannon, and the celebration of bull-fights, tournaments, and banquets. Spain and all its colonies were placed under the protection of the Immaculate Conception. Even now, almost three centuries after this event, it is not unusual for Spaniards to use the salute, “Ave Maria purissima!” the response being, “Sin peccado concepida!”

Not long after the publication of the bull, Pacheco laid down rules for the representation of this subject in Art, which have been conscientiously followed. The Virgin is very young, her hair golden, her robe white, and her mantle blue. The angels near her bear roses, lilies, and palms. She stands on the moon, wears the starry crown, and the vanquished dragon is beneath her. As the Franciscans were always enthusiastically devoted to this dogma, it was usual to represent the girdle of the Virgin by the cord of the Franciscans.

Murillo, the painter of this subject par excellence, was not strictly bound by Pacheco’s rules. He adhered to the colors prescribed for the drapery; he varied the tint of the hair, and often was not careful to represent the cord of Saint Francis. He never omitted the moon, but it was sometimes full rather than in the crescent, and he pointed the horns upward, while Pacheco directed them to point downward; and he usually omitted the starry crown. But so satisfactory were Murillo’s Immaculate Conceptions that he was never accused of being unorthodox.

Other pictures of the Madonna, by this great Spanish master, are wanting in the characteristics which he invariably gives the Virgin in this subject. Others are commonplace, and might be duplicated among Spanish peasant women; but the Virgin of his Conceptions are ideal. Spotlessly pure, full of grace and repose, exquisite in refinement and delicacy, her hands folded on her breast, and her sweetly serious eyes raised as in prayer, she seems a fitting companion to the angels about her, but all unsuited to the sufferings of the life before her.

Murillo painted this picture twenty-five times, and no two of these works are exactly the same, although the differences are sometimes slight. The angels are so numerous that they seem to fill all space, and to be coming forward in still greater numbers out of the depths of the sky. If the dragon is there, he is concealed by these lovely, spiritual attendants on the queen of their order.

Guido Reni painted several pictures of this subject which was well suited to the master of the Aurora, and afforded full play to his ideal of beauty, and his delicacy of execution.

But it was in the Spanish school that these pictures were multiplied, and this is not strange when we remember that every candidate admitted to the academy of painting in Seville was required to declare his full belief in “the most pure conception of Our Lady.”

Mr. Stirling, in his handbook of Spain, speaks of a Conception by Roelas, painted before the time of Murillo, which he calls “equal to Guido.” Velasquez also painted a fine Conception, probably before the rules of Pacheco were known, as the Virgin’s robe is violet, and she has no unusual beauty. It is, however, a solemn and remarkable work in the bold, early style of this great artist.

In the ancient pictures of the Enthroned Madonna there are always attendant angels; in some later works they are omitted. In this subject the Madonna holds the Infant Jesus on her lap, and is surrounded by angels. The earliest Enthroned Madonnas represent the Virgin seated between the Archangels Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel, as symbolic of life and death. This representation dates from the eighth century in the carved ivories of the Greek Church, and was repeated in sculpture and glass painting during six or seven hundred years.

Later Saint Gabriel appears in the Annunciation only, but as Saint Michael was the guardian of Jesus and his mother in their earthly life, he is often beside them, as well as Saint Raphael, the guardian spirit of all human beings. Perugino presents both these guardian archangels in his lovely picture in the National Gallery.

This is one of the rare examples in which the three archangels are seen together, each with his appropriate symbol.

In the usual picture of this subject the Madonna is literally enthroned, her throne being rich and decorative. Raphael, however, placed her on the clouds, the child standing beside her, and the angels below, rather than above them. This might be called the Madonna in Glory, although she is seated on the clouds as on a throne.

Angels were represented as attendant upon the Virgin very early in the history of Art. Even the ancient mosaics of Ravenna show them about her throne, and as her office of Queen of Angels came to be more and more considered, angels were represented as adoring her, sustaining her throne, and performing a variety of services, the most charming being that of the musical angels.

When Art reached the height of the fifteenth century, the angelic choristers were exquisite in beauty and in sentiment, as they knelt or stood near the Virgin, or sat upon the steps of her throne, playing upon lute and pipe, or singing as only angels can.

There are so-called half-length Enthroned Madonnas, in which the Virgin and Child and angels alone appear. Occasionally the Infant Saint John the Baptist is introduced in these pictures, as in the illustration here given, after Botticelli.

The picture known as the Mater Amabilis, in which the Madonna caresses the Child, or tenderly gazes at him, rarely has the angelic attendants, but Gian Bellini filled the background of such a picture with winged cherub heads.

There are two classes of pictures of the Madonna and Child, in which the little Saint John Baptist is present. When Saint John adores Jesus, kisses his feet, or in any way seems to recognize his superiority, it is a purely devotional picture, while a great number of others are simply domestic, friendly scenes. In all of these angels appear in varying numbers.

An exquisite picture, by Filippino Lippi, shows the kneeling Virgin adoring the Child, who rests on the ground, while near by the little Saint John also kneels. The group is surrounded by five angels, one of whom scatters roses over the Infant, while the others worship him with folded hands.

Among the historical and legendary subjects illustrative of the life of the Virgin, are those connected with her parents, Joachim and Anna, her Nativity and Presentation in the Temple, and her life there, her Marriage and all the scenes preceding the Annunciation. Of the latter I have written in connection with the Angel Gabriel. Many of these pictures are very beautiful, and angels are frequently introduced in them.

After the Annunciation follows the Visitation, or the Salutation of Elizabeth. I know of but one fine picture of this scene – by Pinturicchio – in which angels are present at the meeting of the Holy Women. It is a poetic conception, and the humility of the two angels, with downcast eyes and folded hands, gives them the appearance of attendants on the journey of the Virgin, rather than that of witnesses of the Salutation.

The Nativity of Christ, the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Adoration of the Magi – Wise Men – have been represented in a variety of ways, and are subjects easily distinguished. The first two are most effective when treated with perfect simplicity, with no accessories unsuited to the humble condition of Joseph and Mary and the Shepherds; with such scenes the presence of the angels is in perfect harmony. The Nativity by Albertinelli, in the Uffizi Gallery, and the Adoration of the Shepherds by Correggio, in the Dresden gallery, are fine examples of these subjects.

The Adoration of the Magi, or Kings, as the legends call them, admits of all the splendor that an artist desires to depict. Many pictures of this scene display magnificent collections of vases, ewers, and other vessels of gold and silver, while the costumes, jewelled diadems, and chains of the Kings, are as gorgeous in texture and color as Veronese, Rubens, Rembrandt, and other artists could make them. Veronese perhaps excelled all others in making his Adoration of the Kings, in the Dresden gallery, an imposing and gorgeous pageant.

Angels are by no means a necessary part of this scene, but are always present in the earliest representations of it. A poetic element is imparted to this picture when the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus to the Shepherds is introduced in the background; or when the star which directed the Magi in their course appears in the sky, surrounded by angel heads.

In representations of the Flight into Egypt, which Joseph had been directed to make, by an angel in a dream, these heavenly attendants are seen bringing fruits and flowers to the travellers, pitching their tents, leading the ass on which the Virgin rides, watching over them by night, and serving them by day.

So in the Repose in Egypt, one of the most charming of these kindred subjects, the attendant angels are a delightful feature, and so varied are their occupations, and so fanciful the conceits of the painters of this scene, that many pages might be devoted to a description of them. For example, Van Dyck, in his picture in the Ashburton collection, has represented the Virgin seated under a spreading tree, holding the Child, while a number of angels dance in a round to the music made by other angels in the clouds above.

Lucas Cranach shows the angels washing linen; Albert Dürer represents Saint Joseph as shaping a piece of wood with his axe; some of the many angels present gather up the chips and put them in baskets; others dance and frolic merrily about the group, while still other more serious angels, probably guardian spirits, devoutly folding their hands, stand or kneel around the cradle of the Infant Jesus.

Titian, in one of his pictures of this subject, introduced a little angel who waters the ass in a stream. Rembrandt gives his Repose the air of a gipsy camp, which is emphasized by the fact that the only light comes from a lantern hung on a tree. I do not know who painted a Repose that I have seen, to which a very human feeling is imparted by Saint Joseph; he is shaking his fist at the ass, which has opened its mouth to bray.

In the almost numberless representations of the Madonna and Child, and of the Holy Family, angels are frequently introduced. These subjects are so easily recognized, and, speaking generally, are so simply treated as to require no comment here.

I have referred to the legend that an angel announced the approach of death to the Virgin Mary, and have explained the difference between the symbolism of this subject, and that of the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus, all of which is made clear by our illustration.

In pictures of the death scene there are always angels present, in greater or lesser numbers. In the representations of the Assumption of the Virgin she is sometimes borne upward by angels, and again she ascends without aid. In all cases she is attended by choirs of angels, as in the magnificent Assumption by Titian, which is the pride of the Academy in Venice.

In the purely devotional Assumptions such as that sculptured above the portal of the Cathedral of Florence, the Santa Maria del Fiore, the Virgin is within the mandorla, or almond-shaped aureole. She is clothed in white and wears a veil and crown; her hands are joined and she ascends in a glory of light, surrounded by angels. The only special difference in these sculptures is the position of the Virgin, who sometimes sits, and again stands upright, in the mandorla. When the representation corresponds to this, except that the Virgin has no crown, it may more properly be called the Glorification of the Virgin.

Besides the representations of angels who make a part of the devotional and historical scenes in the lives of Christ and the Virgin, of the Evangelists, Apostles, and Fathers of the Church, there are a great number that illustrate the legends of the saints. For example, that of Saint Cecilia, whose music charmed even the angelic choirs, so that the angels brought to her the roses of Paradise, is one of the most beautiful.

After the death of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, angels bore her body to the top of Mount Sinai, as represented in our illustration by Mücke.

When Saint Christina was beaten and thrown into a dungeon, angels bound up her wounds, and Saint Agatha was comforted by them in her prison.

These are a few examples of the numerous appearances of angels in the legends of the saints.

Perhaps there are no artistic representations that appeal to a greater number of people, of all possible types, than do those of angels, in both sculpture and painting. One reason for this seems to me to be that angels represent our highest ideal of created beings, beings that we can only realize through the power of imagination, either our own imagination or that of another. It may be that of a writer, who, in a vivid word-picture, conjures up before us a vision of beings that we have not seen, as do Dante and Milton. Or it may be a sculptor or painter who, rendering his own ideal, helps us to see with his eyes and to accept or reject his work as it appeals to, or repels us.

This recalls the words of Ruskin when he says that the noblest use of imagination is to “enable us to bring sensibly to our sight the things which are recorded as belonging to our future state, or as invisibly surrounding us in this. It is given us, that we may imagine the cloud of witnesses in heaven and earth, and see, as if they were now present, the souls of the righteous waiting for us; that we may conceive the great army of the inhabitants of heaven, and discover among them those whom we most desire to be with forever; that we may be able to vision forth the ministry of angels beside us, and see the chariots of fire on the mountains that gird us round; but, above all, to call up the scenes and facts in which we are commanded to believe, and be present, as if in the body, at every recorded event of the history of the Redeemer.”

With such a thought in mind, it is well worth while to study the various types of angels which are a rich portion of the legacies of the artists to the world. It is surely right to attempt to imagine the glories of a sphere beyond this, a heaven of purity and glory. One of the most powerful aids to this imagination is the contemplation of religious pictures, especially those that were executed with such reverence and sincerity as make them appear to reproduce actual scenes, and, for the time, carry us out of ourselves and into the imaginary earth and heaven of the master whose works we study.

Thus we may leave this brief review of the subject of Angels in Art, feeling that its further development by each reader for himself is a pursuit in harmony with Saint Paul’s admonition: “Whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Angels in Art – Pictures Which Illustrate Both Scripture and Legend

In whatever light one may regard the sacred legends of the early Church, it is not possible to understand the representations of angels in Art without some knowledge of these ancient traditions. One who knows nothing of them, finds himself strangely puzzled and disconcerted, before the almost numberless legendary subjects which he sees in churches and galleries.

For example, if one knows nothing of the legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, how can he explain the picture of her mystic marriage to the Infant Jesus, which typifies her renunciation of all earthly things, and her complete dedication of herself to the service of Christ and his Church?

Saint Catherine is habitually represented with a wheel beside her. When the wheel is whole, it is a symbol of the torture with which she was threatened by the Emperor Maximin; when broken, it is a token of the miracle by which she was saved from a horrible death.

During the many years that have passed since my first visit to the gallery of the Louvre, I have retained a vivid remembrance of my discontent before the beautiful picture of Saint Margaret. The pleasure that I should have taken in the lovely face and exquisite figure of the saint, in the graceful drapery, and other details of this celebrated picture, was utterly lost through my ignorance. I did not know why she was standing on the frightful dragon, with his horrible mouth wide open, and his terrible claw raised as if to clutch the beautiful maiden.

As a consequence of this experience, I resolved to study the religious symbolism of the early Christian Church, as I had already studied that of the religion of the classic ages. How frequently now, as then, I meet those who perfectly understand the significance of the head of Medusa, or the lyre of Orpheus, who have no conception of the reason for the representation of a church in the hand of Saint Jerome, or of the serpent in the chalice of Saint John the Evangelist.

There are numerous pictures, in which angels are introduced, that are founded on the Scripture story, but do not follow it strictly. Many subjects are so suggestive of the presence of angels, that there is a legitimate artistic license for introducing them into these scenes.

For example, the Scripture account of the ministration of angels to Jesus, after the Temptation and after the Agony in the Garden, naturally suggests their presence on other occasions of his suffering, and renders their introduction quite permissible.

Thus, in the picture of Christ after the Flagellation, in the Monasterio Maggiore in Milan, by Luini, which is full of the wonderful tenderness of that master, there is no angel; while Velasquez, in his picture of the same subject, which is in a private collection in England, introduces such a presence.

So in the story of the Ecce Homo no angel is mentioned, and the usual devotional picture represents the half figure of Christ, or the head alone, wearing the crown of thorns. The historical picture portrays the scene before Pilate, with a number of figures. Some artists, however, have presented this subject differently, as in the picture by Moretto, in the Museo Tosi in Brescia.

This shows the Saviour seated upon the steps of a building, probably that in which was the “common hall,” in which the soldiers crowned him. He still holds the reed sceptre, though his hands are bound; the cross is on the ground before him, and his head is bowed upon his breast. On the steps behind him, and a little above, stands a weeping angel, holding the garment of Christ as if about to wrap it around him. The expression in the convulsed face of the angel is remarkable. It is as if he endeavored to restrain his tears, but could not. A much later picture by Landelle, called the Angel of Tears, is similar to that of Moretto in sentiment; in it a weeping angel kneels before a crown of thorns, his tears falling over his cheeks.

Angels are also represented in pictures of the Crucifixion; in fact, they were never absent in the earliest pictures of this subject, although they were but few in number, and were extremely realistic in their treatment, being precisely like ordinary men with wings added to their shoulders. Later their number was largely increased, and they became less human and extremely passionate in the expression of their sorrow in beholding the agony of Jesus. Giotto and Cavallini introduce an element of absurdity into this momentous scene, by representing extremely human little angels as tearing open their plump little breasts in their despair.

This extreme realism was sometimes carried to the extent of picturing angels with chalices, catching the blood which flowed from the hands and side of Jesus. In accordance with true symbolism, a female figure, impersonating the Church, should hold the chalice to the side alone.

Duccio da Siena, a generation earlier than Giotto, displayed a more subtle perception, and grouped a numerous company of angels in a half circle above the cross, in his famous picture of the Crucifixion, which is one of the treasures of his native city. Two of them kiss the dead hands; others cover their faces; some have thrown themselves down prone upon the clouds; while still others, as if mindful of their duties as messengers, are flying upwards to bear the news to the courts above.

In a few Crucifixions, in which the three crosses appear, angels are receiving the soul of the penitent thief, while demons quarrel over that of the unrepentant criminal. Unpleasant as this treatment is, it is the logical result of the belief that a good or bad angel attended every death, and bore the soul to Saint Michael for judgment, as is depicted in many ancient works of art. The spirits of the blessed are tenderly carried skyward, but the translation of lost souls is attended with some revolting details.

Gradually fewer angels were represented at the Crucifixion, and an apparently unwritten law limited them to two or three with chalices; indeed, for a time this scene was far less frequently pictured.

Luini and Gaudenzio Ferrari, Lombard painters of the fifteenth century, again portrayed so many angels, and such numberless little winged heads, that the upper portions of their Crucifixions were alive with them. These artists, with their refined tenderness of manner, created angels that have rarely, if ever, been excelled in what may be termed a genuine angelic quality. Especially is this true of Gaudenzio; the lamenting angels above his Crucifixion, in the church at Varallo, are among the most satisfactory representations of angels that occur in any picture of this scene.

If the Resurrection of Christ is to be represented, the angel is appropriately present; but as no account of the scene is given in the Bible, and no one witnessed it, each artist who portrayed it was at liberty to give his imagination full play in his work. For a long time there were no pictures of this subject, its treatment being confined to carvings in ivory, on shrines and other small objects. The greater number of artists apparently esteemed it as too sacred, as well as too tremendous, a subject to be adequately conceived and satisfactorily presented.

So far as I can learn, the Resurrection was first painted by Giotto, as one of a series of small pictures upon a press for the sacred vessels in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence; it is now in the Academy of that city. In this picture there is no angel. Fra Angelico represents the Maries talking with the angel, while Christ is suspended in air above them. By degrees the designs for this subject were modified, until, in the picture in the Vatican which has been attributed to Perugino, the rising Christ, bearing the banner of victory, is worshipped by two angels. This work is now believed to be by Raphael, as his authenticated studies for it are in the Oxford Collection.

Perhaps it is to be regretted that the illustration of this supremely mystical subject was ever attempted in Art. I cannot imagine that any existing picture of it should be seriously approved as a whole, although certain figures or details may be sincerely admired.

The Ascension of Christ is another mystical subject, which was long unattempted in a realistic portrayal of the scene as described in the New Testament. Ancient ivories show Jesus as grasping the hand of God extended to him through the clouds, and being thus drawn up from earth. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Scripture expression, “he was taken up,” was given a literal meaning, and the figure of Jesus was represented in the mandorla, the oblong glory in which Christ, the Virgin, or saints are represented when ascending to heaven, which was borne by angels to a certain height, when a cloud received him out of sight.

As with the Resurrection so with the Ascension, Giotto was bold enough to attempt representing the scene in accordance with the scriptural description, and painted his idea of it on the walls of the Arena Chapel, in Padua. In the centre of the lower part of the picture are two angels, who, with raised hands, direct the attention of the kneeling Virgin, and groups of Apostles, also kneeling, to Christ, already soaring far above them, accompanied by numerous worshipping angels, who are on both sides, at some distance apart from him.

This fresco is much injured, but is highly valued for the sublimity of its composition. No angel aids Christ to rise. He is apparently able to fulfil his own words, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

Many pictures of the Ascension are seen in galleries, and it became a favorite subject for the decoration of church vaults and cupolas, especially in Greek churches. Correggio’s Ascension, in the Church of San Giovanni, in Parma, is famous wherever Christian art is studied. This master depicted numberless little angels flying here and there, riding on clouds or mischievously peeping from behind them, chasing each other as in some boisterous game, and by their levity and frolicsomeness destroying all seriousness of effect, in spite of the solemnity of the Evangelists and Reverend Fathers in the angles of the vault below.

This picture must not, however, be taken as irreverent. Evidently Correggio wished to convey the idea that the Ascension of Christ was an occasion of joy to the angels, to whom his earthly pilgrimage and sufferings had given a certain seriousness, not sorrow, because angels are happy, and not subject to human wants and weakness.

Now the great work was accomplished, and even the angels were rejoicing that the Son should again resume his place at the right hand of the Father, until the time when he should come again with glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead.

One readily perceives how rich a field for the artistic imagination these mystical subjects presented. But in a comprehensive study of them, it is curious to note the effect upon works of Art of the dogmas of the theologians, as they were promulgated from time to time. In some cases, especially in Spain, rules were prescribed for the manner in which religious subjects should be represented, and no artist dared depart from them.

In the representations of angels, however, there was a larger liberty than in the doctrinal subjects of religious art, and to this we owe the possession of many precious works of sculptors and painters, which are never outgrown, and of which we never weary.

Angels in Art – Pictures of Angels as Authorized by the Scriptures

Besides the representations of angels in art in accordance with the imagination of individual artists, there are two important classes of angelic subjects, one of which rests upon the authority of the Scriptures, and the other upon that of the sacred legends. A comprehensive treatment of these works would require several volumes of the size of this book; but I will here give a suggestive outline of them.

The first mention of angels in the Old Testament occurs in the third chapter of Genesis, when it is related that cherubims were placed at the east of the Garden of Eden, to keep the way to the Tree of Life. Good pictures of this subject are as rare as they are beautiful. In them the exquisite garden, the radiant cherubim, and the dazzling light from the flaming sword, combine in producing a glorious effect.

In connection with the story of Abraham, angels frequently appear. The sacrifice of Isaac is always an interesting subject, symbolizing, as it does, in the submission of Isaac, that of Jesus, and in the willingness of Abraham to give his son in sacrifice, that of the Divine Father to give his well-beloved Son for the salvation of men. The appearance of the angel to prevent the consummation of the sacrifice has been painted many times, notably by Andrea del Sarto, whose poetical pictures of this scene are in the Dresden and Madrid galleries.

The picture by Rembrandt is powerful, and painfully realistic. It is in the Hermitage at Saint Petersburg. The same scene in the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, is by Titian, and is among the famous works of this great master.

Our illustration after a picture by Il Sodoma, in the Cathedral of Pisa, is in the best style of that master, who has been called the pride of the Sienese school. His acknowledged power to render intense feeling is seen in the face of Abraham, while the angel is an example of his conception of beauty; the submissive Isaac, missing the pressure of his father’s hand from his shoulder, without changing his position, turns his eyes to discover the reason for the delay of the expected blow.

In the story of Hagar an angel twice appears, and one is surprised that these charming subjects have so rarely been painted, while the more disagreeable expulsion of Hagar from the home of her youth has been frequently represented; the picture of this scene by Guercino, in the Brera at Milan, is famous, and certainly tells the story of “Cast out the bondwoman and her son” with directness; but there is an element of vulgarity in it that so detracts from its good qualities as to make one wonder that it could have been so much admired.

A far more tender subject is that which pictures Hagar in the wilderness alone, and repentant of her fault, for which Sarah had chastened her; it is at this moment that the angel appears and commands her return to Abraham. A fine example of this rare subject by Pietro da Cortona is in the Belvedere, at Vienna. Rubens also painted this scene.

A picture that is even more pathetic represents Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness of Beersheba. Ishmael is fainting from thirst, and Hagar flings herself to the ground with the prayer, “Let me not see the death of the child,” when an angel appears to comfort her, and guide her to a hidden spring. The pathos of this scene must appeal to every mother, and a picture of it by Rembrandt is so fine that one can but regret that it is not in a public collection.

The visit of the three angels to Abraham is also a rare subject in Art. I have already referred to that painted by Raphael, in the Vatican. Murillo also represented it in a picture now in a private gallery in England. In neither of these pictures have the angels wings.

The three beautiful figures by Raphael, however, are not like any men whom we have seen; they impress one as beings of another and a far higher sphere than ours. Murillo, on the contrary, shows us three ordinary travellers, and but for the title of the picture, we should not suspect that these men were celestial visitors. A large picture of this subject by Rembrandt is one of the treasures of the Hermitage.

Jacob’s dream, with the ascending and descending angels, is an exquisite motive for illustration, and has been variously pictured. A single angel sometimes watches the sleeper, as if to inspire his dream and bring him a blessing; again, there are many angels, and again, but a small number, who move here and there, up and down, imparting a remarkable effect of airy, graceful motion. The ladder, too, is widely varied, being represented by one or several flights of steps, ascending to the clouds.

In the sixth arcade of the Vatican loggie is Raphael’s third and best representation of this dream. Here Jacob’s face is turned towards the ladder, on which are six angels; Jehovah appears above with outstretched arms, and surrounded by a glory. It is not one of the best of Raphael’s works, and, indeed, all representations of Jacob’s dream that I have seen, are, to my mind, insufficient when compared with that of Rembrandt, in the Dulwich gallery. This is a poem as essentially as it is a picture. A stream of dazzling light forms the ladder, up and down which float mystic, radiant angels. The whole impression is so like a dream, so intangible, and yet so apparent, that one wonders how Rembrandt, who so often dwelt upon the all too solid elements of his motives, here caught the innermost spirit of this most spiritual subject.

“The Comforting of Elijah” is a subject with rare possibilities, but has been seldom represented.

Rubens painted a picture of this scene as symbolical of the Lord’s Supper, the angel presenting to Elijah the bread and a chalice. Following a custom of some landscape painters who introduced a subject – mythological, historical, or Scriptural – into their pictures, Paul Potter represented the “Comforting of Elijah” in the foreground of one of his pictures. It also occurs in some ancient illuminated Bibles.

William Blake’s illustration of the text in Job, “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy,” is famous for the unusual character of the angels. Like many pictures by this poet, who was esteemed as half mad, it has an element of other worldliness which is rarely seen in works of his era. Of this especial picture Mrs. Jameson wrote: “His adoring angels float rather than fly, and, with their half liquid draperies, seem about to dissolve into light and love; and his rejoicing angels – behold them – sending up their voices with the morning stars, that, singing, in their glory, move.”

The Vision of Ezekiel, in the Pitti Gallery, in Florence, is, so far as I know, a unique representation of this subject. Raphael painted it for Count Ercolani in Bologna. It is mentioned as early as 1589, in the Inventory of the Tribune, and has been engraved and copied many times.

Jehovah is represented seated in a glory of cherubim’s heads, which are almost unnoticeable by reason of the exceeding brightness illustrative of the text, “And I saw as the color of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward. I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.” In accordance with this text also, Jehovah is nude in the upper portion of the figure, the lower portion being draped in purple. Near the Jehovah are the four animals symbolic of the evangelists, the cherub, the lion, the ox, and the eagle, not earthly creations, but mysterious and spiritual as they float along bearing the Messiah, while two small angels are near with outstretched arms.

The sky effects of this wonderful picture are fine; the gray clouds are rolling away, as if for the purpose of disclosing the vision. This picture has been criticised on account of the nude figure of Jehovah; it has been said to be a more proper representation of Jupiter than of the Almighty, but Raphael is justified by the text itself.

Perhaps no representation exists which more acceptably renders the symbolic nature of the Four Beasts than does this. The exact imitation of nature, which appeared later in works of Art, is entirely opposed to the true meaning of these emblems, which was sacred and mystical. The cherub typifies Saint Matthew, because his Gospel sets forth the human nature of Christ more forcibly than the divine. The lion was appropriate to Saint Mark, because he first speaks of “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” typical of the lion. The ox belongs to Saint Luke, since he dwells on the priesthood of Christ, the ox symbolizing sacrifice; the eagle to Saint John, as the emblem of his inspiration, by which he wrote so sublimely of the divinity of Jesus.

There are several other explanations of these symbols which are so often seen in works of Art. But in this especial picture of the “Vision of Ezekiel,” it would seem as if the throne of the Son of Man is composed of these mystic beasts, while the angels are attending him, and gaze into his face, as if watching for some service to be rendered.

When the Four Beasts are so pictured as to recall those who were full of eyes within, and rest not day and night, saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty” (Revelation 4:7), they fulfil the intention of the symbol of the early Church, as it was understood by those to whom it was sacred. But when, in the hands of an irreligious and realistic artist, they become “as the beasts of the field,” his work is but a travesty upon the mysterious religious symbols, which he thus debases.

The New Testament gives us a clearer idea of the nature and offices of angels than we obtain from the Hebrew Scriptures. We learn of their great numbers from the words of Jesus, “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53), and from Paul, when he speaks of the “innumerable company of angels.” In the Gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke we learn that they are superior to human affections, and not subject to change. “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God” (Matthew 22:30). “Neither can they die any more; for they are equal unto the angels” (Luke 20:36). By the words of Jesus, however, we are assured of the sympathy of angels in all that concerns our spiritual good. In Luke 15:10, Jesus says, “Likewise I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.”

The belief that angels bear the souls of the redeemed to heaven, rests largely on the declaration by Saint Luke that “the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom;” and in Hebrews 1:14, Saint Paul teaches that they are “sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation.”

In the annunciations of the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus, the angels were the messengers of God, as they so frequently were when they appeared in the Old Testament.

That angels are attendant on Christ is taught in the declaration of Saint Matthew that “the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels.” And again, “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him.”

That angels are deputed to perform such acts as make for the accomplishment of Christ’s mission is shown in Acts 5:19, when an angel liberated the Apostles from prison, and commanded them to “speak in the temple to the people all the words of life.”

When writing to the Romans, Saint Paul speaks of angels, principalities, and powers, thus enumerating the different orders of angels, and declares their inability to separate us from the love of God, thus implying that they can do nothing that does not accord with the will of the Almighty, that they have no power in themselves. Again, in writing to the Colossians, Saint Paul speaks of things “visible and invisible,” and enumerates thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, while to the Ephesians he declares that God has placed Christ above all these orders of celestial beings.

After the annunciations to Zacharias and the Virgin Mary, an angel next appears, in the New Testament story, to instruct Joseph concerning the miraculous conception of Jesus. The appearance to the shepherds follows, of which I have spoken in connection with the subject of angelic choirs.

Again, Joseph was warned by an angel to flee into Egypt with Mary and the young Child, to escape the anger of Herod. In ancient series of pictures illustrating the life of Saint Joseph, this scene was curiously portrayed, and but one modern painter, so far as I know, has been moved to represent it. In the Belvedere, in Vienna, there is an admirable Dream of Joseph, by Anton Raphael Mengs.

Pictures of Saint John the Baptist in the wilderness are variously treated, and when he is represented as very young, he is attended by ministering angels. This treatment is warranted by the legend which teaches that he was a mere child of seven or eight years, and is supported by the word of Saint Luke in the last verse of the first chapter of his Gospel, “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.”

The pictures of the Baptism of Christ are numerous, and the number of attendant angels is varied from two to four, as a rule, although there are examples with even a larger number. Raphael, Verrocchio, Paul Veronese, Francesco Albani, Perugino, Tintoretto, and many others painted fine pictures of this subject, which, besides its great interest from its importance in the life of the Saviour, affords an opportunity for the representation of a beautiful landscape. The picture by Rubens excels in this regard; and in his magnificent setting he has a group of about thirty figures, producing the gorgeous effect which characterizes his work, but failing to suggest the divinity of Christ, or the devotional feeling of the works of Raphael or Verrocchio, and entirely lacking the tenderness of Lorenzo di Credi.

The Bible also contains various texts which authorize a belief in the existence of Satan and his demons. Isaiah exclaims, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, Son of the Morning.” Saint Matthew speaks of the devil and all his angels, and many other Biblical expressions warrant us in believing that the Spirit of Evil with his attendants is ever tempting men to sin, thus plainly warranting the Fathers in their teaching, to which we have referred.

It is not possible to picture the Temptation of Christ in an attractive manner. Satan has been represented in various monstrous and repulsive forms by some artists, while others have given him such disguises as might well deceive an ordinary mortal. He has thus been presented in the garb and with the bearing of a venerable peasant, and again as a monk with robe and cowl, but his especial symbols usually manifest themselves, in spite of all disguises.

The picture by Ary Scheffer, in the Louvre, which our illustration reproduces, tells the story of the temptation very simply and directly. The style of this painter, sad and almost hopeless, is well suited to subjects of this nature. The contrast between the perfect serenity of the Saviour, and the hideous anxiety and determination of Satan, renders this representation as acceptable as so unlovely a subject can be made.

In Perugino’s famous picture in the Sala del Incendio, in the Vatican, Jesus and Satan are seen in mid-air, like a vision, while in the background, surrounded by a dazzling light, another figure of Jesus is seen between two ministering angels, while the whole scene is encircled by a multitude of cherubim and angels.

In some pictures of this subject angels are represented as if waiting to support the Master when he shall turn from the demon, but far more attractive than these are the representations in which Satan does not appear, and angels minister to Christ in the wilderness, as if illustrating these beautiful lines:

“They in a flowery valley set him down
On a green bank, and straight before him spread
A table of celestial food – divine
Ambrosial fruits, fetched from the Tree of Life –
And from the fount of life celestial drink.
And as he fed, angelic quires
Sang heavenly anthems.”

One of Murillo’s splendid works was founded on the account of the pool at Bethesda, as given in John 5:2-8. This was a favorite subject for hospitals, and Murillo painted it for a hospital in Seville, from which it was stolen by Marshal Soult.

In the foreground are Christ, the lame man, and three Apostles; in the background is the pool with its fine porches, above which, in a glorious, dazzling light, the angel hovers, as if about to descend to stir the waters.

It is a magnificent example of the wonderful power of Murillo. The beauty and tenderness of the head of Christ, and the graciousness of his whole bearing, affect the beholder as do few representations of our Lord. The atmosphere is soft and translucent, the angel gently floats rather than flies, and the porches, while not too ornate, impart a dignified balance to the scene. The coloring is such as is peculiar to Spanish art, rich and subdued in contrast with that of the Italians. For example, the red robe and blue mantle, so familiar in pictures of Christ, are here replaced by a rich violet color, most harmonious with the sentiment of the scene.

There is an ancient picture of this subject in a church near Bologna, supposed to be the work of two artists, Jacopo Avanzi, and Lippo d’Almasio. In the same city, in the Church of San Giorgio, is the picture by Ludovico Caracci, which is, to say the least, very decorative, and has been generously praised by some writers on Art. Many representations of the pool of Bethesda are in hospitals, as, for example, that by Sebastian Conca at Siena, rather than in galleries; for this reason it is less familiar than are many other scenes in which angels are represented.

There are some subjects too sacred in their character and too spiritually subtle in their significance to be adequately pictured to the eye. One of these, to my mind, is the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. It has, however, appealed to many artists, and one must admit that the night scene, the sleeping disciples, the suffering Christ, the consoling angel, the approaching traitor, and the dimly discerned city of Jerusalem afford unusually picturesque elements for an effective picture. All these have been artistically treated, but The Divine, the central thought in the scene, can scarcely be satisfactorily expressed.

A most surprising error that has frequently been made in pictures of this subject, is that of giving undue prominence to the sleeping disciples. Their figures are often placed in the very foreground, as if the spectator should chiefly consider the unfortunate somnolence of these men; by which means the figures of Jesus and the angel are made to appear as secondary. I have seen no picture in which the sleeping disciples are satisfactorily introduced, and I greatly prefer certain curious ancient representations of the Agony, in which Christ and the angel only are present.

Many famous artists, from the time of Mantegna, have painted their conceptions of the wonderful scene in the Garden. Correggio has at least made Jesus the chief person, and his angel is apparently suited to his office of a comforter. Paul Veronese, Albert Dürer, and Rembrandt have all painted powerful pictures of this subject, and Ary Scheffer has depicted the Agony of Christ with living vividness; but one and all of these works fall so far short of one’s highest conception of this wonderful event, that, except as examples of the design, coloring, and manner of these masters, they appear to me of little value.

The visit of the women to the sepulchre of Christ is variously represented, as would naturally result from the different accounts given by the Evangelists. Some pictures represent Mary Magdalene alone, when she saw two angels sitting where the body of Christ had lain, and almost immediately beheld the risen Lord near by, as in our illustration after Burne-Jones. Again, the other women are pictured who saw two men in shining garments, and were told, “He is not here, but is risen;” more frequently the three Maries are represented coming to the sepulchre, bearing spices, and finding the guards paralyzed with terror, and an angel who tells them that the Lord is risen.

These scenes have been represented in Art from its earliest and rudest beginning, and were rendered with perfect simplicity, strictly following the clear scriptural account. Later, the guards were omitted, and the whole scene took on a more dramatic air, until, in the sixteenth century, this subject was rarely painted, and has not again resumed its earlier importance. It makes one in a series of subjects illustrating the life of Christ, but is rarely seen as a separate work. Annibale Caracci painted a picture of the Women at the Sepulchre, which is now in the Hermitage at Saint Petersburg; and in Siena there still exists an example of the same subject by Duccio, who lived in the thirteenth century.

Pictures of the Last Judgment, as usually painted, are illustrative of a combination of scriptural teaching with the imaginative suggestions of preachers, writers on religious subjects, poets, and artists, and elements from the sacred legends. There is no scriptural warrant for the presence of Satan and his demons in this scene, horribly effective and impressive as they are; but I have reason to think that this element is thoughtlessly accepted as authoritative by many who interest themselves in religious art.

This subject was not represented in sculpture or painting before the eleventh century, and but rarely after that until three centuries later, when it was wonderfully portrayed, notably by Orcagna, in the Campo Santo at Pisa.

The portions of these pictures for which there is scriptural authority are important. Christ is the Judge in accordance with his own words, Matthew 16:27: “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.” And still more emphatically in Matthew 25:31-46, where the word-picture of the Judgment is a vividly realistic description of some artistic representations of this scene.

The Apostles seated on each side of Christ are also warranted by his words in Luke 22:30: “That ye may. . . sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” The Virgin, Saint John the Baptist, patriarchs, prophets, and saints are all admissible on the authority of Saint Paul, who says, I Corinthians 6:2: “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?” And in the following sentence: “Know ye not that we shall judge angels?”

The angels are deputed to “gather together his elect from the four winds,” Mark 13:27, and those who fill this office are the trumpet angels in all these representations.

The division of those to be judged rests, on Daniel 12:2: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt;” and even more positively on Christ’s words in Matthew 25, already referred to.

In the utter absence of scriptural warrant for the picturing of the devil and his satellites, who seize, torture, and hurl into hell those doomed to shame and endless contempt, what defence of it can be made? Certainly none from an artistic standpoint; and this consideration should have prevented such representations. Artists should be commiserated who could not sufficiently express the woe of the condemned by the wretchedness of their faces and manner, as, hearing the fatal “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels,” they go to the left, not daring to raise their eyes to Christ, nor even to look at the blessed of his kingdom.

It would be a pleasure to consider separately the different methods of representing the Judge of all the world and those surrounding him, as seen in the works of the masters, but we are here concerned with the angels alone, of which, in nearly all these pictures, there are three classes.

The angels who hold the cross, scourge, nails, crown of thorns, and other symbols of the Passion of Christ, emphasize the theological teaching that men are judged according to their acceptance or rejection of the Atonement by Christ for the sins of the world. In early pictures of the Judgment these angels stand on clouds, below the Judge, but later they were depicted as hovering above the Judgment Seat. In whatever position they are placed, they appear to attribute a vast importance to the prominence of the symbols of the Passion. Fra Angelico happily places a single angel at the feet of Christ with the cross alone, as a complete symbol of the suffering and death of Jesus.

The trumpet angels vary in number from two to many, and are differently placed according to the varying designs of the artists. Orcagna and Fra Angelico placed them below the Judge, thus indicating that their sound could be heard in all the earth. In other pictures, they sound the trumpets directly above the graves, which open, displaying the rising dead, startled from their long sleep and struggling to gain a foothold on the earth above.

The third class of angels are those who announce their fate to all who are to be judged. They sometimes hold the balance in which souls are weighed; again, they direct those who come to judgment to the right or left, as in our picture from the Last Judgment by Fra Angelico, in the Florentine Academy; and, again, as in Orcagna’s great picture in the Campo Santo at Pisa, a grand warrior angel, with splendid wings, a true Saint Michael, clad in full armor, with his sword by his side, a glorious halo about his head, and the angelic flame above his brow, holds out two scrolls, one of joy and one of woe, on which are written the names of the entire human race.

The pictures of the Last Judgment by Orcagna, Angelico, and Signorelli, in the Cathedral of Orvieto, and Michael Angelo, in the Sistine Chapel, are among the famous pictures of the world.

The Scriptures mention still other appearances of angels, as that to Cornelius, when he was directed to send to Joppa for Peter; and, again, when Peter was in prison and the Church prayed for him, an angel led him forth and the Apostle departed to Cesarea for safety.

Philip was sent by an angel to meet the Ethiopian eunuch, and teach him the truth, after which he baptized the eunuch, and was then caught away by the Spirit, or angel of the Lord.

At times the angels were sent on missions of punishment, as when Herod, in the midst of his blasphemy, was smitten by God’s messenger, and gave up the ghost.

These subjects are rich in artistic suggestion, and nearly all have been represented in painting or sculpture. The book of the Revelation, too, abounds in visions of angels, from the beginning, when an angel from heaven “signified it” to John the Divine, to the end, when the angel refused to be worshipped, and declared himself the fellow servant of John, and of the prophets, and of all that keep the sayings of the book.

Angels in Art – Guardian Angels, Angel Choristers, and Adoring Angels; Demons and Evil Spirits

From the classification of the angelic hosts by the early theologians, and the special duties assigned to each class, we learn that the word angels, as ordinarily used, refers to archangels and angels only; these two classes are associated with human life in all its phases, while princedoms protect monarchies, thrones sustain the throne of God, cherubs continually worship, and seraphs adore the Most High.

A belief in guardian angels – those especially devoted to the care of individuals – is far more widespread than the realism of the present day is inclined to admit. The godly man has a sure warrant for this trust in the ninety-first psalm:

“Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.”

We cannot think of angels as a reality in the winged, human forms that have been given them in Art, any more than we can look for mermaids to rise from the waters mentioned in the charming legends in which these maidens acted their parts. These imaginary and apparently palpable angels are but allegories, which long have been and continue to be the angels of Art, and we could not willingly give them up. We know that they are impossible, even fantastic, if we permit ourselves to be matter-of-fact; but as emblems of spiritual guardians, sent to mortals by an ever-watchful Father, we love them; and we wish to believe in guardian angels for those who are dear to us, even if we cannot realize them for ourselves.

In one of the early councils of the Church the form of angels was considered, and it was maintained by John of Thessalonica that they were in shape like men, and should be thus represented. This decision is supported by the supposition that God spoke to the angels when he said, “Let us make man after our image;” and again by Daniel, when he describes his heavenly visitors as “like unto the similitude of the sons of men.”

A guardian angel must be ever beside his charge from the beginning to the end of life, not only to guard from evil, but also to incite to good. In sorrow he is a comforter; in weakness, strength; even in death he is faithful, and contends against the evil spirits who fight for the possession of every soul; and after death he bears the spirit to Saint Michael, the Lord of Souls. Thus is the guardian angel represented in Art, as is seen in our illustration called the Angel of Peace.

When we observe a beautiful, unselfish life that rises far above its surroundings, we recall the belief in angelic guardians, and the description which Milton gave of a chaste, saintly soul:

“A thousand liveried angels lackey her,
Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt;
And in clear dream and solemn vision
Tell her of things that no gross ear can hear,
Till oft converse with heav’nly habitants
Begin to cast a beam on th’ outward shape.”

The impersonality of angels is one of their most precious qualities. An angel is never active except as the agent of the Almighty, deputed to manifest his mercy and love to the pious, or to inflict his punishments on the wicked. Thus angels must be perfect beings; and while they love to serve, their service is void of the personality which is inherent in all human service. When they sing together it is because some good has come to men, and when they mourn it is for human affliction.

According to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church to which we have referred, the combat between good and evil angels is unceasing, and they also warrant Christians in invoking the aid of angels, and believing them to be ever near to prevent evil and encourage good. From the views of the early theologians the artists evolved their manner of representing the hosts of heaven, and while for a time angels were represented as colossal, gradually they became more graceful and lovely, as well as more human.

An ideal, a thought, must be personified to be represented to the eye, and I doubt if any new personification of angels could satisfactorily replace that which has been developed in Art during sixteen centuries, and to which we are accustomed from our earliest childhood. The angels that are known in pictures, watching over children, preventing harm to individuals, as in the sacrifice of Isaac, encouraging or even compelling worthy action, as in the case of Balaam, are dear to the heart of the world.

The representations of guardian angels in the more homely relations, watching sleeping infants, guiding their feeble steps, as is seen in our frontispiece, and shielding them from accidents, are modern. To the end of the sixteenth century guardian angels, while engaged in all these minor duties, according to the teaching of the Church, were only represented in Art as performing solemn and superhuman deeds.

This may have resulted from the fixed belief of the old artists in these angelic beings, and their deep reverence for them, while modern artists are simply seeking a graceful and poetic subject. But, be this as it may, the angels who perform miracles to prevent the torture of Christian martyrs and other superhuman acts, are as essentially guardian angels as are those bending over cradles and gathering blossoms for children in the fields.

After the guardians, the choristers, or musical angels, most appeal to us. They are beautiful in their representations, and fulfil an ideal mission. Their hymns of praise are not all devoted to the pure worship of the Almighty, except as he is all and in all, since they rejoice and sing when blessings are conferred upon mankind.

How exquisite is the story in the second chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel, when the single angel announces the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, “and suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'” In the final sentences of this heavenly chant we have the assurance that angels delight to sing of happiness to mankind.

There is much that appeals to our imagination in the thought of these heavenly musicians. We fancy their perfect instruments attuned to perfect voices, creating such harmonies as no earthly orchestra can reproduce.

“The harp, the solemn pipe
And dulcimer, all organs of sweet stop.”

In the early days of Christian Art, painters and sculptors alike delighted in the representation of musical angels, and it is surprising to find in how many scenes they are not only appropriate but indispensable. Our illustration, after Perugino, is from his picture of the Assumption of the Virgin in the Florentine Academy.

They are most fittingly present at the coronations of Jesus and the Virgin; they gladly welcomed the just to heaven; they join in the hymn of Saint Cecilia, which they must have inspired; they are always in harmony with pictures of the Madonna and child, and, in short, numerous as are the representations of them, they are never too many.

It would seem that certain sculptors and painters must have seen these blessed beings in visions, and listened to their music, so wonderfully did they embody them in statues and on canvas. Della Robbia, Ghiberti, Fra Angelico, Ghirlandajo, Melozzo da Forli, Vivarini, Gian Bellini, Raphael, Palma, must all have seen, at least with the eyes of the spirit, the angelic choirs which make so precious a part of their legacy to us.

The difference in the sentiments with which these angelic choristers seem to be inspired lends them a peculiar charm. Now they are alone intent on solemnly praising God; again they seem full of such overflowing joy as can only be expressed in vocal harmonies, in symphonies with viol, pipe, harp, and lute. Nowhere are these angels more lovely than when, with their sweet faces turned to the Infant Jesus, they chant their love for him.

Cherubim and seraphim are technically the adoring angels, as they are represented in pictures of God, the Father. But adoring angels are frequently seen in pictures of the Madonna and Child, as well as in scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin. Sometimes they appear in great numbers, as in Angelico’s picture of the Last Judgment; or in smaller groups, as the three adoring angels by Francesco Granacci; or singly, as in the case of the angel with bowed head, who stands behind the Virgin in the Madonna and Angels, by Boticelli; the last three pictures being among our illustrations.

Mourning angels appear more frequently in sculpture than in painting, and are much used as monuments to the dead; but there are pictures in which angels show their sympathy with sorrow and suffering. While from their nature they cannot be unhappy, they are not represented as joyful in pictures of the Crucifixion and other sorrowful scenes in the lives of Jesus, the Virgin, or saintly martyrs. They hide their faces, wring their hands, and manifest their sympathetic grief in various ways. I recall a picture of a mourning angel kneeling before a crown of thorns with tears upon his face.

There are occasional pictures of kneeling angels, who have the appearance of praying. Artists have naturally manifested their individuality in their works, but I do not recall any Scripture warrant for representing angels as themselves praying, although they are present with mortals who pray. It is, however, not inconsistent with their mission to bear the prayers of mortals to the throne of God and to return with a blessing.

In the early centuries of the Church there was a well-established belief that wicked spirits had power over men and tempted them to all manner of sins; they especially desired, it was taught, to lead the pious to revolt against the true religion, and to become idolaters, as they had themselves revolted against the Almighty. It was also believed that good and evil spirits constantly contended over every human being, the struggle between angels and demons being unending.

Devils are introduced in many pictures, and are easily recognized by their demoniacal appearance. Frequently they are very small and numerous. They are represented as hovering above death-beds, they rejoice in the persecution of the martyrs, and wherever seen, are the very personification of all that is repulsive and loathsome.

The most important pictures in which the devil is represented as a human being are scenes in the temptation of Jesus, when he was led into the wilderness to be tempted forty days. Shakespeare says that “the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape,” but apparently artists have not recognized this. In their pictures of him there is always some characteristic which at once discloses his personality. His skin is an ugly brown, or the hoofs which he endeavors to hide are disclosed, or the repulsive expression of his face warns one of his dangerous character.

Happily such pictures are not numerous, but an ideal of the repulsiveness of the Father of Lies has been conceived by many from the famous representations of him by Raphael and Guido, in their pictures of his conquest by Saint Michael. In numerous cases, however, the presence of Satan is indicated by symbols. The dragon and the serpent are the usually accepted emblems of the Evil Spirit, but there are many variations of this symbolism. A horrid dragon head with open mouth typifies hell. Frequently the serpent has an apple in his mouth and thus personates the wily tempter of Mother Eve; but in many cases the serpent has no relation to the fall of man, and is personified evil.

Angels in Art – The Archangel Raphael

The Archangel Raphael is esteemed as the guardian angel of the human race. He especially protects the young and innocent, and guards pilgrims and travellers from harm. It was he who warned Adam of the danger of sin, and declared to him its dread consequences. Milton thus interprets the message:

“Be strong, live happy, and love! but first of all
Him, whom to love is to obey, and keep
His great command; take heed lest passion sway
Thy judgment to do aught, which else free-will
Would not admit; thine, and of all thy sons
The weal or woe in thee is placed; beware!”
That Raphael’s language was benevolent and sympathetic, as imagined by the poet, appears in Adam’s farewell to the angel:

“Since to part
Go, heavenly guest, ethereal messenger,
Sent from whose sovereign goodness I adore!
Gentle to me, and affable hath been
Thy condescension, and shall be honor’d ever
With grateful memory. Thou to mankind
Be good and friendly still, and oft return!”

Representations of Saint Raphael are far less numerous than are those of Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel. They are always pleasing, and present him as a benign, sympathetic, and companionable friend to those whom he serves. His symbol is habitually a pilgrim’s staff; as a guardian he wears a sword, and has a small casket or vase, containing the “fishy charm” against evil spirits. He wears a pilgrim’s dress, has sandals on his feet, and a pilgrim bottle or wallet hangs from his belt. His flowing hair is bound by a diadem, and his beautiful face expresses the benevolence of his character and mission.

Many chapels and some churches are dedicated to the Archangel Raphael, as the chief of celestial guardians, and in these are numerous pictures commemorating his benevolent deeds. The greater part of the representations of this archangel are so connected with the history of Tobias, that it is necessary to know his story, in order to enjoy or understand these pictures. I will give this beautiful Hebrew narrative as concisely as possible:

Tobit was a rich man, and just; and he and his wife, Sara, were carried into captivity by the Assyrians. He gave alms to all his people, lived justly, and ate not the bread of the Gentiles. His misfortunes, however, increased; he had but his wife and his son, Tobias, left to him, when he became blind, and prayed for death.

At the same time a man named Raguel, who dwelt in Ecbatane, was afflicted with a daughter who was persecuted by an evil spirit. She had married seven husbands, and each one had been killed by the fiend, as soon as he entered the bridal chamber. The maiden was accused of these murders, and, like Tobit, she prayed for death.

God then sent the Archangel Raphael to cure the blindness of Tobit, and take away the reproach of the unhappy daughter of Raguel of Ecbatane.

At this time Tobit desired his son, Tobias, to go to Gabael in Media to receive ten talents, which Tobit had left in trust with Gabael. Tobias asked, “How can I receive the money, seeing I know him not?” Tobit gave Tobias the handwriting, and bade him seek a guide for his journey. Raphael then offered to guide the young man, who knew not that he spoke with an archangel. Tobias led Raphael to his father, and they agreed upon the wages the guide should receive, and Tobit gave directions concerning the journey, while he and Sara, his wife, were greatly afflicted at parting with Tobias.

At evening the travellers came to the river Tigris, and when Tobias went to bathe, a fish leapt out at him. Raphael told the youth to take out the liver and gall of the fish and preserve it carefully, which being done, they roasted the fish and ate it. When Tobias asked why he should keep the liver and the gall, the angel told him that the heart and liver would cure a person vexed with an evil spirit, if a smoke from them was made before the person; and the gall would cure the blindness of one afflicted with whiteness of the eyes.

In our illustration from the picture by Andrea del Sarto, in the Belvedere, Vienna, Tobias carries the fish, and it appears to represent the moment when Raphael is making his explanation of its purpose.

As they proceeded Raphael said: “Brother, today we shall lodge with Raguel, who is thy cousin; he hath but one daughter, named Sara; I will ask her as a wife for thee: she belongs to thee by law, and is fair and wise, and you can marry her when we return.” Then Tobias, who knew the fate of the seven husbands, was filled with fear lest he too should die, and thus afflict his parents, who had no other child.

But Raphael assured Tobias that Sara was the wife that the Lord intended for him, and that when he entered the marriage chamber the evil spirit would flee at the smoke he should make with the liver of the fish, and would never return. When Tobias heard this he loved the maiden, and his heart was effectually joined to her.

When they came near Ecbatane, they met Sara, and she led them to her parents, who rejoiced to see them, and wept when they heard of the blindness of Tobit. While the servants of Raguel prepared a supper, Tobias said to the angel, “Speak of those things of which thou didst talk, and let this business be despatched.” Then Raphael asked Raguel to give Sara to Tobias; but the father was sore distressed, and told of the death of the seven who had already married her; but as Sara belonged to Tobias by the law of Moses, his request could not be denied, and before they did eat together, Raguel joined their hands, and blessed them.

Then the marriage chamber was prepared, and the maiden wept; but her mother comforted her, and when Tobias entered and made the smoke as the angel had directed, the evil spirit fled. Tobias and Sara knelt in thankfulness, and Tobias prayed as Raphael had told him, and Sara said, “Amen.”

In the morning Raguel dug a grave, for he wished to bury Tobias quickly, that no one should know what had happened; but when he sent to see if he were dead, it was found that the young husband was quietly sleeping. Then there was great rejoicing, and a wedding feast was made, which lasted fourteen days. Meanwhile, Raphael went to Gabael and received from him the ten talents, and when the feast ended, the angel conducted Tobias and Sara to Tobit, and Raguel bestowed on Sara half his wealth.

As they approached Nineveh, Raphael said to Tobias, “Let us haste before thy wife, to prepare the house: and take thou the gall of the fish.” The mother of Tobias was watching for his return, and was greatly alarmed at his long absence. When she saw him with his guide, and the little dog which he had taken away, she ran to Tobit with the news, and they rejoiced greatly. Raphael now said to Tobias, “I know that thy father will open his eyes; therefore anoint them with the gall, and being pricked therewith, he shall rub them, and the whiteness shall fall away, and he shall see thee.” And so it was, and Tobit was blind no more, and they all rejoiced and blessed God.

Then Tobias recounted all that had happened, and his parents went out with him to meet his wife, and her servants, and cattle, and all she had brought with her. And the people were filled with wonder to see that Tobit was blind no more, and they rejoiced greatly with him during seven days when he kept a feast.

Tobit bade his son to call his guide and give him more than the wages that had been named. And Tobias wished to give the angel half of all he had brought back with him, and Tobit said, “It is due unto him.” But when Raphael knew their intentions he commanded them to glorify God for all his goodness, and told Tobit that his goodness and sorrows and those of the daughter of Raguel had been known in heaven, and God had sent him to heal all these troubles; and added, “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels, which present the prayers of the saints, and go in and out before the glory of the Holy One.”

Our illustration after the picture of Giovanni Biliverti in the Pitti Gallery, Florence, places before us the scene, when, refusing reward, the Archangel declared himself. The beauty of the angel, the affectionate enthusiasm of Tobias, and the sincere and reverent gratitude of the old Tobit are wonderfully portrayed, while the young wife and the aged mother in the background complete the group of those who have been delivered from their sorrows by the messenger of the Most High.

From the time when the angel left them Tobit and Raguel prospered, and after Tobit and Sara died, Tobias removed to Ecbatane and inherited the wealth of Raguel; he lived with honor to be an hundred and seven and twenty years old, and to hear of the destruction of Nineveh.

Milton thus refers to the story of Tobias:

“The affable archangel
Raphael; the sociable spirit that design’d
To travel with Tobias, and secured
His marriage with the seven times wedded maid.”

Raphael is frequently represented without wings when leading Tobias, who – in order to emphasize the contrast between an angel and a mortal – is made very small, and is thus manifestly out of keeping with the story. When the wings appear there is no reason for dwarfing Tobias, and the picture is far more satisfactory. It is not difficult to discern that if the story of Tobias is considered as an allegory, the young man personates the Christian, guided and guarded through life by God’s mercy.

There is, in Verona, in the Church of Saint Euphemia, a most impressive chapel which was decorated with pictures illustrating the story of Tobias, by Carotto, a pupil of Mantegna, who seems to have painted more in the manner of Leonardo than in that of his master.

Various incidents of the story are effectively pictured, but the famous altar-piece, the greatest work by Carotto, is the most important of the number. It represents the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, three exquisite wingless figures, the latter being in the centre, and the only one having an aureole. He is leading Tobias, and looking down at the youth with an expression of tenderness.

Saint Michael is on the left; one hand rests on his great sword, while with the other he lifts his crimson robe. His countenance, serious and indomitable in expression, fitly indicates the characteristics that his titles imply. He is the Lord of Souls and the Angel of Judgment, so far as human imagination can picture so exalted a celestial being.

Saint Gabriel, on the right, holding a lily, and gazing heavenward in adoration, is a beautiful, angelic figure, far less powerful than the other archangels, and quite in harmony with his office.

The impression on my mind, made by this picture, is that Gabriel realizes that his blessed office has been fulfilled, his active work is done, and adoration is now his duty and his joy; but Michael and Raphael have still their great missions to perfect; they are still battling against evil, and guiding men in the paths of righteousness.

Carotto was a native of Verona, and his pictures are rarely seen elsewhere. His color is warm and well blended, while his drawing is severe. It is said that he was but twenty-five years old when he decorated the Chapel of Saint Raphael, in 1495. He was of a quick wit, and when told that the legs of his angels were too slender, he instantly replied, “Then they will fly the easier.”

Sandro Botticelli - The Archangel Raphael from a picture of Tobias and the three ArchangelsA very famous and wonderful picture of the three archangels with Tobias, by Botticelli, is in the Academy of Florence. The angels of this artist are frequently criticised for a certain stiffness, but their beautiful faces more than redeem any fault in their figures, and have a sweetness and depth of expression that appeals to the heart and makes one forget less important details.

A picture of Saint Raphael leading Tobias, in the Church of Saint Marziale in Venice, is said to be the earliest remaining work by Titian. For this reason it is most interesting, but it is certainly not so beautiful as that of Carotto, nor as that of Raphael, called the Madonna del Pesce, the Madonna of the Fish, in the Madrid Gallery, in which the master pictures the archangel whose name he bore.

Of this last picture Passavant says, “Here Christian poetry has found its highest expression; for it is poetry which touches all nations the most deeply, and beauty alone can give an idea of divinity.”

In the famous Madonna del Pesce, the Virgin is seated on a throne with the child; the young Tobias, holding a fish in his hand, and led by the Archangel Raphael, comes to implore Jesus to cure his father’s blindness. The Infant Saviour looks at Tobias, while his hand is on an open book which Saint Jerome holds before him; the symbolic lion crouches at the feet of the saint. The background of the picture is principally formed by a curtain, but on the right a small opening of sky is seen.

The whole picture is executed in the best style of the artist’s mature power, while it is full of the fervent piety of his earlier works. The Virgin is the ideal of purity and loveliness; the child is radiant with divine beauty; the angel is celestial in his bearing and his countenance, while the head of the reverend saint is grand and noble in expression.

Raphael’s Madonnas sometimes seem to be but simple domestic women, gifted with beauty; in them no trace of a mystical or spiritual nature appears; but the Madonna del Pesce, like the Madonna di San Sisto, and the Madonna di Fuligno, justifies the eulogy of Vasari, when he says, “Raphael has shown all the beauty which can be imagined in the expression of a Virgin; in the eyes there is modesty, on the brow there shines honor, the nose is of a very graceful character, the mouth betokens sweetness and excellence.” The color of the Madonna del Pesce is admirably clear and harmonious, even for this great master.

This Madonna was originally painted for the Church of San Domenico Maggiore, at Naples, in which church a chapel had been erected as an especial place of worship for the numerous Neapolitans who suffer from diseases of the eye; it was not, however, permitted to serve its intended purpose, and has had an interesting history.

It is said that the Duke of Medina, when Viceroy of Naples, took the picture from the Dominicans without the consent of the government, and when the prior complained to the Pope, Medina had him escorted to the frontier by fifty horsemen, and expelled from the kingdom. In 1644 the Duke took the Virgin with the Fish to Spain, and Philip IV. placed it in the Escurial. In 1813, when the French were compelled to leave Spain, they took this picture, with many others, to Paris.

It was painted on a panel and was in bad condition, and Bonnemaison was commissioned to transfer it to canvas. This work was not completed in 1815, when other pictures which had been taken from Spain were returned, and this Madonna remained in France until 1822. Naturally, it must have lost something of its original excellence, but it still holds a place of honor in the wonderful Italian Gallery of the Madrid Museum; it is a rival of the famous Dresden Madonna – di San Sisto – in the regard of many connoisseurs in art.

The various scenes from the story of Raphael and Tobias have been represented in the works of artists of all nations. Rembrandt four times painted the parting of Tobias from his father and mother, and several other incidents in the story. His picture in the Louvre, of the departure of the Archangel, is remarkable for its spirited action. As the angel ascends, flying through the air, he seems to part the clouds as a strong swimmer passes through the breakers of the sea.

Angels in Art – The Archangel Gabriel

The Archangel Gabriel is mentioned by name but twice in the Old Testament. First in Daniel 8:16, when he explained the vision which the prophet had seen, and again in Daniel 9:21, when Gabriel appeared to Daniel to give him skill and understanding.

Likewise in the New Testament he is twice mentioned, in Luke 1:19 and 26, when he announced to Zacharias the birth of John the Baptist, and to the Virgin Mary that she was favored of the Lord, and blessed among women. On each of these occasions he filled the office of a messenger or bearer of important tidings. It is believed to have been Gabriel who fought with the Angel of the Kingdom of Persia for twenty-one days, when Michael came to his relief, and Gabriel again visited Daniel to strengthen him, and explain “that which is noted in the scripture of truth,” and to announce that the king of Græcia should overcome the king of Persia. After which Gabriel returned to his battle with the Angel of Persia.

The contest with the angel of Persia is a subject which offers unusual opportunities in its artistic representation; it is, however, much the same in spirit as the struggle between Michael and Lucifer, and the preference was given to the latter by the painters of religious subjects.

Saint Gabriel has been many times portrayed as the messenger announcing the birth of John the Baptist and that of Jesus Christ. In the apochryphal legends he also foretells the birth of Samson, and that of the Virgin Mary. From these frequently repeated messages which foretold important births, Gabriel naturally came to be regarded as the angel who presides over childbirth.

The great number of representations of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary make it difficult to select those of which to speak. The earliest pictures of this event portray it with great simplicity, purity, and grace. A spiritual mystery is being depicted, and is handled with sincere reverence and the utmost delicacy.

The scene is usually the portico of an ecclesiastical edifice. When seated, the Virgin is on a species of throne, but she is more frequently represented as standing. The archangel is at some distance from her, not infrequently quite outside the porch. He is majestic and beautiful; is clothed in white, wearing the tunic and pallium, or archbishop’s mantle. His wings are large, and brilliant with many colors, and his abundant hair is bound with a jewelled tiara. He bears either the sceptre of power or a lily in one hand, while the other is extended in benediction. Sometimes he holds a scroll inscribed with the words, “Ave Maria, gratia plena,” Hail! Mary, full of grace, which words Dante represents Gabriel as constantly repeating in paradise.

The angel is the chief figure in this scene in the earlier pictures; he is joyfully triumphant, announcing the coming of the Saviour, while the Virgin is all humility and submission; in some cases her head is covered, an extreme expression of lowliness, and she is always self-effacing in attitude and expression.

Fra Filippo Lippi - A Divided AnnunciationAn early custom in churches was to place the picture of the Virgin on one side of the altar, and that of the angel on the other side; or, if both figures were in the same frame, a division was made by an architectural pillar, or a conventional ornament between them. In many cases the Virgin and the Archangel were placed separately above, or on each side of some scene from the life of Jesus, usually an altar piece. The picture by Fra Filippo Lippi, which we give, is a very fine example of the so-called “divided Annunciations.” It is in the Florentine Academy. This picture is very beautiful, and fittingly expresses the humility and surprise of the Virgin and the reverence of the heavenly messenger. It is also a good example of Fra Filippo’s style; his draperies were graceful, abundant, and usually much ornamented with designs in gold, of which we have here enough for elegance, while it is not overdone as in other works of this artist.

A very ancient Annunciation, of peculiar and elaborate arrangement, dating from the fifth century, is in mosaic, over the arch in front of the choir in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome. The classical treatment of the dresses, and of the entire composition, makes this work so different from the usual conception of the subject as to be worthy of observation. There are two scenes: in the first, the archangel is sent on his mission, and is rapidly flying towards the earth, as if in haste to utter his joyous salutation, “Hail! thou art highly favored! Blessed art thou among women!”

The second scene presents Gabriel standing before the Virgin, who is seated on a throne, behind which are two guardian angels. This representation is so utterly unlike what is known as Christian art as to make a lasting impression, by reason of its classical treatment; all the details have an air of belonging to an earlier period than that known as mediæval, and the figures might be those of ancient Greeks.

It is extremely curious and interesting to observe the various methods of representing the Archangel Gabriel in pictures of the Annunciation. At times he might be mistaken for the ambassador of a proud and powerful earthly potentate. He is clothed in gorgeous raiment, with a rich train, sometimes borne by one, and again by three page-like angels, while he carries himself with majestic haughtiness.

We do not wonder that the difference between the estate of an archangel sent by God, and the humility of the Virgin of Galilee, should have misled some artists; or that with them the angel held the first place, especially as it was only thus that any element of splendor could be introduced into their pictures. Indeed, we have engravings after a picture by Raphael, in which the Virgin is kneeling before the angel, who raises the right hand in benediction.

But the gradual increase in the veneration accorded to the Virgin, and the titles of Queen of Heaven, and Queen of Angels, which were bestowed on her, soon changed the spirit of the representations of the Annunciation; and while the Virgin loses none of her humility and submission, the angel bows, and even kneels to her, thus emphasizing his acknowledgment of her superior holiness, since an archangel could only kneel before spiritual perfection.

It was well that the patriarchs and prophets should acknowledge the superiority of the angels sent to them, but the glory of the Mother of Christ should be represented as commanding the reverence of even the highest of created being – only thus could the faith of the Church, for which these religious pictures were painted, be fittingly illustrated.

Thus it became customary to omit the sceptre in the hand of the angel, and to give him the lily alone, or the lily and the scroll. Indeed, there are notable pictures in which Gabriel has no symbol, but with hands clasped over his breast, and head inclined, he seems to worship the Virgin while declaring his mission to her. There are, however, few Annunciations in which the lily does not appear. It is the special symbol of the purity of Mary, to whom is applied the verse from the Song of Solomon: “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.” In some pictures the lily is seen in a vase near the Virgin.

Occasionally the symbol of peace is introduced in pictures of the Annunciation by placing a crown of olive on the head of the archangel, or an olive branch in his hand. Here Gabriel is presented as announcing the “Peace on earth and good will towards men,” which Raphael and his attendant angels chanted to the shepherds on the birth of Jesus.

The early German painters were fond of picturing Gabriel in priestly robes, heavily embroidered, and rich in color. This dress supplied the same gorgeous effect as was given by the princely trains of which I have spoken. In these pictures Gabriel usually kneels, his ample robes falling on the pavement around him, thus avoiding the proud bearing of the regally vestured messenger.

The simplicity of the scene, when Gabriel is appropriately draped in the filmy white robe, which is the usual conception of an angel’s dress, is far more satisfactory and harmonious with the spirit of the miraculous Annunciation than any splendid vestments can possibly be.

The earliest pictures of the Annunciation, however, in spite of unsuitable costumes, and of certain technical imperfections, are more acceptable to the reverent mind than are those of a later time, in which the angel is scantily draped and is apparently conscious of his physical beauty, while the Virgin is entirely wanting in grace or dignity. Such a rendering of this scene is most offensive; all the more so that these pictures are frequently well executed, and were they not presented as representations of this sacred subject, but given some appropriate title, they would have claims to a certain artistic approbation.

Alessandro Allori - The AnnunciationOther artists, like Allori, in our illustration, represent an all too conscious Virgin, an angel who apparently poses for a picture, and a mass of utterly inappropriate detail. This Annunciation, which is in the Florentine Academy, affords an excellent example of this objectionable style, and its faults are emphasized when it is compared with the serious dignity of Fra Filippo’s picture and that which follows, by Fra Angelico. By such comparisons the great difference between true sentiment and affectation in Art becomes apparent.

There are some Annunciations in which the Virgin is represented as starting up from fear or surprise, quite as one might fancy that a tragedy queen would do, were her privacy unceremoniously disturbed.

Again the Virgin Mary is fainting from emotion, and thus could not have replied to the angel in the Scriptural words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

Not infrequently, in representations of this scene, the Holy Spirit, as a dove, hovers above or near the Virgin, or flies in through a window; again the Almighty is seen in the clouds, surrounded by a celestial light, and sometimes attended by celestial spirits. In rare instances the Eternal Father sends the Infant Jesus down from the sky bearing a cross, and preceded by a dove. These extremely symbolic Annunciations are usually of an early date.

Fra Angelico - The AnnunciationFra Angelico painted the Annunciation with intense reverence and simplicity. We have an illustration of his fresco on the wall of the corridor in his convent of San Marco, in Florence, which is, to my mind, one of the most beautiful and spiritual Annunciations in existence. It tells the sacred story faithfully; there is nothing introduced that does not essentially belong here. The Virgin gives the impression of being equal to the angel in purity and goodness; he is superior only in knowledge.

Angelico believed that he was divinely directed in his work, which he began with prayer, and for this reason he would never change his original design. His care in the finish of his pictures was phenomenal; his draperies were dignified; his color and composition were harmonious. It has well been said of his works: “Every part contributed to that unity of tenderness, inspiration, and religious feeling which marks his pictures, and which are such as no one man had ever succeeded in accomplishing.” Angelico knew nothing of human anxieties and struggles, and could not paint them; he could not depict the hatred of the enemies of Christ; martyrdoms and persecutions were feebly represented by him, but to annunciations, coronations of the Virgin, and kindred subjects he imparted a sweetness and a spiritual fervor that has rarely, if ever, been surpassed. We can imagine him rising from his prayers with his conceptions of the Virgin and the archangel as distinct in his mind’s eye as they are to our vision in his pictures, and it is easy to understand that the man who lived in his atmosphere would be void of ambition, and refuse to be made Archbishop of Florence, as he did.

Gabriel is reverenced by the Jews as the chief of the angelic guards, and the keeper of the celestial treasury. The Mohammedans regard him as their patron saint; their prophet believed this archangel to be his inspiring and instructing spirit. Thus he is important in the faith and legends of Christians, Jews, and Mohammedans alike. Milton may have had the Jewish tradition in mind when he represented Gabriel as the guardian of paradise:

“Betwixt these rocky pillars Gabriel sat,
Chief of the angelic guards, awaiting night.”

Angels in Art – The Archangel Michael

The Archangel Michael is reverenced as the first and mightiest of all created beings. He was worshipped by the Chaldeans, and the Gnostics taught that he was the leader of the seven angels who created the universe. After the Captivity the Hebrews regarded him as all that is implied by the Prophet Daniel when he says, “Michael, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people.” It is believed that he will be privileged to exalt the banner of the Cross on the Judgment Day, and to command the trumpet of the archangel to sound; it is on account of these offices that he is called the “Bannerer of Heaven.”

As captain of the heavenly host, it devolved on Michael to conquer Lucifer and his followers, and to expel them from heaven after their refusal to worship the Son of Man; and terrible was the punishment he inflicted on them. Chained in mid-air, where they must remain until the Judgment Day, they behold all that happens on earth. Man, whom they disdained, has flourished in their sight, and wields a power that they may well envy, while the souls of the redeemed constantly ascend to the heaven which is closed to them. Thus are they constantly tormented by hate, and a desire for revenge, of which they must ever despair.

Saint Michael is represented in art as young and severely beautiful. In the earliest pictures his drapery is always white and his wings of many colors, while his symbols, indicating that his conquests are made by spiritual force alone, are a lance terminating in a cross, or a sceptre. Later, it became the custom to represent him in a costume and with such emblems as indicated the nature of the work in which he was engaged; and except for the wings, his picture might often be mistaken for that of a celestially radiant knight, since he is clothed in armor, and bears a sword, shield, and lance. But his seraphic wings and his bearing mark him as a mighty spiritual power; and this impression is increased rather than lessened, when in all humility he is in the act of worship before the Divine Infant, or stands in reverent attitude near the Madonna, as if to guard her and her heaven-sent son.

When conquering Satan the treatment is varied, but the subject is easily recognized. More frequently than otherwise, the archangel stands on the demon, who is half human and half dragon, wearing a suit of mail, and is about to pierce the evil spirit with a lance or bind him in chains.

Such pictures date from the earliest attempts in religious painting, and the same subject was represented in ancient sculpture. Some of these works are so crude as to be absurd, but for their manifest reverence and sincerity. An early sculpture in the porch of the Cathedral of Cortona, probably dating from the seventh century, presents the archangel in long, heavy robes, reaching to his feet; he stands solidly on the back of the dragon, and as if to make the footing more secure, the beast curls his tail in air and lifts his head as high as possible, holding his mouth wide open, into which Saint Michael presses his lance without a struggle. The whole effect is that of some calm and commonplace occurrence, and is in striking contrast with the spirit of the conflict which is represented, as well as with the superhuman combat depicted by later artists.

The dragon is personified by a variety of horrible reptilian forms. Some artists even attempted to follow the apocalyptic description. “For their power is in their mouth, and in their tails: for their tails were like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt.”

Lucifer is not always alone, but is sometimes surrounded by demons, who crouch with him at the feet of Saint Michael, before whom a company of angels kneel in adoration.

During the sixteenth century the pictures of this archangel took on the military aspect, to which I have referred, and but for the wings would have represented Saint George, or a Crusader of the Cross, as suitably as the great Warrior Angel.

An exquisite small picture of this type, now in the Academy at Florence, was painted by Fra Angelico. The lance and shield and the lambent flame above the brow are the only emblems; the latter symbolizing spiritual fervor. The rainbow-tinted wings are raised and fully spread, meeting above and behind the head; the armor is of a rich dark red and gold. The pose and the expression of the countenance indicate the reserved power and the godlike tranquillity of the celestial warrior, and fitly represent him as the patron of the Church Militant.

The representations of Saint Michael conquering Lucifer are so numerous and so interesting technically, that any adequate account of them and of their artistic and theological development would fill a volume, and might be considered rather tiresome. I shall speak especially of two examples which are very generally accepted as the most satisfactory of them all.

The first, painted by Raphael when at his best, is in the Louvre. It was a commission from Lorenzo dei Medici, who presented it to Francis I. The subject was doubtless chosen by Raphael as a compliment to the sovereign, who was the Grand Master of the Order of Saint Michael, the military patron saint of France.

It was painted on wood, and sent with three other pictures, packed on mules, to Fontainebleau, where Lorenzo was visiting, in May, 1518. The picture was somewhat injured on the journey. In 1773 it was transferred to canvas, and “restored” three years later, but at the beginning of this century the restorations were removed. We must believe that the picture has suffered from these chances and changes, but the fact remains that it is still a glorious work by a great master.

The beautiful young angel does not stand upon the fiend beneath him, but, poised in air, he lightly touches with his foot the shoulder of the demon in vulgar human form, fiery in color, having horns and a serpent’s tail. The expression of the angel is serious, calm, majestic, as he gazes down upon the writhing Satan, whose face, as he struggles to raise it, is full of malignant hate. This detail is lost in the black and white reproductions.

Michael grasps the lance with both hands, and so natural is the action, so easy and graceful, that the beholder instinctively waits to see the weapon do its work, while flames rise from the earth as if impatient to engulf the disgusting demon. The head of the angel, with its light, floating hair is against the background of the brilliant wings, in which blue, gold, and purple are gloriously mingled; his armor is gold and silver; a sword hangs by his side, and an azure scarf floats from his shoulders. His legs are bare, and his feet shod with buskins, which leave the toes uncovered. The contrast between the exquisite, angelic flesh tints, rosy in hue, and the brown coloring of the demon, effectively emphasizes the beauty of purity and the loathsomeness of evil.

The Saint Michael of Guido Reni so closely resembles that of Raphael in general treatment, that it is more nearly just to compare these works than is usually the case with pictures of the same subject by different masters. The attitude of Guido’s saint is like that of a dancing-master when contrasted with the pose of Raphael’s, and his demon is simply low and base, devoid of malignity or any supreme evil.

But the head and face of Guido’s Michael make his picture wonderful; they adequately express divine purity and beauty, while the studied and fictitious qualities of Guido’s art – here at their best – serve to enhance the exquisite effect of this angelic warrior, and the picture is justly esteemed as one of the treasures of the Cappucini at Rome.

Outside of Italian art, the Saint Michael of Martin Schoen is well worth notice. The figure is fully draped in a long, flowing robe and mantle; the pose is most graceful, and the bearing of the angel dignified and unruffled. The demon is made up of fins, a savage mouth, and numerous claws with which to seize its victims; an entirely emblematic and most repulsive figure.

There are occasional pictures of the “Fall of the Angels,” in which Saint Michael contends against the entire company of rebellious spirits. These are illustrative of the text, “When Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels, and the great dragon was cast out.”

The painting of such a picture at Arezzo, about 1400, caused the death of Spinello d’Arezzo, whose mind so dwelt upon the demons he had painted that he went mad, and fancied that Lucifer appeared to him, and cursed him for having represented the fiend and his angels in so revolting a manner. The horror of the artist induced a fever of which he died.

The smaller of the two pictures of this subject by Rubens, in Munich, is esteemed a miracle of art. It displays the inventive power of the great Flemish master in a wonderful tour de force, for the rebel angels are not fallen, but falling, and tumbling headlong out of heaven, down, down, in such confusion and affright as only Rubens could portray.

In some cases Raphael and Gabriel are represented as witnesses of the combat between Michael and Lucifer. To my taste, these figures, with their abundant white draperies, detract from the simplicity and dignity of this impressive scene. Not only these archangels, but apostles and saints are sometimes introduced, in spite of the evident anachronism, as observers of this great spiritual struggle, while hosts of angels are above and around the picture.

In short, the representations of this subject, in one form and another, are almost numberless, and can scarcely be too many, when they are regarded as embodying the great truth of the spiritual triumph over evil.

Mrs. Jameson says: “This is the secret of its perpetual repetition, and this the secret of the untired complacency with which we regard it. . .and if to this primal moral significance be added all the charm of poetry, grace, animated movement, which human genius has lavished on this ever-blessed, ever-welcome symbol, then, as we look up at it, we are ‘not only touched, but wakened and inspired,’ and the whole delighted imagination glows with faith and hope, and grateful triumphant sympathy, so, at least, I have felt, and I must believe that others have felt it, too.”

The representations of Saint Michael as the Lord of Souls are less numerous than those of the subjects just mentioned, but are very interesting. In some votive pictures he appears as the protector of those who have struggled with evil, and gained a victory. In such pictures the angel has his foot upon the dragon, or holds a dragon’s head in his hand, and bears the banner of victory.

Again, Michael is represented with his scales engaged in weighing the souls of the dead; in such pictures he is unarmed, and bears a sceptre ending in a cross. The souls are typified by little naked human figures; the accepted spirits usually kneel in the scales, with hands clasped as in prayer; the attitude of the rejected souls expresses horror and agony, which is sometimes emphasized by the figure of a demon, impatient for his prey, who reaches out his talons, or his devil’s fork, to seize the doomed spirits.

Leonardo da Vinci represented the angel as presenting the balance to the Infant Jesus, who has the air of blessing the pious soul in the upper scale. Signorelli, about 1500, painted a picture of this subject, which is in the church of San Gregorio at Rome, in which the archangel, in a suit of mail, stands with his wings spread out, and the balance with full scales held above a fierce, open-mouthed dragon. The lance of the archangel has pierced through the under jaw of the beast and entered his body, making an ugly wound, and a hideous little demon, resting on his tiny black wings, is clutching the condemned spirits in the lower scale.

In pictures of the Assumption or Glorification of the Virgin, if Saint Michael is present, it is in his office of Lord of Souls, as the legends of the Madonna teach that he received her spirit, and guarded it until it was again united with her sinless form.

As Lord of Souls it is taught that Saint Michael conducted the spirits of the just to heaven, and even cared for their bodies in some instances. The legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria teaches that her body was borne by angels over the desert and sea to the top of Mount Sinai, where it was buried; and later a monastery was built over her sepulchre. In the picture of the “Translation of Saint Catherine,” which we give, Saint Michael is one of the four celestial bearers of the martyr saint.

In rare instances Saint Michael was represented without wings. Such a figure standing on a dragon is a Saint George, unless the balance is introduced. When the archangel stands upon the dragon with the balance in his hand, he appears in his double office as Conqueror of Satan and Lord of Souls. Memorial chapels and tombs were frequently decorated with this subject, a notable instance being that on the tomb of Henry VII, in Westminster Abbey.

In pictures of the Last Judgment, Saint Michael is sometimes seen in the very act of weighing souls, and, although I have nowhere found this explanation, it has seemed to me that the souls being thus weighed at the last hour should symbolize those of whom Saint Paul said, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

Since the Archangel Michael was made the guardian of the Hebrew nation, he was naturally an important actor in many scenes connected with their history. It was he who succored Hagar in the wilderness (Genesis 21:17), who appeared to restrain Abraham from the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:11). He brought the plagues on Egypt and led the Israelites on their journey. The Jews and early Christians believed that God spake through the mouth of Michael in the Burning Bush, and by him sent the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. When Satan would have entered the body of Moses, in order to personate the prophet and deceive the Jews, it was Michael who contended with the Evil One, and buried the body in an unknown place, as is distinctly stated by Jude. Signorelli chose this as the subject of one of his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, and I have seen no other representation of it, although I believe that a few others exist.

It was Michael who put blessings instead of curses into Balaam’s mouth (Numbers 22:35), who was with Joshua in the plain of Jericho (Joshua 5:13), who appeared to Gideon (Judges 6:2), and delivered the three faithful Jews from the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:25). This last subject is one of the earliest in Christian art, and was a symbol of the redemption of man by Jesus Christ. There are still other like offices which Saint Michael filled as the protector of the Jews, while several important works are attributed to him in the Apochrypha and in the Legends of the Church.

For example, in the apochryphal story of Bel and the Dragon, it is related that when King Cyrus had thrown the prophet Daniel into the lions’ den, and he had been six days without food, the angel of the Lord appeared to the prophet Habakkuk in Jewry, when he had prepared a mess of potage for the reapers in his field, and the angel commanded Habakkuk to carry the potage to Babylon and give it to Daniel.

“Then Habakkuk said, ‘Lord, I never saw Babylon; neither do I know where the den is.’ Then the angel of the Lord took Habakkuk by the hair of his head, and set him in Babylon over the lions’ den; and Habakkuk cried, saying, ‘O Daniel, Daniel, take the dinner which God hath sent thee,’ – and the angel again set Habakkuk in his own place.”

At one period this subject was represented on sarcophagi; but I have only seen it in prints after the Flemish artist, Hemshirk.

In the legends of Saint Michael we read that in the sixth century, when the plague was raging in Rome, and processions threaded the streets chanting the service since known as the Great Litanies, the Archangel Michael appeared, hovering over the city. He alighted on the summit of the Mausoleum of Hadrian and sheathed his sword, from which blood was dripping. From that hour the plague was stayed, and from that day the Mausoleum, which is surmounted by a statue of the Archangel, has been called the Castle of Sant’ Angelo.

The legends also give an account of two appearances of Saint Michael when he commanded the erection of churches; one at Monte Galgano, on the east coast of Italy, and the second at Avranches in Normandy. The first site was found to cover a wonderful stream of water, which cured many diseases, and made the church of Monte Galgano a much frequented place of pilgrimage.

The church in Normandy is on the celebrated Mont Saint Michael, and is famous in all Christian countries. From the time when the angel appeared to Saint Aubert, the bishop, and commanded him to build the church, this saint was greatly venerated in France, and was made patron of France and of the order which Saint Louis instituted in his honor.

The first church erected here was small, but Richard of Normandy and William the Conquerer raised a magnificent abbey, which overlooked the most picturesque scenery, and for this reason, if no other, remains a much frequented spot.

The old English coin called an angel was so named from the representation of Saint Michael which was stamped upon it.

The pictures of Saint Michael announcing to the Virgin Mary the time of her death, bear so strong a resemblance to those of the Annunciation, that it is necessary to remember that these have the symbols of a palm on a lighted taper in the hand of the angel, instead of the lily of the Archangel Gabriel, as is seen in our illustration of a beautiful picture in the Florentine Academy.

The legend relates that on a certain day the heart of Mary was filled with an inexpressible longing to see her Son, and she wept sorely, when lo! an angel clothed in light appeared before her, saluting her, and saying, “Hail, O Mary! blessed by Him who hath given salvation to Israel! I bring thee here a branch of palm gathered in paradise; command that it be carried before thy bier in the day of thy death; for in three days thy soul shall leave thy body, and thou shalt enter into paradise where thy Son awaits thy coming.” Mary answering, said: “If I have found grace in thy sight tell me thy name, and grant that the Apostles may be reunited to me, that in their presence I may give up my soul to God. Also, I pray thee, that after death my soul may not be affrighted by any spirit of darkness, nor any evil angel be given power over me.” And the archangel replied: “My name is the Great and Wonderful. Doubt not that the Apostles shall be with thee today, for he who transported the prophet Habakkuk by the hair of his head to the lions’ den, can also bring hither the Apostles. Fear thou not the evil spirit, for thou hast bruised his head, and destroyed his kingdom.” And the angel departed, and the palm branch shed light from every leaf and sparkled as the stars of heaven.

And the duty of the archangel was thus fulfilled until he should again appear as Lord of Souls to receive the spirit of the Virgin, to guard it until it should again inhabit her sinless body.