Angels in Art – Introductory

Angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, and all the glorious hosts of heaven were a fruitful source of inspiration to the oldest painters and sculptors whose works are known to us, while the artists of our more practical, less dreamful age are, from time to time, inspired to reproduce their conceptions of the guardian angels of our race.

The Almighty declared to Job that the creation of the world was welcomed with shouts of joy by “all the sons of God,” and the story of the words and works of the angels written in the Scriptures – from the placing of the cherubim at the east of the Garden of Eden, to the worship of the angel by John, in the last chapter of Revelation – presents them to us as heavenly guides, consolers, protectors, and reprovers of human beings.

What study is more charming and restful than that of the angels as set forth in Holy Writ and the writings of the early Church? or more interesting to observe than the manner in which the artists of various nations and periods have expressed their ideas concerning these celestial messengers of God? What more fascinating, more stimulating to the imagination and further removed from the exhausting tension of our day and generation?

The Old Testament represents the angels as an innumerable host, discerning good and evil by reason of superior intelligence, and without passion doing the will of God. Having the power to slay, it is only exercised by the command of the Almighty, and not until after the Captivity do we read of evil angels who work wickedness among men. In fact, after this time the Hebrews seem to have added much to their angelic theory and faith which harmonizes with the religion of the Chaldeans, and with the teaching of Zoroaster.

The angels of the New Testament, while exempt from need and suffering, have sympathy with human sorrow, rejoice over repentance of sin, attend on prayerful souls, and conduct the spirits of the just to heaven when the earthly life is ended.

One may doubt, however, if from the Scriptural teaching concerning angels would emanate the universal interest in their representation, and the personal sympathy with it, which is commonly shared by all sorts and conditions of men, did they not cherish a belief – consciously or otherwise – that beings superior to themselves exist, and employ their superhuman powers for the blessing of our race, and for the welfare of individuals. Evidently Spenser felt this when he wrote:

“How oft do they their silver bowers leave,
And come to succor us that succor want?
How oft do they with golden pinions cleave
The flitting skies, like flying pursuivant,
Against foul fiends, to aid us militant?
They for us fight, they watch, and duly ward,
And their bright squadrons round about us plant,
And all for love, and nothing for reward!
Oh, why should heavenly God to men have such regard!”

As early as the fourth century the Christian Church had developed a profound belief in the existence of both good and evil angels, “the foul fiends” and “bright squadrons” of Spenser’s lines, the former ever tempting human beings to sin, and the indulgence of their lower natures; the latter inciting them to pursue good, forsaking evil and pressing forward to the perfect Christian life. This faith is devoutly maintained in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, in which we are also taught that angelic aid may be invoked in our need, and that a consciousness of the abiding presence of celestial beings should be a supreme solace to human sorrow and suffering.

It remained for the theologians of the Middle Ages to exercise their fruitful imaginations in originating a systematic classification of the Orders of the Heavenly Host, and assigning to each rank its distinctive office. The warrant for these discriminations may seem insufficient to sceptical minds, but as their results are especially manifest in the works of the old masters, some knowledge of them is necessary to the student of Art; without it a large proportion of the famous religious pictures of the world are utterly void of meaning.

Speaking broadly, this classification was based on that of Saint Paul, when he speaks of “the principalities and powers in heavenly places,” and of “thrones and dominions;” on the account by Jude of the fall of the “angels which kept not their first estate;” on the triumphs of the Archangel Michael, and a few other texts of Scripture. Upon these premises the angelic host was divided into three hierarchies, and these again into nine choirs.

The first hierarchy embraces seraphim, cherubim, and thrones, the first mention being sometimes given to the cherubim. Dionysius the Areopagite – to whom Saint Paul confided all that he had seen, when transported to the seventh heaven – accords the first rank to the seraphim, while the familiar hymn of Saint Ambrose has accustomed us to saying, “To Thee, cherubim and seraphim continually do cry.” Dante gives preference to Dionysius as an authority, and says of him:

“For he had learn’d
Both this and much beside of these our orbs
From an eye-witness to Heaven’s mysteries.”

The second hierarchy includes the dominations, virtues, and powers; the third, princedoms, archangels, and angels. The first hierarchy receives its glory directly from the Almighty, and transmits it to the second, which, in turn, illuminates the third, which is especially dedicated to the care and service of the human race.

From the third hierarchy come the ministers and messengers of God; the second is composed of governors, and the first of councillors. The choristers of heaven are also angels, and the making of music is an important angelic duty.

The seraphim immediately surround the throne of God, and are ever lost in adoration and love, which is expressed in their very name, seraph coming from a Hebrew root, meaning love. The cherubim also worship the Creator, and are assigned to some special duties; they are superior in knowledge, and the word cherub, also from the Hebrew, signifies to know. Thrones sustain the seat of the Almighty.

The second hierarchy governs the elements and the stars. Princedoms protect earthly monarchies, while archangels and angels are the agents of God in his dealings with humanity. The title of angel, signifying a messenger, may be, and is, given to a man bearing important tidings. Thus the Evangelists are represented with wings, and John the Baptist is, in this sense, an angel. The Greeks sometimes represent Christ with wings, and call him “The Great Angel of the Will of God.”

Very early in the history of Art a system of religious symbolism existed, a knowledge of which greatly enhances the pleasure derived from representations of sacred subjects. In no case was this symbolism more carefully observed than in the representations of angels. The aureole or nimbus is never omitted from the head of an angel, and is always, wherever used, the symbol of sanctity.

Wings are the distinctive angelic symbol, and are emblematic of spirit, power, and swiftness. Seraphim and cherubim are usually represented by heads with one, two, or three pairs of wings, which symbolize pure spirit, informed by love and intelligence; the head is an emblem of the soul, the love, the knowledge, while the wings have their usual significance.

This manner of representing the two highest orders of angels is very ancient, and in the earliest instances in existence the faces are human, thoughtful, and mature. Gradually they became child-like, and were intended to express innocence, and later they degenerated into absurd little baby heads, with little wings folded under the chin. These in no sense convey the original, spiritual significance of the seraphic and cherubic head.

The first Scriptural mention of cherubim with wings occurs after the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, Exodus 25:20: “And the cherubim shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat.” Isaiah gives warrant for six wings, as frequently represented in Art, and so vividly described by Milton:

Perugino - A Six-winged Cherub (from the Assumption of the Virgin)“A seraph winged; six wings he wore to shade
His lineaments divine; the pair that clad
Each shoulder broad, came mantling o’er his breast
With regal ornament; the middle pair
Girt like a starry zone his waist, and round
Skirted his loins and thighs with downy gold
And colors dipp’d in heaven; the third, his feet
Shadow’d from either heel with feather’d mail,
Sky-tinctured grain.”

In Ezekiel we read that “their wings were stretched upward when they flew; when they stood they let down their wings.” There is, no doubt, Scriptural authority for representing angels’ wings in the most realistic manner, since Daniel says “they had wings like a fowl.” Is it not more desirable, however, to see angel-wings rather than bird-wings? The more devout and imaginative artists succeeded in overcoming the commonplace in this regard by various devices. For example, Orcagna, in the Campo Santo at Pisa, makes the bodies of his angels to end in delicate wings instead of legs; in some old pictures the wings fade into a cloudy vapor, or burst into flames. In one of Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican, we see fiery cherubs, their hair, wings, and limbs ending in glowing flames, while their faces are full of spirit and intelligence. Certainly, if anywhere purely impressionist painting is acceptable and fitting, it is in the portrayal of heavenly wings.

Mrs. Jameson, in writing of this subject, says, “Infinitely more beautiful and consistent are the nondescript wings which the early painters gave their angels: large, so large that, when the glorious creature is represented as at rest, they droop from the shoulders to the ground; with long, slender feathers, eyed sometimes like the peacock’s train, bedropped with gold like the pheasant’s breast, tinted with azure and violet and crimson, ‘Colors dipp’d in Heaven,’ – they are really angel-wings, not bird-wings.”

It is interesting to note that wings were used by the artists of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Nineveh, and Etruria as symbols of might, majesty, and divine beauty.

A Glory of Angels by Fra AngelicoThe representation of great numbers of angels, surrounding the Deity, the Trinity, or the glorified Virgin, is known as a Glory of Angels, and is most expressive and poetical when æsthetically portrayed. A Glory, when properly represented, is composed of the hierarchies of angels in circles, each hierarchy in its proper order. Complete Glories, with nine circles, are exceedingly rare. Many artists contented themselves with two or three, and sometimes but a single circle, thus symbolizing the symbol of the Glory.

The nine choirs of angels are represented in various ways when not in a Glory, and are frequently seen in ancient frescoes, mosaics, and sculptures. Sometimes each choir has three figures, thus symbolizing the Trinity; again, two figures stand for each choir, and occasionally nine figures personate the three hierarchies; in the last representation careful attention was given to colors as well as to symbols.

The Princedoms and Powers of Heaven are represented by rows and groups of angels, all wearing the same dress and the same tiara, and bearing the orb of sovereignty and wands like sceptres.

One of the most important elements in the proper painting of seraphs and cherubs was the use of color, while greater freedom was permitted in the portrayal of other angelic orders. In a Glory, for example, the inner circle should be glowing red, the symbol of love; the second, blue, the emblem of light, which again symbolizes knowledge.

Angelic symbolism in its purity makes the “blue-eyed seraphim” and the “smiling cherubim” equally incorrect, since the seraph should be glowing with divine love, and the face of the cherub should be expressive of serious meditation, as Milton says, “the Cherub Contemplation.” The familiar cherubim beneath Raphael’s famous Madonna di San Sisto, in the Dresden Gallery, are exquisite illustrations of this thoughtfulness.

The colors of the oldest pictures, of the illuminated manuscripts, the stained glass, and the painted sculptures were most carefully considered. Gradually, however, the color law was less faithfully observed, until, at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries, it was not unusual to see the wings of cherubim in various colors, while cherub heads were represented as floating in clouds with no apparent wings.

Two pictures of world-wide fame illustrate this change, Raphael’s Madonna, mentioned above, and Perugino’s Coronation of the Virgin. In the first, the entire background is composed of seraphs and cherubs apparently evolved from thin blue air, and in constant danger of disappearing in the golden-tinted background. In the second, the multi-colored wings of the floating cherubim are beautiful and the harmony of tones is exquisite, but they represent an innovation to which one must become more and more accustomed as artists are less reverent in their work.

The five angelic choirs which follow the seraphim and cherubim are not familiar to us in works of art, although they were painted with great accuracy in the words of the mediæval theologians.

When archangels are represented merely as belonging to their order, and not in their distinctive offices, they are in complete armor, and bear swords with the points upwards, and sometimes a trumpet also.

Angels are robed, and are represented in accordance with the work in which they are engaged. Strictly speaking, the wand is the angelic symbol, but must be frequently omitted, as when the hands are folded in prayer, or musical instruments are in use, and in a variety of other occupations.

All angels are said to be masculine. They are represented as having human forms and faces, young, beautiful, perfect, with an expression of other-worldliness. They are created beings, therefore not eternal, but they are never old, and should not be infantile. Such representations as can be called infant angels should symbolize the souls of regenerate men, or the spirits of such as die in infancy, those of whom Jesus said that “in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father.”

Angels are changeless; for them time does not exist; they enjoy perpetual youth and uninterrupted bliss. To these qualities should be added an impression of unusual power, wisdom, innocence, and spiritual love.

In the earliest pictures of angels the drapery was ample, and no unusual attitudes, no insufficient robes, nor unsuitable expression was seen in such representations so long as religious art was at its best.

White should be the prevailing color of angelic drapery, but delicate shades of blue, red, and green were frequently employed with wonderful effect. The Venetians used an exquisite pale salmon color in the drapery of their angels; but no dark or heavy colors are seen in the robes of angels in the pictures of the old Italian masters. The early German painters, however, affected angelic draperies of such vast expanse and weighty coloring, embroidery, and jewels, that apparently their angels must perforce descend to earth, and never hope to rise again without a change of toilet.

I shall presently speak of angels in their offices of messengers, guardians, choristers, and comforters. At present I am thinking of the multitudes of angels which were introduced into early religious pictures to indicate a “cloud of witnesses.” They lend an element of beauty and of spiritual emotion to the scenes honored with their presence. Their effectiveness has appealed to many Christian architects who have fully profited by the example of Solomon, who “carved all the walls of the house – temple – with carved figures of cherubim,” and he made the doors of olive-tree, and he carved on them figures of cherubim.

In the same manner, in many old churches, angels carved in marble, stone or wood, and painted on glass, in frescoes on walls, and in smaller pictures, fill all spaces, and are everywhere beautiful. So long, however, as the stricter theological observances prevailed, angels were not permitted as mere decorations, but were so placed as to illustrate some solemn and significant portion of the belief and teaching of the Church.

Angels were only second to the persons of the Trinity at this period, and preceded the Evangelists. They were represented as surrounding divine beings, and the Virgin Enthroned, or in Glory.

What was known as a Liturgy of Angels was most effective and beautiful. It consisted of a procession of angels on each side of the choir, apparently approaching the altar, all wearing the stole and alba of a deacon, and bearing the implements of the mass. The statues of kneeling angels, not infrequently placed on each side the altar, holding tapers, or the emblems of the Passion of Christ, were not mere decorations, but symbolized the angelic presence wherever Christ is worshipped. In short, either processions or single figures of angels, in any part of a church, and apparently approaching the altar, are symbols of the glorious hosts of heaven who evermore praise God.

During the first three centuries of Christianity the representation of angels was not permissible, and it is interesting to observe the crude and curious manner in which they were pictured in the illuminated manuscripts and the mosaics of the fifth century. Indeed, until the tenth century the angels in Art were curiously formed, and more curiously draped.

Giotto first approached the ideal representation of angels, and, naturally, his pupils excelled him in their conception of what these celestial beings should be. It was, however, Angelico who first – and shall we not say last? – succeeded in portraying absolutely unearthly angels, angels who must have appeared to him in his holy dreams, and impressed themselves on his pure spirit in such a wise that with mere paints and brushes he could picture a superhuman purity.

Not an angel of Angelico’s resembles any man, while in the angels of other masters, beautiful, seraphic, and charming as they may be, we often fancy that we see a beautiful boy, or a happy child, who might have served the artist as an angel-making model.

Wonderfully celestial as Angelico’s angels seem to be, they are feminine, almost without exception. In his time this criticism was held to be a serious one; but since angels are sexless, according to the religious teaching on which this spiritually-minded monk relied, I fail to see ground for disapprobation of his work.

The angels of Giotto and Benozzo Gozzoli, with all their beauty, are also feminine, while the great Michael Angelo, whose angels have not yet attained to wings, failed to represent such celestial beings as one would choose as personal attendants.

Leonardo’s angels almost grin; Correggio reproduced the lovely children who did duty as his angels; almost the same may be said of Titian; while in the pictures by Francesco Albani, Guido Reni, and the Caracci, the angels are simply attractive and even elegant boys, as may be seen in our illustration of the child Jesus with angels, by Albani. It is so difficult to distinguish the angels of some artists from their cupids, that one can only decide between them by learning the titles of their pictures. These are characteristics of the works of these masters as a whole, with rare exceptions, rather than of single pictures.

To whom, then, may one look for satisfactory angels? For myself, I answer, to Raphael, and especially to his later works. His angels are sexless, spiritual, graceful, and, at the same time, the personification of intelligence and power, as may be seen in our illustration of the Archangel Michael. Witness also the three angels in the Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, in the Stanza della Signatura, in the Vatican. They are without wings, and none are needed to emphasize their godlike wrath against the thief who robbed the widow and orphan in the very temple of the Most High. The celestial warrior on his celestial steed, believed to be Saint Michael, in his office of Protector of the Hebrews, the deadly mace drawn back ready to strike the fallen robber, and his two rapidly gliding attendants, with streaming hair and swift, spirit-like movement, are such conceptions and personifications of superhuman power as can scarcely be paralleled in any other work of Art.

Rembrandt, too, painted wonderful angels. No adjective ordinarily applied to such pictures is suited to these. They are poetical, unearthly apparitions, and once studied, can no more be forgotten than can some of Dante’s and Shakepeare’s immortal lines.

Modern artists have, speaking generally, wisely followed the examples of old masters in their treatment of angels. The poet Blake, however, is a notable exception to this rule. He painted angels that surely “sing to heaven,” while they float upon the air which their diaphanous drapery scarcely displaces, and seem about to vanish and become a portion of the ether which surrounds them.

I cannot better close this chapter than by quoting what Mr. Ruskin writes of the earlier and later representations of angels.

He says of the earlier pictures that there is “a certain confidence in the way in which angels trust to their wings, very characteristic of a period of bold and simple conception. Modern science has taught us that a wing cannot be anatomically joined to a shoulder; and, in proportion as painters approach more and more to the scientific, as distinguished from the contemplative state of mind, they put the wings of their angels on more timidly, and dwell with greater emphasis on the human form, with less upon the wings, until these last become a species of decorative appendage, a mere sign of an angel.

“But in Giotto’s time an angel was a complete creature, as much believed in as a bird, and the way in which it would, or might, cast itself into the air, and lean hither and thither on its plumes, was as naturally apprehended as the manner of flight of a chough or a starling.

“Hence, Dante’s simple and most exquisite synonym for angel, ‘Bird of God;’ and hence, also, a variety and picturesqueness in the expression of the movements of the heavenly hierarchies by the earlier painters, ill-replaced by the powers of foreshortening and throwing naked limbs into fantastic positions, which appear in the cherubic groups of later times.”