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.