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LITURGY

IMAGES OF GOOD ANGELS

The Fourth Lateran Council teaches that God is "Creator of all things invisible and visible, spiritual and corporeal, who from the beginning of time and by His omnipotent power made from nothing creatures both spiritual and corporeal, angelic, namely, and mundane, and then human, as it were, common, composed of spirit and body." Angels are the creatures that are "spiritual" and "invisible"; they have no corporal or visible parts, and they have no bodies. For this reason, any artistic images of angels using corporal media such as light and color and size are allegorical. Even descriptions of angelic appearances in Sacred Scripture are symbolic - which is not to say that they are not real. This page selectively explores various depictions of angels in art in order to illuminate the nature of their allegories.

 

 

This ivory carving comes from fifth-century Milan. It depicts the resurrection account described in Matthew: "After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men. Then the angel said to the women in reply, 'Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said'" (Mt 28:1-6). Sacred Scripture uses lightning in other places to describe the appearance of angels, including the visions of Ezekiel (Ez 1:13) and Daniel: "His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the noise of a multitude" (Dn 10:6). Artists have always been daunted at the prospect of portraying lightning-like creatures, and so they adopt other symbolic forms in their carvings and paintings. This ancient Milanese artist portrays the angel of the resurrection as a sturdy young man who is perfect in form, and whose head is surrounded by a halo representing holiness and the wisdom of God.

 
     

The church of San Vitale in Ravenna, constructed in the early fifth century, contains magnificent mosaics. This one depicts Abraham's three angelic visitors at Mamre (Genesis 18), here depicted as vigorous young men with halos representing their sanctity, but without wings or any other obvious markings. This is one of the most important "angelophanies" or appearances of angels in Sacred Scripture. Through this vision of angels, the Lord promises to Abraham and Sarah that they will have a son who will inherit all the promises that God has made to Abraham. Like the similarly fundamental revelation to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3), the sacred text describing Abraham's vision at Mamre is ambiguous with regard to whether the Lord himself is appearing or the angel of the Lord. In the Acts of the Apostles, St Stephen the Protomartyr attributes to an angel the revelation to Moses, and as a consequence the Old Testament Law itself: "an angel appeared to him [Moses] in the desert near Mount Sinai in the flame of a burning bush" (Acts 7:30).  Thus St Augustine posits that all theophanies or manifestations of the power of God in the Old Testament were mediated through angels (De Trinitate III.27).

 
     

"I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!' they cried one to the other, 'All the earth is filled with his glory!' At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke" (Is 6:1-4). With these words, the prophet Isaiah describes the vision he saw in the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 742 B.C. Ezekiel also had a vision of the throne of God surrounded by angels. Ezekiel describes the angels as living creatures with four faces each -- the face of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle -- and four wings each with human hands under the wings (Ez 1:5-28). The seraph on the right was painted in Spain in the eighth century of the Christian era. Judging from the six wings, it is clearly a seraph. The eyes recall a detail of the vision revealed to a third man of God, John the Seer, and recorded in the Book of Revelation: "In the center and around the throne, there were four living creatures covered with eyes in front and in back. The first creature resembled a lion, the second was like a calf, the third had a face like that of a human being, and the fourth looked like an eagle in flight. The four living creatures, each of them with six wings, were covered with eyes inside and out. Day and night they do not stop exclaiming: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come'" (Rv 4:6-8). In the Mass, when we chant the Sanctus or "Holy, holy, holy," we are brought into the seraphim's worship of God on his exalted throne in heaven.

 
     

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left" (Mt 25:31-33). The western facade of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was completed in A.D. 1225. Carved into it is this scene of the parousia or second coming of Christ and the final judgment. Christ sits enthroned in glory flanked by angels and presiding over the judgment of men. Note that an angel, often associated with St Michael, holds a scale that weighs the merits of each individual soul. The devil is particularly interested in this scale, since those found wanting in good deeds or heavy in evil deeds are being led to hell by his demons. It is no coincidence that the devil has the horns of a goat, and that the damned are taken away to the left hand of Christ.

 
     

This wood panel, painted by Hugo van der Goes (fl. 1467-1482), was originally painted to adorn an altar. In this scene of the nativity, Christ is adored not only by Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, but also by fourteen angels (not all visible in this cropping). The Gospel according to Luke depicts the role of the angels in promoting adoration of the newborn Christ Child by announcing his birth to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20). Van der Goes portrays the angels as miniature human beings with wings and robes of varying colors and levels of refinery. by such means, the artist demonstrates different levels in the angelic hierarchy patterned after the social hierarchies of his day. We still have similar means of exhibiting status: one who wears an Armani suit is obviously higher in status and power than one who wears a Lands End suit. There is hierarchy in heaven as there is hierarchy on earth.

 
     

In this fifteenth-century painting, Francesco Botticini (1445-1496) depicts the three archangels, from left to right, St Michael, St Raphael shown with Tobias, and St Gabriel. Artists modeled their depictions of angels' wings upon large birds that were known to them. St Raphael, in this image, has peacock's wings. Peacock wings, being covered with eyes, are especially suitable for reflecting angelic knowledge. St Michael is often depicted with a sword and armor, which represent his importance in the battle against Satan and the fallen angels. St Gabriel carries a lily, which represents the Blessed Virgin Mary and the role that Gabriel had in the Annunciation. Artistic depictions of Gabriel typically demonstrate his role in announcing salvation through Christ, whereas depictions of Michael represent his role in fighting the forces of evil on behalf of the Church militant.

 
     

"... the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, 'Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.' But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Lk 1:26-33). The Annunciation of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by the angel Gabriel to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary is the most frequently depicted scene in Catholic art. This painting by Federico Fiori, also known as Barocci, was painted in the late sixteenth century (1582-1584). Gabriel, holding the lily that represents the Virgin's purity, is actually kneeling, in a gesture of respect and reverence that is uniquely owed to the Mother of God, even by the holy angels. Note that the first half of the Hail Mary consists of Gabriel's words. Whenever we pray the Hail Mary, then, we are repeating the words with which the angel Gabriel greeted the Most Blessed Virgin Mary.

 
     

Angels were not portrayed as infants until the Renaissance. They first appeared in Italy in the fifteenth century, and became more common in the sixteenth century. At that point, artists and authors sought models of expression in ancient pagan culture, and they patterned these angels after Greco-Roman depictions of Cupid and his assistants. These naked infant angels became known as putti, and are often referred to as cherubs. The famous putti on the right were painted by Raphael around 1513. In their larger context, they are adoring the Most Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child she is holding.

 
     

This is not a cherub or any other kind of angel; it is a human child, by the name of Jerome Maximilian Van Slyke. When folks call little children "angels," they mean that children have some characteristics of angels. Their innocence, or lack of personal sin, would be foremost among them. Furthermore, children clearly show forth God's love, mercy, and the goodness of his creation. Children also have a certain humble credulity and taste for divine things, to which our Lord refers when he says "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18:4). In this same context, our Lord goes on to speak of the guardian angel who accompanies each little child: "Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven" (Mt 18:10). Perhaps the best reason to refer to little children as "angels" or "cherubs" is to remind all that at the final judgment angels will bear witness to how we treat children: "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea" (Mt 18:6).

 
     

This final image represents the "heavenly choirs" at the coronation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven, which entails also being the Queen of the Angels. Raphael painted this canvas in 1502 or 1503. While putti or cherubs consisting of baby faces and wings float above, and more complete putti peek out from below, a choir of angels plays musical instruments. Angelic choirs represent the primary role and occupation of angels: to praise God. Artistic depictions of angelic choirs are patterned after the choirs that we ourselves form to sing God's praise. Such works of art also remind us that we join our voices to the praise of the angels when we worship God in sincerity and truth. This is clear in the prefaces to the eucharistic prayer of the Mass, which precede the "Holy, Holy, Holy" (mentioned above) and end with a formula such as the following: "...so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven we proclaim your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise: Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory."