Angels in Art


Supposed phenomena not subject to the laws of nature

“Supernatural refers to phenomena or entities that are beyond the laws of nature. The term is derived from Medieval Latin supernaturalis, from Latin super- (above, beyond, or outside of) + natura (nature). Although the corollary term “nature” has had multiple meanings since the ancient world, the term “supernatural” emerged in the Middle Ages and did not exist in the ancient world.”

“The supernatural is featured in folklore and religious contexts, but can also feature as an explanation in more secular contexts, as in the cases of superstitions or belief in the paranormal. The term is attributed to non-physical entities, such as angels, demons, gods, and spirits. It also includes claimed abilities embodied in or provided by such beings, including magic, telekinesis, levitation, precognition, and extrasensory perception.”


Angels in art

Overview of the role of angels in art

“Angels have appeared in works of art since early Christian art, and they have been a popular subject for Byzantine and European paintings and sculpture.”

“Normally given wings in art, angels are usually intended, in both Christian and Islamic art, to be beautiful, though several depictions go for more awe-inspiring or frightening attributes, notably in the depiction of the living creatures (which have bestial characteristics), ophanim (which are wheels) and cherubim (which have mosaic features); As a matter of theology, they are spiritual beings who do not eat or excrete and are genderless. Many historical depictions of angels may appear to the modern eye to be gendered as either male or female by their dress or actions, but until the 19th century, even the most female looking will normally lack breasts, and the figures should normally be considered as genderless. In 19th-century art, especially funerary art, this traditional convention is sometimes abandoned. The lack of gender was to enable these winged creatures to be relatable to both genders.”

“Specific ideas regarding how to portray angels began to develop in the early Church. Since angels are defined as pure spirits, the lack of a defined form has allowed artists wide latitude for creativity. Daniel 8:15 describes Gabriel as appearing in the “likeness of man” and in Daniel 9:21 he is referred to as “the man Gabriel.” Such anthropomorphic descriptions of an angel are consistent with previous descriptions of angels, as in Genesis 19:5. They were usually depicted in the form of young men.”

“The earliest known Christian image of an angel, in the Cubicolo dell’Annunziazione in the Catacomb of Priscilla, which is dated to the middle of the third century, is a depiction of the Annunciation in which Gabriel is portrayed without wings. Representations of angels on sarcophagi and on objects such as lamps and reliquaries of that period also show them without wings, as for example the angel in the Sacrifice of Isaac scene in the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.”

“In a third-century fresco of the Hebrew children in the furnace, in the cemetery of St. Priscilla, a dove takes the place of the angel, while a fourth-century representation of the same subject, in the coemeterium majus, substitutes the Hand of God for the heavenly messenger.”

“The earliest known representation of angels with wings is on what is called the Prince’s Sarcophagus, discovered at Sarigüzel, near Istanbul, in the 1930s, and attributed to the time of Theodosius I (379-395). Flying winged angels, very often in pairs flanking a central figure or subject, are derivations in visual terms from pairs of winged Victories in classical art.”

“In this same period, Saint John Chrysostom explained the significance of angels’ wings: “They manifest a nature’s sublimity. That is why Gabriel is represented with wings. Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature. Accordingly, the wings attributed to these powers have no other meaning than to indicate the sublimity of their nature.””

“From then on Christian art generally represented angels with wings, as in the cycle of mosaics in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (432–440). Multi-winged angels, often with only their face and wings showing, drawn from the higher grades of angels, especially cherubim and seraphim, are derived from Persian art,[citation needed] and are usually shown only in heavenly contexts, as opposed to performing tasks on Earth. They often appear in the pendentives of domes or semi-domes of churches.”