Claiming that ‘The angel is a being unseen yet easily describable’, Martin commences her article by positioning angels as ethereal, immaterial, flowing figures with ‘majestic wings’.[1] Quite correctly, Martin points out that our present day image of angels has not always existed, but is one that came about in the earliest period of Christianity (the first four centuries). Martin declares her article ’undertakes to explain the sudden appearance of winged angels in the late fourth century within its religious and historical contexts’.  Attempting to factor into her article the question of gender; Martin’s underlying premise is that whilst angels were male in depiction, their model was actually the winged female figure of Nike (although this is only briefly examined in the conclusion).

Guiding us through the ambiguity of scriptural references, Martin informs us that descriptions about the outward appearance of angels are rare, incomplete, or unclear. Remarking upon these ‘sparse descriptions’ Martin reiterates the role as being the more traditional method of approaching and understanding angels. With this in mind, Martin is suggesting that although we are unclear about what angels look like, we have a sense of what their role is. ‘Angel, mal’akh in Hebrew and angelos in Greek, simply means messenger’.[2] This is fairly basic angelological information but crucial in creating a context and framework for the rest of the article, and in fact, Martin uses this contextual detail to reaffirm how angels principle role is an intermediary one between God and people.

Veneration of Woman (Mary) in the Catacombs of Priscilla (Late second century, Rome) This is the earliest known representation of an angel, note that figure is wingless. The scene appears to be that of the annunciation.

So how would we recognise angels if they were before us? ‘Of the some 273 times that angels are mentioned in the Bible, not once are they said to have wings.[3] Psalmic phrases and prophets voices make us believe angels did fly, but such descriptions are not conclusive about wings, e.g.:

Yea, whilst I was speaking in prayer, even the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly swiftly, touched me about the time of the evening oblation. (Daniel 9:21-22)[4]

Daniel recognises ‘the man Gabriel’ and also gives us some sense of what we have incorporated into our modern day vision of the angelic body. Martin does raise an interesting point though: how do we recognise angels – or rather how did the patriarchs recognise them? Lot (Genesis 19:1- 13) recognises the two angels who visit him in Sodom. He recognise the angels, he trusts their position and divinity, and is even prepared to sacrifice his daughters’ virginity to the mob outside his house in order to protect the angels from home. ‘Only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.’ (Genesis 19:8)

So how does Lot recognise these ‘Lords’? Certainly not by wings, for as Martin reminds us by quoting Genesis, the figures are men. It seems reasonable to assume that it is role rather than the appearance which indicates angelic presence. Martin attempts to confirm this as she moves on to discuss the luring of angels unto earth, by ‘the daughters of men’ (Genesis 6:2) Wings are not explicitly mentioned during this passage either, although using such scripture Martin starts to create the space where she argues the ability of angels to move from the heavenly sphere down to earth is one reason for assigning them wings.

Having introduced the beginnings of this argument, Martin shies away and instead quotes a series of scriptural references which define angels as being men in ‘brilliant clothes (Luke 24:4) or dressed in a ‘raiment white as snow (Matthew 28:3) These are, as Martin reminds us, the more elaborate and detailed descriptions (and centre around the tomb of Jesus). The Pseudepigrapha offers much more in the way of poetry and visual identity. ‘The Book of Enoch’ (circa 200 BC to 100 AD) is one of the most angelic of the biblical texts.[5] Interestingly Martin highlights the ‘unlawful union’ between angels and woman, and says that ‘The angels taught humankind the arts of making weapons and of making beauty; thus, through the illicit interactions of women and angels came knowledge that would lead to death and deception’.[6] These angels are doomed and ‘they shall be judged’. Likewise, ‘And the women also of the angels who went astray shall become sirens’. (Enoch 19: 1 – 2)

Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens (1891)

The siren, bird like figures of mythology are highly recognisable; the Homeric sirens with wings are immediately recalled, but the muted and dewinged Pre-Raphaelite sirens also have a place in this construction. Angels remain wingless but their sexual partners, the sirens, ‘are condemned to take a winged form’.[7]

Enoch does mention wings but only once in the First Book of Enoch, (1 Enoch 61:1 A). Martin concludes that ‘Brilliance, not wings, is thus the key identifying characteristic of angels in their earliest complete descriptions from both canonical and non-canonical sources’.[8] Although she immediately qualifies this by saying that the Second Book of Enoch is the only surviving text which includes descriptions of angels as having wings. The description of angels in (1 Enoch 1:4-5 A) is very poetic: With clothing and singing of various kinds in appearance purple, their wings were brighter than gold, their hands whiter than snow.

Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs (1880, Tate).

Out of these many references and sources, Christianity developed a particular iconography. It crossed the boundaries of history, classical imagery, Judaeo Christian sources, and combined to make a new angelic body. The purpose of this was visual metaphor was to provide a means of understanding something beyond ourselves (God), whilst permitting us a mediating presence in between. The oldest form of angels is found in the Catacombs of Rome, and date back to the second half of the third century.[9] Martin says that ‘because angels must take some form in order to be perceived by humans, they are often anthropomorphised’ which is why they appear man-like.[10] The images require a knowledge or familiarity with the scriptural narratives in order to recognise the ‘angelic’. Are men angels? Psalm 104 suggests they are beings of fire and wind. The issue with a being having such a creative and imaginative form is that it limits the capacity for angels to negotiate with humans. Or rather it limits mans’ capacity to understand just how we could communicate with beings that are aflame. The arts needed to offer a solution to this in order that we may have someone on our side, a being that can negotiate on our behalf perhaps, or one that can pass messages between us and God. Anthropomorphic beings therefore function as a kind of resolution to this problem, providing a being which can appear close to us whilst maintaining their celestial role. It is precisely because of this reason, that there are known examples of bearded angels in the fourth century AD, some even balding. After the fourth century wings become a more prominent feature whilst representations of beards disappear altogether (there is only one known later depiction of an angel with a beard which appears on an early fifth century ivory carving). Martin sees this as a ‘dramatic’ change: from the manly angels akin to our own bodies to those ‘winged beings we still recognise today’.[11]

The fourth century is key in this shift, because it is during the period that Christianity became a legalised religion and the Roman Empire underwent conversion. Religious sophistication mirrors the artistic sophistication. ‘By the late further century, it no longer sufficed to represent angels, who held a position somewhere between God and people, simply as men’.[12] Wings were a necessity to physically move between earth and the firmament. Martin records Tertullian’s (160AD – 240AD) writings that

‘Every spirit is winged, both angels and demons. In this way, in a moment they are everywhere: all the world is for them one place; what is taking place everywhere is as easy for them to know as to tell. It is thought that their velocity is divine because their substance is not known’.[13] I agree with Martin, that the winged angel is perhaps a ‘conflation of the dove of the Holy Spirit and the angel as a flying spiritual messenger.’[14] Martin offers the Catacomb of Priscilla as evidence of the Dove-Angel conflation, ‘rather than a man, with or without wings, the protecting angel is here portrayed as the dove itself’.[15]

The meaning purposes, design etc. of angelic bodies has always been much debated. John Chrysostom (340 / 50 – 407) wrote ‘What do the powers reveal to us by these wings: The exaltedness and ethereality and lightness And speed of their nature. For which reason, Gabriel descends fleet; not that the wings are part of the bodiless power, but that he descends from realms on high and returns to his abode when he was sent.’ With this view ‘wings are an essential aspect of angel as messenger without being a part of an angel’s true, immaterial nature’.[16]

Martin further raises our ambiguous understanding of angelic matter or body, by reiterating Chrysostom’s ‘bodiless power’ and Tertullian’s statement that ‘their substance is not known’. Martin quantifies this confusions as saying that ‘Angels are by their very nature ambiguous, incomprehensible’; I am inclined to concur that ‘they cannot be truly described’.[17] Whilst I am inclined to agree with her on this point, she makes a rather unquantified leap with her statement that ‘Their nature cannot be understood, and therefore the first angels could not be represented as other than man’. I think this sentence carries with it an accusation of early artistic imagination which is somewhat inaccurate, certainly literary sources suggest many other potentials for artistic interpretation of the angelic body and there are many successful images of artistic endeavour which show exceptional imagination. Angels could have been represented differently, by saying it was somehow inevitable that angels were represented as men somehow undermines the reasons behind that particular artistic choice. Portraying angels as men provided solace, comfort, and is reflective of a desire to define the indefinable; if this is what Martin was getting at then I agree, but I do not see it ‘angels as man’ as being an inevitable outcome and think that is an important distinction to make.

Sarcophagus bearing two Angels holding a Chi-Rho (Second Half of Fourth Century, National Archaeological Museum, Istanbul)

Understanding angels’ hierarchical position is key to this distinction. This theological area is extremely complex, and there are various voices to disentangle. Paul’s Letters to the Hebrews (Hebrews 2:14 – 17) is one and he suggests a clear distinction is made between Christ and the angels, ‘But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool? (Hebrews 1:13).

The complexity arises partly from the fact that Christ descends into the form of man. One could say that through Christ assuming the form of man, he elevated the very nature of man above that of the angels who remain merely God’s messengers. Martin suggests this reading is a valid one, and sees scripture as presenting people as his children, whilst she maintains that the artistic distinction between Christ, men, and angels was virtually identical at Pauline times.[18]

Martin goes on to present other views, although she clearly does not value them in the same way. Asserting the superiority of Christ to the angels, she does quote Justin (c. 100 – 165) who names ‘Angel as one of the titles of Christ’.[19] Whilst, Tertullian disagreed with this, preferring instead to describe Christ as messenger in office rather than nature, Novatian understood Christ to be angelic in nature as well as in office.[20] God always remains God, and removed, distant and not visible to humanity. Angels and Christ are visible. The question of he who is both God and Angel is an ongoing theological conundrum, albeit one that is of less concern this century when we are less inclined to discuss angels.

If Christ was an angel, the words of Paul are inaccurate, and angels become exalted. This did / could result in angels becoming worshipped, and man subordinate to angels. ‘Angel worship became such a serious problem that it was prohibited at the Council of Laodicea (343 – 381). The prospect of a cult of angels was a concern, and had to be forbidden. Idolatry, even of the angelic body, was evidence of cultic veneration and Christological forgetfulness. This gradual but powerful resistance to the angelic body meant that angels became worthless, rather than venerated worthy beings. The complexity of this worship stems from the position of Christ in / with / above / below that of the angels. ‘Wings were a way to set angels apart from humanity while retaining other aspects of angelic nature, such as angel as fleet messenger’. Wings brought angels back to earth, so although they could fly to heaven, they would inevitably return to man, and by the fourth century art was set upon providing a representative visual solution. The paradoxical complex nature of angels meant that artists incorporated ‘the irrational with the logical, using wings to express the anomalous position of angels, and thus to remind the viewer of their complicated character in a way that a simple anthropomorphic angel could never do’. This is in essence is Martin’s central argument. Angels had to develop the aesthetic power of flight in order to become a successful representation of something outside of humanity.

Martin firmly equates the fourth century as being responsible for the winged impetus. She also relates the Council of Laodicea’s attitude toward women as being embedded within this angelic aesthetic (a separation due to fear of corruption). This is an interesting thought and opens a discussion which Martin barely tackles about angels, sexuality, role of corruption of the daughters of men etc. Martin’s meagre and rather spartan offering here is that ‘angels as men were too attractive to women’ and too susceptible to their female charms’.[21] She suggests this is the reason for diminishing male attributes, the lack of beard, and the more spiritual nature. This is a brief and barely executed thought process but it does raise an extremely interesting point.

Martin suggests that the ‘earliest Christian angels with wings are modelled on pagan female personifications, such as Nike’.[22] Epiphany, doom, punishment, protection, victory are all adjectives which Martin introduces as a means of suggesting that change and the angelic body are interwoven.

Winged Victory of Samothrace (190 BC)

This is key to her final thoughts which are based upon the premise that ‘if the quest had been for a winged male model, it could logically have led the Christian iconographers to Mercury’.[23] Using female iconography, and layering the personifications of victory, ambiguity, prototypes etc. provided the paradoxical nature of angels which scripture itself reveals. Gender neutrality arises from this paradoxical nature, and scripturally responds to Jesus’ indication ‘that angels were neither male nor female’ (Luke 20:27 – 36).

‘Thus the image of the winged angel manages to combine a female model with a male nominative (angelos) in order to portray a creature that is spirit, not belonging to either gender’.[24] This is the reason that Martin perceives the angelic representation in its winged form continues to exist in the present day.

[1] Therese Martin, ‘The Development of Winged Angels in Christian Art’, Historia del Arte Espacio, Tiempo y Forma, Serie VII t. 14 (2001), (p.11 – 29)p. 11

[2] Martin, p. 11.

[3] Bernard N. Schneider cited the number of times angels appear in the Bible in his The World of Unseen Spirits: A Study Guide (Winona Lake: Indiana, 1975), p. 14

[4] For my own consistency of referencing, I always defer to KJV when quoting (Martin does not).

[5] There are two Books by Enoch (respectively 1 and 2, A & B).

[6] Martin, p. 14.

[7] Martin, p. 14.

[8] Martin, p. 15.

[9] See Glen Peers’ new study, Subtle Bodies: Representing Angels in Byzantium (The Transformation of the Classical Heritage) (America: University of California Press, 2001).

[10] Martin, p. 16.

[11] Martin, p.17.

[12] Martin, p. 18.

[13] J.P. Migne, ed., Patrologia cursus completes, Series Latina (Paris, 1844 – 1880) 221 vols., 1:407A – 408A.

[14] Martin, p. 18.

[15] Martin, p. 18.

[16] Martin, p. 18.

[17] Martin, p. 19.

[18] Martin, p. 19.

[19] Martin, p. 20.

[20] Justin, Dialtyphro 61.1; as quoted by Charles Arthur Giescehen, Angelomorphic Christology: Antecents and Early Evidence, PhD dissertation, university of Michigan, 1995, 16 Tertullian, De Carn Cristi 14, Geischen

[21] Martin, p. 22.

[22] Martin, p. 23.

[23] Martin, p .23.

[24] Martin, p. 23.

 

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