Stanhope, Love and the Maiden (1877, MFA, San Francisco)

Ruth Langenberg’s Angels from Dante Rossetti to Paul Klee is a beautiful dip into the many and varied representations of angels throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century.[1]

The little discussed Love and the Maiden (1877, MFA) by Stanhope graces the cover allowing us to have a glimpse of a classical, yet feminine and distinctly Victorian, angel. This close up photography provides us with a rare opportunity to look at the close up detail of the angels robes: a striking Victorian take on a Renaissance styled pattern. Such high quality photography is a pleasure and the entire book is well printed and arranged, often allowing a full page per plate, and even permitting two for images such as Burne-Jones, The Star of Bethlehem (1887–1891, BMAG).[2]

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Burne-Jones, detail from The Star of Bethlehem (1887–1891, BMAG)

The books aim is to trace the evolution and presentation of the angelic body from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Paul Klee. Langenberg does not quantify these margins and we are left wondering why. She does acknowledge Klee’s work is not an end to the interest in angels and her final line suggests that both Jeff Koons and Anselm Kiefer continue to explore and find meaning in the angelic. Koons has toyed with the representation of cherubs in his work Ushering in Banality (1988) and Cherubs (1991) which was sold at Christies in 2012. Kiefer has explored the less common form of angelic being in his work Seraphim (1983 – 1984, Guggenheim).

Langenberg’s aim is not to dissect the how and the why of the angels created throughout the arbitrary period she has chosen, nor does she discuss theology or religion. Her aim is merely to record, to present, to deliver: and deliver she does. There is little writing by Langenberg herself but the first twenty five pages are her observations which are well written and researched and, therefore, extremely reliable. The rest of the book is a collection of images by major artists such as Delacroix and Rossetti, as well as lesser known artists like Vrubel. The prints sit alongside poetry, scripture, and quotes from sources as varied as Heine, Hofmannsthal, Pushkin, and Voltaire.

The actual blurb for the book is as follows:

For centuries, artists have incorporated angels into their works. In the Symbolist movement of the late 19th century, these heavenly figures embodied a defiant stance against the materialism and scientific rationalism of that era. The Pre-Raphaelites and Art Nouveau artists especially embraced the angel as a romantic symbol of beauty, grace, and imagination. The masterpieces included in this volume feature angels in varying styles from an international spectrum of artists and movements. Starting with pre-Symbolist artists such as Delacroix, Blake, and Turner and featuring works by Gauguin, Burne-Jones, Kandinsky, and Chagall, the book traces the evolution of angelic depictions through the early 20th century. Evocative texts and poems celebrating angels in all forms are scattered throughout this elegant and inspirational collection.

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von Stuck, The Guardian of Paradise (1889, Museum Villa Stuck)

Langenberg breaks her essentially introductory contribution to the book into several sections under the main heading ‘Angels in the Art and Culture of the nineteenth Century’. The sub-sections are in order: Angels in Symbolist Art, The Pre-Raphaelites, Symbolists in France and Belgium, Symbolism in Europe, Parallel Movements to Symbolism and its Sphere of Influence. The only sections which I will attend to here are the introduction and The Pre-Raphaelites.

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How presumptuous to give form to a disembodied being! & yet we are attracted by the idea of imagining a heavenly creature in our mind’s eye. Scholastikos, AD 6

Langenberg commences the book with the sentence ‘Angels are indeed incorporeal beings, and yet Man has always been tempted by the idea of trying to imagine what these heavenly creatures look like’.[3] Indeed we have for many centuries, even in classical times winged beings were of interest although they represented images of Victory rather than Heaven. There is a correlation between the classical and the Christian world for Cupid becomes the Cherubs of Christian art, as we often find in the art of Murillo or Raphael.

Langenberg introduces the biblical context and framework of angels where they are described as messengers and sometimes described as wearing white robes. I take issue with her comment ‘winged creatures are only mentioned in connection with cherubim and seraphim’. Whilst flight is mentioned in the bible, there is no specific mention of wings. In fact that is the whole mystery of the angel, they are often seen walking amongst men as ‘men’ – recognisable not by shape but by act (e.g. the three ‘angels’ that come to see Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:2) are described as men, not winged beings). Langenberg does correct this error when she says they are ‘not defined so much by their appearance as by their function as the messengers of God’. She suggests their role is ‘between the visible and the invisible world’.[4] With a brief mention that angels were typically depicted as ’men in white robes’ until AD400, only then were wings introduced. Langenberg then moves on to the nineteenth century, the focus of the book.

Millais, Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1850, Private Collection)

She reiterates the process of questioning about religion that the Enlightenment had triggered, one which became ever apparent in the nineteenth century. Doubts and anxieties all fed off urbanization and industrialisation, not to mention the publications of both Darwin and Freud. Langenberg suggests the ‘crisis’ ‘led to a new search for the transcendental’ which places ‘angels and demons in a secondary position in the realms of the fairy tale and pious legends’.[5] Interestingly she reports a German writer’s description of angels as ‘metaphysical bats’, which lends itself perhaps to some of the more Shakespearean and less obviously angelic images such as Millais’, Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1850, Private Collection).[6]

Langenberg makes a brief albeit not particularly well explained leap to angels’ role within nineteenth century as one that permitted ‘people’s longing for the transcendental, without being directly tied to the Church and its dogma’.[7] I agree, but Langenberg does not really explain how or why she has arrived at that conclusion. Apel suggests that ‘angels become symbols of a denied desire, of a longing which the enlightened world had banished into the realm of the irrational’.[8] This partly explains the increasing desire for the individual protection offered by angels, by guardian angels, as well as explaining the many publications and poems aimed at children on the same theme, e.g. The Sight of Hell by Rev. Furniss (1874). Guardian angels also comforted and provided companionate protection from this world unto the next, and many carvings and funerary sculptures include angels.

One other role of interest to us, is the angel as it appears within Symbolist Art of the late nineteenth century. Langenberg’s book does not deal with the Pre-Raphaelites as being particularly responsible or contributory to this movement but one of the earliest pieces of Symbolist art features winged beings, Rossetti’s, Beata Beatrix (1864 – 1870, Tate). The Pre-Raphaelites were hugely responsible and significant in the creation and evolution of the angelic aesthetic: they produced angels as early as 1847 and were still producing them up until the last of the major name players, e.g. Burne-Jones, died in 1898. Even after this time, Pre-Raphaelite influenced artists such as Frank Cadogan Cowper or Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale continued portray images of angels.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘Beata Beatrix’, c.1864–70
Rossetti, Beata Beatrix (1864 – 1870, Tate)

Langenberg’s main reading of Pre-Raphaelite art is that they were ‘searching for a ‘primal’, pure, unspoiled art’ which they found in early Renaissance, Catholic, art. She writes about early Pre-Raphaelite attempts at angels like Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849, Tate) as example of them trying to convey early Christian art, i.e. an angel without wings, clad in white (as described in John 20:12)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation)’, 1849–50
Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849, Tate)

Langenberg also presents an early sketch by Millais as evidence of a Gothic spirituality conjoined with Gothic architecture, an important interest for many Pre-Raphaelite associates. Architecture from the High Victorian Gothic Revival houses many Pre-Raphaelite angels, e.g. the chapel at Marlborough College, not to mention the many stained glass windows produced by Burne-Jones which are littered throughout the country, as well as further angelic examples appearing in Italy and America. Burne-Jones produced a vast number of angels but the key one to note is the The Adoration of the Magi tapestry Langenberg mentions (more commonly referred to as The Star of Bethlehem (1888, Hamburg).[9] Her reading of this work is that it draws upon Byzantine art, particularly because of the statuesque figures. Together the details of the flowers, robes, jewellery, weapons so finely detailed on the tapestry make ‘the beauty of the Christian mystery tangible’.[10]

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Burne-Jones, The Days of Creation (1872 – 1876, Harvard)

It was not just the Byzantine or the Classical which appealed to the Pre-Raphaelites though, it was the Catholic artists of the early Renaissance, Botticelli for one. Langenberg implies Burne-Jones’ debt to Botticelli is evident in his series The Days of Creation (1872 – 1876, Harvard) although she does not elaborate or analyse. Instead she moves on to stress the importance of literature in the production of angelic images, because of the Christian mission and representations of the angelic, e.g. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Some of Burne-Jones’ finest angelic images appear in the tapestry series he designed, e.g. The Attainment, The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival (woven circa 1895 – 1896, BMAG). It is just disappointing that Langenberg offers no real critique or insight into why Burne-Jones produced so many angels.

But the purpose of the book was not to answer these questions, merely to display and trigger conversation about nineteenth century angels. It is a beautiful book, and with over a hundred colour images of angels, it is a pleasure to flick through, regardless of whether the inner meaning of angels is revealed. They have yet to reveal or explain themselves, so why should Langenberg provide us more than she does?

Burne-Jones. The Attainment, The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival (woven circa 1895 – 1896, BMAG)

[1] Ruth Langenberg, Angels from Dante Rossetti to Paul Klee (London, Prestel Publishing, 2012)

[2] There are a few minor date errors: however, these are not significant and are usually within the parameters of often inconclusive knowledge.

[3] Ruth Langenberg, Angels from Dante Rossetti to Paul Klee (Slovenia: Prestel, 2012) pg. 4

[4] Langenberg, Angels from Dante Rossetti to Paul Klee, pg. 4

[5] Langenberg, pg. 6

[6] Langenberg, pg. 6 references Karl August von Hase, quoted in Heinrich Krauss, Die Engel, Überlieferung, Gestaltung, Deutung (Munich, 2005), p. 90

[7] Langenberg, pg. 6

[8] Friedmar Apel, Himmelssebnsucht, Die Sichtbarkeit der Engel in der romantischen Literatur und Kunst (Paderborn, 1994), p. 23

[9] A watercolour version can be found in the BMAG, as mentioned previously.

[10] Christofer Conrad, Die Suche nach dem Heiligen Gral und religiose Themen’, in: exh. cat. Edward Burne-Jones, Das Irdische Paradies (Stuttgart, 2009), p.. 156 – 177, p. 160