St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, Glasgow

The wonderful St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow recently put on an exhibition about angels, or more precisely: Heavenly Creatures: Angels in Faith, History and Popular Culture. The exhibition ran from early October 2015 and run until 17th April 2016.

Even the title of this exhibition is interesting because, after all, there seems very little agreement on a definition of angels. For Christians, they remain part of the celestial choir of God’s Kingdom (although even within the three Abrahamic religions there are many varying angels, hierarchies and roles) whereas for those less concerned with religion, angels may perhaps represent Cupid and Love’s Arrow. This is one of the key points of the exhibition that angels belong as much to Christians as they do to the secular community. Regardless of faith or religion, angels remain a feature in people’s thinking: for some people angels heal, for some they protect, for others they guide, but they exist in many guises, shapes and forms to many people.

What is clear is that there is no authority on angels, no ownership of these creatures, and across time and geography they continue to evolve in both role and look. St. Mungo’s springboard for this exhibition is an examination of the term ‘Angel’ in order to understand what angels mean, what they look like, and to whom. The museum’s website positions itself as a venue which promotes ‘understanding and respect between people of different faiths and of none, and offers something for everyone’. Angels then is the perfect iconography for achieving this aim. Harry Dunlop, the exhibition curator said: “This exhibition is the result of different conversations about angels with people of faith and of none. Some themes were chosen as a direct consequence of the questions people asked about angels, including what do angels look like and why are they still so popular today. I hope visitors will bring their own interpretations and experiences or empathise with the human stories told through the display.” There was also a well planned accompanying programme of talks, events and films for adults and families in order to further explore the Angel.

No one journeys alone and no-one should think they are alone. Pope Francis On the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, 2nd October 2014

This is the key, angels are for everyone. If there is little agreement on what angels are and can do, then perhaps you can be comforted that there is some consensus on what angels look like? Most children, certainly in this country, are introduced to the concept of angels in the school nativity play. These school-angels are cute, white-robed and crowned with shiny silver tinsel haloes. Many parents’ hearts melt at the sight of such childlike purity. No doubt they do likewise in Mexico when they see a child such as the one below, dressed as an angel for a Maundy Thursday procession.

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Wolfgang Sauber, Child dressed as an angel for Maundy Thursday procession in Teotitlan Del Valle, Mexico (2008)

This parental adoration frequently mutates into the many tinsel crowned angels which adorn the top of Christmas trees every December in homes both secular and Christian. We seem to have very little issue with welcoming angels into our lives and homes, and we welcome them easily as make-believe, as decorations or as the heralds of the birth of Jesus.

A nine-minute introductory film uses interviews and visuals from a broad demographic (reflective of Glasgow as a city) in order to consider people’s theories about angels which allows the visitor a chance to reflect upon the illusive nature of the angelic before fully wandering around what is rather a small but well considered exhibition.

I am not sure it was wise to have the opening section of the exhibition displaying the centrepiece of the show, Burne-Jones The Angel (1881, Glasgow) The work is actually surprisingly small, but it is such a familiar name and image that inevitably it was used on the advertising blurb for the exhibition although this is slightly misleading in as much as one could easily have anticipated more works of this quality.

Perhaps the idea behind using the Burne-Jones Angel at this point was a desire to lure the viewer in gradually to the complex ideas and theologies behind angels. Juxtaposing Western representations like Burne-Jones alongside sculptures like Zimbabwean sculptor Joseph Ndandarika’s dark green serpentine Chapungo Man (1980s, Glasgow) and the Ecuadorian Ava Huna festival mask do inevitably provoke one. The displayed exhibition information stated:

Ndandarika, Chapungo Man (1980s, Glasgow)

‘Angels are spiritual beings and can appear in many forms. Sometimes they are messengers, sometimes they are healers and guardians. The ancient religions of the Near and Middle East talk of creatures similar to angels, and angels are mentioned in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as well as in the Qur’an. In many cultures today people believe in spirit beings. Like angels, these beings have the power to connect this life with the spirit world’.

Chapungo Man is half-man and half-bird, but shares many similar attributes as angels, and if viewed in this way, Ndandarika and Burne-Jones’ angels are happy bed-fellows. They certainly demand the viewer considers angelic interpretations beyond fine art western versions. Further pieces show connections between the exhibits, e.g. the poem ‘Maybe It Is’ by Tawona Sithole which is about Chapungo Man.

Angels may well said to be the music of angels. Carlyle.

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Burne-Jones, The Angel (1881, Glasgow)

Overlaying a rendition of this poem was the Eurythmics song There Must be an Angel. But as one immediately disappears into the wonderful voice of Lennox, one cannot simultaneously absorb Sithole’s poetry and I personally struggle with this sort of ‘curatorial innovation’.

This sort of multi-layered curation is fashionable, and in this instance it was, I concede, relevant to the multi-layered configuration of angels as beings. ‘The voice of an angel’ is just one of many phrases we often casually use (Charlotte Church being one example) but in the reverse angels often inspire music, from the choral to the popular Stevie Nicks’ 1989 song Ghost which draws upon rather conventional Christian imagery:

So you look… to your guardian angel
Some of them are here on earth…
Well some of them are way up there in heaven

Robbie Williams song Angels (1997) loosely follows suit:

‘cos I have been told
That salvation lets their wings unfold
So when I’m lying in my bed
Thoughts running through my head
And I feel that love is dead
I’m loving angels instead

Williams’ song remains a firm British favourite and continues to be requested at funerals twenty years after its release. The exhibition drew upon angels as represented in song, in television, and in film etc. but as an academic, I began to lose interest although, I appreciated the intention and motivation behind such inclusions. For those not fans of Robbie Williams, there were alternatives such as Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels and the trainee angel from It’s a Wonderful Life.

The curatorial intention was clear from the blurb, ‘Angels in a Material World’ which read:

‘Although our society is becoming less and less religious, angels are as popular as ever. Even people who do not see themselves as religious may believe in them. Shops are full of angel-related books, gifts and fashion. Angels remain powerful symbols of beauty, desire and eternal love, and in film and on TV they continue to appear as both good and bad characters. Angels have inspired musicians for centuries – from the haunting music of the late composer Sir John Tavener to the songs of Robbie Williams and U2.’

James Elder Christie, The Red Fisherman (1893, Glasgow).

The light and airy white exhibition space reflects the assumption of white angels but also provides a clean feel to what is rather a small space. Other new-fangled curatorial inclusions are four small touch screens which provide a secondary level of information, and were an instant draw to younger visitors. For example, the content about the silver Milton Shield that was made for the 1867 Paris Exhibition and James Elder Christie’s The Red Fisherman (1893, Glasgow) was relished by my ten year old. For those with even younger children there is a space for trying angel costumes on and somewhere you can draw your own angel. Whilst the academic tone felt a little lost under such distractions, I can appreciate the deliberations and hard work that went into accommodating many ages, religions and nationalities. For that, the exhibition should be applauded.

What was missing from the exhibition was more scriptural, and even more pre-Christian (e.g. Zoroastrian or Egyptian) interpretations of the angelic. I wanted more history, less Charlie’s Angels. I would have enjoyed more contemplation on the choral roles of angels although I was grateful the exhibition examined the various roles, or perceived roles of angels.

The angels are as perfect in form as they are in spirit. Joan of Arc.

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Jacob and the Angel stained glass panel by Burlison and Grylls (1890s, Glasgow)

Many people believe angels have physical powers, and biblically speaking we can identify celestial strength from narratives such as that illustrated in the Jacob and the Angel stained glass panel by Burlison and Grylls (1890s). The exhibition does successfully reference the many roles of angels, including those of guardians, healers and guides through exhibits such as this.

The display also considers angels of light and darkness, via representations of good and evil and even the awe-filled anxiety we experience when trying to ascertain which version of the angelic we are meeting. This sense of the supernatural is disturbing, and De la Mare’s poem ‘Someone’ perhaps indicates some of these anxieties:

Some one came knocking
At my wee, small door;
Someone came knocking;
I’m sure-sure-sure;
I listened, I opened,
I looked to left and right,
But nought there was a stirring
In the still dark night;
Only the busy beetle
Tap-tapping in the wall,
Only from the forest
The screech-owl’s call,
Only the cricket whistling
While the dewdrops fall,
So I know not who came knocking,
At all, at all, at all.

We should not assume anything about angels and their supernatural qualities. Just as de la Mare questioned the knock at the door, John Milton understood that ‘Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep’. Somehow this acknowledged absence of understanding is equally an acceptance of the presence of angels,

We do not know, nor can we understand angels. This is the very essence of our continued disagreement and lack of consensus on how angels look and their role. Resolution is often a question of faith, of belief, religious or otherwise. As Martin Luther wrote:

‘You should be certain that angels are protecting you when you go to sleep. Yea, that they are protecting you also in all your business, whether you enter or leave your home’.

It is this idea is it not? The idea of angels being everywhere all at once, of being both absent and present, of there and not there? We can find angels when we need them. And isn’t that the point of this exhibition? That angels are all things to all people that they are there if and when we want them to be: from our infancy to our deathbed. Angels are our solace, our unquestioning, undemanding, comfort. Angels are the healers of religion and of irreligion.

The Revd Professor David Jasper, Professor of Literature and Theology, University of Glasgow, said: “This beautiful exhibition brings home how present angels still are to us in a world in which religion might seem to be waning. As ancient as the dawn of history, angels come to us here in art, music and literature, in images from ancient myth and story as well as contemporary film and history. Like the Angel of Mons, an image shown in the exhibition, angels reach out to us from the pages of fiction and become real. After seeing this exhibition who can truly say that they do not ‘exist’?”

This exhibition is simple but appealing. Just like the angels it displays, it is open to all. Who says you have to believe?

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Burne-Jones, Angel Musicians – former panels of Whitinch Methodist Church (late 1800s, Glasgow)
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