Close your eyes and picture an angel. Now open them again so you can read the rest of this blog. What did you imagine? I’m guessing a woman wearing a long floaty white dress, effortlessly hovering in the sky (though mysteriously not beating her wings), with a halo atop her long blonde hair and maybe strumming a harp.
Was I right? It is no coincidence that our imagined angels conform to the same stereotypes. In 2008, 55% of Americans, 67% of Canadians and 38% of Britons professed their belief in the existence of guardian angels, and for many they take the “classical” form (human appearance, exceedingly beautiful and blindingly bright), as this is familiar to us and comforting in times of great need.
Our ideas about angels’ appearances have been shaped over the centuries by their depiction in art. Originally, angels in early Christian art were based on their ancient Mesopotamian and Greek predecessors. Though the Bible never mentioned wings, angels suddenly sprouted a pair in the late 4th century, and have worn them ever since. They started out wearing military-style uniform, with a tunic and breastplate, or in the style of a Byzantine emperor. In the Middle Ages they began to dress like a deacon, in long white robes similar to how we would imagine them today.
The Renaissance introduced cherubs to us, and in the first half of the 18th century, the angels’ dress became more effeminate and revealing, draping over the body like a badly-fitting bed sheet. Although angels were usually depicted as young men, female angels arrived on the scene.
This was the mainstream fashion for Christian angels, but how we view them can be very subjective and easily swayed by religious, cultural and fashion-related factors. One eccentric example can be found in the late 17th to early 18th centuries in Latin America: the ángel arcabucero, who would dress in the manner of the Spanish aristocracy, wielding a great big gun.
If the fashions through the ages have impacted so greatly on the representation of angels in art, what will angels of the future look like? I would like to think that my great great great great great grandchildren will be comforted by a hipster angel, or a 1970s disco dancing diva angel at their bedsides.
As angels have become disassociated with religion, the belief in them has increased, and references to them are rife in popular culture, from representations in Anime to a Robbie Williams song, and even selling out to front a deodorant marketing campaign.
All of this begs the question – what if the ancient Mesopotamians and Greeks had envisioned the winged messengers of the gods as, for example, winged hippos? Would we be visited on the eve of a loved one’s death by a stampede of bellowing hippopotami? Would Robbie Williams have sung an ode to them? It seems unlikely, but as the artistic representations of angels have impacted on the human psyche to the extent that we share one common vision… who knows what could have been?
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, currently has an exhibition about these celestial beings called Divine Messengers: Angels in Art, until 3 November this year. You can also read more about angels and their representation in art through the ages in this ebook.