“When angels visit us, we do not hear the rustle of wings, nor feel the feathery touch of the breast of a dove; but we know their presence by the love they create in our hearts”
Angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, and all the glorious hosts of heaven were a fruitful source of inspiration to the oldest painters and sculptors.
The Almighty declared to Job that the creation of the world was welcomed with shouts of joy by “all the sons of God”, and the story of the words and works of the angels written in the Scriptures from the placement of the cherubim at the east of the Garden of Eden to the worship of the angel by John in the last chapter of Revelation, presents them to us as heavenly guides, consolers, protectors, and chastisers of human beings.
What study is more appealing than that of the angels or more interesting to observe than the manner in which the artists of various nations and periods have expressed their ideas concerning these celestial messengers of God? What more fascinating, more stimulating to the imagination and further removed from the exhausting tension of our day and generation?
The Old Testament presents angels as an innumerable host, discerning good and evil by reason of superior intelligence, and without passion following the will of God. While they have the power to slay, the force is only exercised upon the command of the Almighty, and not until after the Captivity do we read of evil angels who work wickedness among men.
The angels of the New Testament, while exempt from need and suffering, have sympathy for human sorrow, rejoice over repentance of sin, attend to prayerful souls, and escort the spirits of the just to heaven when the earthly life has passed.
However it is highly unlikely that scriptural teaching concerning angels would encourage a universal interest in their representation, and the personal sympathy with it, which is commonly shared by all sorts and conditions of men, did they not cherish a belief consciously or otherwise that beings superior to themselves exist, and employ their super-human powers for the blessing of our race, and for the welfare of individuals.
As early as the fourth century, the Christian Church had developed a profound belief in the existence of both good and evil angels, the former persuading human beings to pursue good and forsake evil, the latter luring human beings to sin and indulgence. This faith is devoutly maintained in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, in which we are also taught that angelic aid may be invoked in our need, and that a consciousness of the abiding presence of celestial beings should be a supreme solace to human sorrow and suffering.
The theologians of the Middle Ages exercised their imaginations to create a systematic classification of the Orders of the Heavenly Host, assigning to each rank its distinctive office. To the sceptical mind, the warrant for these discriminations may seem insufficient, but as their results are manifested in the works of the old masters, basic knowledge of them is imperative to art students; without it, a large portion of the famous religious pictures of the world are utterly void of meaning.
Speaking broadly, this classification was based on of the theories of St. Paul, when he speaks of “the principalities and powers in heavenly places” and of the “thrones and dominions”, on Jude’s account of the fall of the “angels which kept not their first estate” on the triumphs of the Archangel Michael, and on a few other Scripture texts. Upon this premise, the angelic host was divided into three hierarchies, and these hierarchies were further separated into nine choirs.
Wings are the distinctive angelic symbol and emblematic of spirit, power and swiftness. Seraphim and cherubim are usually represented by heads with one, two or three pairs of wings, which symbolize pure spirit, informed by love and intelligence. The head remains an emblem of the soul, love and knowledge.
This manner of representing the two highest orders of angels is ancient, and in the earliest instances of their existence the faces are human, thoughtful and mature. Gradually they became increasingly more childlike and are depicted as little baby heads with small wings folded under the chin, symbolizing innocence. Evidently, these illustrations fail to convey the original, spiritual significance of the seraphic and cherubic head.
The representation of great numbers of angels, surrounding the Deity, the Trinity or the Glorified Virgin, is known as a Glory of Angels and is most expressive and poetical when aesthetically portrayed. A Glory, when properly represented, is composed of the hierarchies of angels in circles, each hierarchy in its proper order. Complete Glories, with nine circles of angels, are exceedingly rare. Many artists worked with two or three, and sometimes even a single circle, thus experimenting with the symbol of the Glory.
The nine choirs of angels also frequently appear in ancient frescoes, mosaics and sculptures. Sometimes each choir has three figures, thus symbolising the Trinity; again, two figures stand for each choir, and occasionally nine figures signify the three hierarchies. In the final representation careful attention was given to colours as well as to symbols…
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