Bible Paintings of Angels
And now for something completely different. In this extraordinary modern painting, Mary is a suburban schoolgirl who finds herself in an improbable
situation. In her sports shoes and smock, she is greeted by a reverent Archangel Gabriel.
He knows who she is and what she will be, even if she does not. The angel does not seem to have spoken yet. Only
its rapt gaze at the lilies, symbols of virginity, give the viewer a
clue that something momentous is about to happen. The artist, John Collier, jolts the viewer
by making the scene immediate, now, not thousands of years ago. A Virgin with untied shoelaces and scraped-back hair? Surely not. Yet the painting has more dynamism than the work of
many, more traditional, artists.
What a daredevil Caravaggio was. Talk about living on the edge. You can
easily see why he shocked people.
The Christian churches in Europe were at the zenith of their power, but
Caravaggio went ahead and painted a Madonna
dressed in red (the colour associated with loose-living women) and slumped over in exhausted
sleep (the Madonna was usually serene and goddess-like, needing no food or sleep). And what about Caravaggio's Joseph, patiently holding
sheets of music for
a violin-playing angel? Where did that come from? Or an angel with the grey-black
and slightly sinister wings of an
eagle? But what an angel! Its gold-hued flesh and the loose cloth tied around its
body are radiant with glowing light. The sheen of its wings catches the dying light. This really is a heavenly creature.
The sweetness of this face, the calm beauty, almost outshines the main subject of the paintings, which is of course the Madonna. A light shines onto the face from above - God's light.
This face has never known sin or grief. The angel gently supports the figure of Jesus, who raises his hand to bless the other child in the painting, the infant John the Baptist.
Surely this is one of the most serene and beautiful faces ever painted.
The shepherds are bathed in a luminous light from the angel, so much so
that one of them tries to shield his eyes from the glare. He has
recognised that this creature is from the realm of the Divine, and
shields his eyes accordingly. The angel hovers above them, suspended, an
arm raised either in greeting or command. One man has fainted outright,
as well he might. A rather scruffy mountain dog seems undecided whether
to attack or retreat. Perhaps the most arresting aspect of this painting is the contrast between the black night sky and the
scruffy shepherds, and the luminous light of the angel. The Light of the World has been born.
Look at the glorious symmetry of this painting. It echoes the Divine Symmetry of the universe. The Angel Gabriel in this painting of the Annunciation is so beautiful, so commanding even though assuming a respectful position, that the figure of Mary is almost secondary. Somehow da Vinci is able to convince the viewer that this is the way it should be, and is, since Gabriel is a messenger from God and therefore in a sense represents God. Respectful and bowing, yes, but also dominating.
Bible Reference: Gospel of Luke 1:26-38
This statue, called the Angel of Dresden, may or may not have been originally intended as an angel on the roof of a church in the German city of Dresden, but it certainly packed a punch following the horrific bombing of Dresden in February, 1945. The sad face, the outstretched hands seem to be asking 'Why?' - an unanswerable question in the aftermath of war. The statue was probably relatively unnoticed before the war, just another statue on another church in Europe. But since the bombing and the publication of the inspired photograph above, this angel has become an icon of the waste and futility of war.
Christus' paintings are at once sumptuous and ordinary: extraordinary events in an everyday setting, something for which Dutch painters were famous. The room in which the Virgin sits is spotlessly clean, scrupulously neat, full of fresh air, and yet
simple - very Northern European. Notice in particular the angel's wings, splendid as a Bird of
Paradise from the exotic jungle of New Guinea - very un-Northern
European. In contrast, the tiny dove representing the Holy Spirit
hovering above Mary, is pure white. Petrus Christus settled in the city of Bruges in 1444 and purchased his freedom of that city, becoming a master in the Guild of St Luke. He may have been a pupil of Jan van Eyck. He was certainly influenced by that artist. Some studio properties, a purse and a carpet, appear in pictures by the Van Eyck brothers, and also occur in the paintings of Christus. This means Christus either painted in their studio or else bought these objects, or at least colored sketches of them, after Jan van Eyck's death.
this with the painting by Petrus Christus above. Same subject, same
positioning of figures, same story - but completely different
presentation. Does this tell us something about the differences between
the 15th and 19th centuries? There are differences in taste certainly,
but also differences in attitudes and images of the divine. Tanner breaks away from the traditional picture of a winged creature, and presents the Angel as light - and therefore as Revelation.
It is a more sophisticated idea than the tangible 15th century angel
painted by Petrus Christus with such perfect exactitude. But it is hard
to come to grips with an intangible idea, and many people have given up
the struggle. Tanner invites the viewer to ask what it was that Mary saw and experienced. If it was an angel, what
is that exactly? A compelling idea? A dream? A moment of blinding clarity?
The happy problem for the viewer who is asked to think, and think
The composition in Waterhouse's 'Annunciation' is spatially balanced, something you hardly notice because of the brilliant coloring. Mary is in blue, her traditional color - but what a magnificent blue, quite unlike the insipid blue
of Victorian-era statues of Mary. Everything about the picture is feminine - the flowers, the graceful gestures of both figures, the mauves, pinks and blues. The angel offers white flowers - perpetual virginity - to the young woman. She seems at a loss, perhaps guessing the cost of accepting those flowers. Poor
girl, what a choice. It says something about her character that the
Gospels contain no mention of any hesitation at that crucial moment.
'Let it be done' she says, and the world changes forever.
Rembrandt never tried to make his subjects beautiful, but they often have a luminous quality, as if an inner light shines out of the uninspiring exterior. His figures are unheroic even if, as in this case, one of them is the Archangel Raphael. And what wonderful irreverence: one can see the soles of the angel's feet (suitably clean) and almost up his robe -
the Archangel, mission accomplished, is eager to return to God. And is there any other religious painting that includes such a scruffy dog? On
the other hand, this is the only dog mentioned in the Bible who seems to
have been a pet, for it follows Tobias faithfully on his long journey.
These two pictures, jointly painted by the brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, are panels of the great altarpiece from the cathedral of St Bavon at Ghent. Hubert, the elder by about twenty years, is supposed to be responsible for the planning and arrangement of the whole work and the painting of most of it, while Jan completed the work after his brother died. The main difference between the two men seems to have been that the older brother was a religious ascetic and rather more restrained. The panel showing the singing angels in their sumptuous robes is said to be by Jan, and the other, that concentrates rather more on the musical instrument, by Hubert. Jan's angels are a little more ordinary in countenance, and they seem to be straining with concentration. Hubert's orchestra is more aristocratic, and seemingly more confident. Notice that the organ has no keyboard as we know it; each key protrudes separately from the instrument.
Golden Stairs, by Edward Burne-Jones
Angels or not? There has been a lot of debate about what exactly this painting represents. The creatures, whatever they are, are beautiful in an unearthly way; they carry musical instruments similar to those in paintings of the Heavenly Choirs of angel; the Golden Stairs on which they descend seem to lead from Heaven to Earth, and the dove visible through the skylight may represent the Holy Spirit. But is this enough to identify them as angels, particularly when the artist, Burne-Jones, seems to leave the subject matter deliberately ambiguous? Angels should not have any features that identify them as male or female, yet the figures in this painting are clearly female. What do you think?
Fra (Brother) Angelico had two nicknames: the Angelic, and the Blessed; the names give us some indication of his character. His work is marked by its directness and depth of religious feeling. The attitudes of the figures are arranged with a simple formality. The figures themselves and their costumes are sumptuous - especially in the first of the two paintings here. This is Mary as Queen of Heaven, a long way from the simple peasant girl in Galilee who answered God's call. The angels themselves are heavenly creatures with gold leaf halos and delicate, colorful wings. Notice the foreshortening and use of perspective in 'The Annunciation' - an extraordinary achievement for its day. The simplicity of the background lends a certain stillness and gravitas to the event being shown.
This was painted during the middle years of the 15th century, when the rules of perspective were imperfectly understood; the panel seems to be painted in three parts and united by the addition of details such as the worshipping angels in the foreground, and the flying angels near the top. Notice the vivid way in which the faces of the shepherds are painted. The picture is over five hundred years old, and yet the paint is so cunningly applied that every face and fold of cloth seems forcible and immediate. Notice the tiny, unnecessary details: a summer clog; a shepherd carrying what looks like bagpipes and hurrying to catch up with the others; two beautifully dressed people leaning on a gate leading out of the inn
yard (they probably paid for the painting to be done); lovely flowers put there for the sheer joy of painting them. But
notice too that most of the angels, if not all, are dressed in
ecclesiastical robes of one sort or another. What message are we supposed
to get from this detail?
These are angels of an entirely different kind - fighting angels, warriors of the sky. They are led by Michael, the Angel of God, who defended Israel when it was in danger. In this painting Michael leads the Good Angels against Lucifer, the Fallen Angel who refuses to submit to God's authority. There is a tremendous battle between Good and Evil, and Michael and his angels triumph. Bruegel captures the chaos and confusion of battle, and some of the macabre manifestations of Evil.
Poor Memling had the rather dubious honor of being the largest tax-payer in Bruges in 1480. We surmise from this that he was very successful. He painted calm, beautiful pictures, full of the restrained devotion of the later Middle Ages. In this one, a detail from a larger painting of Christ surrounded by angels, a group of angel-musicians create the sound of heavenly choirs. Unfortunately they don't look very happy about it, and they have decidely weird wings, closer to a butterfly's than a bird's. Notice the musical instruments, quite different from a modern orchestra.
Gerard David was the last great master of Bruges, the headquarters of Dutch art at the time. This painting has all the hallmarks of his work, especially the technique of placing the divine and ethereal in a homely setting, and giving the scene, overall, an otherworldly feeling. The subject matter
encourages the viewer to overlook the superb technique behind it all. The angel is aloof but urgent. Is that hand held up in a blessing, or to catch and hold the Virgin's attention?
Look at that superb cloak of gleaming silk. The drapery falls in rather severe folds - realistic but at the same time not quite real.
Paintings of Angels in the Bible, modern and medieval, by some of the
world's greatest painters