The Evolution of Angels: Italian renaissance to american culture
What is an angel?
Angels are spiritual beings from Christianity that are God’s divine messengers, often serving as protectors. The name angel is derived from the Greek word angelos, which means “messenger” (“Angel Definition & Meaning”). Many types of angels exist under this umbrella term; according to the most widely used system of organizing types of angels—called the Pseudo-Dionysius angelic hierarchy—there are nine choirs of angels with their own unique roles in serving God. In order to examine the evolution of the angel as a religious symbol throughout history, we need to understand the biblical origins, the lasting influence of the Italian Renaissance on religious art, and how these ideas persist in American society today.
All roads lead to Rome: A brief progression of the first angel in art
First Roman depiction
The oldest known artistic depiction of an angel is from the third century, and it lies in Rome. Inside the Catacombs of Priscilla, there are numerous wall paintings in a chamber of the Annunciation; this is the event from the Bible when Gabriel the angel came to Mary to inform her that she will be pregnant with Jesus (Richman-Abduo). As shown above, the wall painting that depicts Mary and Gabriel is a very simplistic illustration on the center of the ceiling. Without any context, no one could guess that the figure on the right is a depiction of an angel, since the artist made the choice to paint Gabriel in what seems to be a mortal form.
The scene of Annunciation became a reoccurring religious painting as time progressed, showing how artistic portrayals of angels changed through the centuries. Nearly twelve centuries later, an early renaissance friar, Fra Angelico, painted this scene with both figures framed in golden light and clothing to show the holiness of both Gabriel and Mary. It is a moment of connection through words and expression. Most importantly, Gabriel bears a more familiar angelic appearance: his wings, halo, and rays of light fit into a more well-known idea of what an angel is.
Around six centuries later in 2018, Afro-Cuban American painter Harmonia Rosales subverts the traditional Eurocentric portrayal of the Annunciation (Rosales, “The Artist”). While still preserving the major elements of what makes the Annunciation what it traditionally became to be in the Renaissance, she replaces the European subjects of Gabriel and Mary with Africans. Gabriel is still recognizable as a Christian angel with wings and a halo, despite the Egyptian imagery of the Ankh in his hand, and Mary is shown as a holy woman wearing a halo, despite lying naked. It is important to mention this art piece because it shows how the imagery established by the renaissance is common enough in the modern era to be subverted (yet still recognizable) and represented for other cultures.
Now that we’ve seen an example of how Italian Renaissance art influences American depictions of an angelic biblical event, we will go into specifically how Italian culture developed the blueprint for the modern angel. To explore the progression of angelic imagery and how it changed in the Renaissance, we will be primarily delving into the depiction of two types of high-ranking angels: Cherubim and Seraphim.
In the book of Ezekiel, cherubim are described as having four wings, calves’ feet, and four different faces: a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. They are as bright as fire, flash like lightning, and have bodies surrounded by wheels with multiple eyes on the rims (The Holy Bible, Ezek. 1.5-18). In Genesis, they guard the Garden of Eden with flaming swords to protect the tree of life (Genesis 3.24).
This Madonna painting by the famous Italian artist, Rafael, has a plethora of cherub imagery: besides the pair of cherubs at the bottom of the painting, the entire backdrop is faintly filled with cherub faces! However, it is not hard to notice that these soft winged babies are a far cry from the biblical description of these fierce angels. What happened?
Eros, Cupid, and Putti
An important piece of context to understand the portrayal of cherubim in the Renaissance is the influence of romantic imagery from Roman mythology. To begin with, Eros is a god in Greek mythology whose name means “love” in Greek: he is known as the god of love and desire. The Romans adopted this god in their own mythology as Cupid, whose name came from cupio, which means “to desire” in Latin (Greenberg). Cupid is often portrayed as a young boy or baby with wings and a bow and arrow. Donatello and Raphael were two Renaissance artists that were at the forefront of depicting cherubs as playful cupid-like figures during their time. This portrayal of nude babies with wings is called “putti,” which is derived from the Latin word for boy: putus (Hopler, “What Are the Details of the Artistic Depictions of Angels of Love?”). That is how cherubim imagery and cupid imagery became practically one and the same, because of this Renaissance practice of portraying angels in the same light as love gods in the form of flying babies.
As stated in book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, seraphim are angels with six wings that surround God’s throne. Each of the three pairs of wings has a purpose: one pair covers their faces in humility, the other covers their feet in respect, and the final pair allows them to fly. In the passage, one seraph is said to have burned the sin off the lips of Isaiah with a coal it took from God’s throne (The Holy Bible, Isaiah 6.2-17). It is not explicitly clear what their form is beyond this description, but they are associated with fire due to their name meaning “fiery ones” (in Hebrew) and the actions of one of them burning the sin from Isaiah’s lips.
This is a marble sculpture by Italian sculptor Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, a man known for defining the Baroque style of sculpture in his era (Mormando). This sculpture depicts a vision described by a Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, in which she is stabbed by a beautiful Seraph with a long golden spear. Her description of the event is arguably erotic: she describes herself as being thrusted in the heart repeatedly by the spear, left “on fire with a wondrous love for God” and moaning with a pain that is exceedingly sweet (“The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”). Teresa followed the practice of bridal mysticism, a form of Christianity that places the worshipper in a spiritual marriage with God (“The Problem with Bridal Theology”). This form of bridal worship is a more romantic take on God’s love, and Bernini’s dramatic depiction of the vision is not afraid to portray this perspective. Teresa is sculpted with a face of unadulterated pleasure, and the seraph is a young man with wings holding a spear that looks more akin to an arrow than the “long” spear that is described by Teresa.
Bernini’s portrayal of the seraph is closer in appearance and action to Cupid than to the original biblical description of these angels, which is similar to how cherubim were transformed into young angelic figures. Cupid is often seen as a baby or a young man with a pair of wings and two types of arrows; one of them is an arrow with a golden tip that fulfills the purpose of inflaming the heart with love (World History Edu, “Cupid”); this is exactly what is happening in this sculpture (except, in this case, God is the subject of this love).
This version of seraphim in the Baroque period, just like the child-like versions of cherubim, shows the role of Roman mythology and Italian artistry in influencing the development of Christian religious imagery; the line between cupid and angel blurs as Roman mythology and Christianity are married together to depict them.
Angel Imagery in America
Angels as guidance and protection
During Christmas, is a widespread tradition in America to adorn the tip of Christmas trees with an angel or a star tree topper. The use of angel imagery on Christmas trees symbolizes the role of angels appearing to announce Jesus’s birth, and in some cases, the angels were placed with the purpose of warding off evil from homes.
These angels are often simple in design; they are usually boiled down to the elements of a human shaped doll with wings and a halo. This makes them an easily recognizable symbol of guidance and protection to this day.
Just like the image above, a shoulder angel is a common symbol in animated stories that personifies the character’s conscience, or “good” side (“Shoulder Angel”). As the opposite of the shoulder devil, this imagery of the traditional winged angel giving advice to the character plays into the idea of angels serving as guidance or protection.
Angels as symbols of beauty
Abbot H. Taylor is an American Renaissance-inspired painter that focused primarily on angels as the subject of his art. He dedicated himself to depicting “pictures of the highest human soul beauty.” (“A Painter of Angels Became the Father of Camouflage”). This art piece is the painter’s tribute to a dead writer; even in the angel’s solemn expression, he paints her as a beauty bathed in golden highlights amidst a sea of darkness on the canvas.
Victoria’s secret angels are the most popular example of angelic imagery being used to portray an almost supernatural form of beauty. By using this imagery, the brand achieves the effect of elevating models to a higher status of beauty by creating a tier of models called “Angels” and adorning them with grandiose wings on the runway.
These two examples show how the angel as a symbol of beauty is self-contradictory: it is simultaneously a symbol for pure spiritual beauty and sexual beauty in the American cultural zeitgeist.
Los Angeles Angel Wings
In one final example of angel imagery in American culture, a quote from a modern angel wing artist perfectly encapsulates the various themes that angelic symbols hold. The artist, Colette Miller, spoke in an article about her motives behind scattering these murals across the city of Los Angeles:
“I kept thinking that in these times of so much darkness and negativity, the image of wings as enlightenment, hope, freedom, purity, and flight would be a good thing for people to see and be a part of.” (Fuentes).
It is hard to imagine how these otherworldly spiritual beings became such a unanimously recognizable piece of religious imagery, but we have created numerous meanings for ourselves, simultaneously reinventing and reinforcing the idea of what it means to look “angelic” over the centuries. A glimpse at the progression of art history shows how our views and portrayal of angels in our culture are forever changed by the Italian influences of Renaissance art and Roman mythology.
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