Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, 1644-52, Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria

The Cultural Significance and Meaning of Angels Through Art and History

For a long period of time, angels have been playing a significant role in our day-to-day life. Their history has journeyed through centuries of modifications of art and graphics. And hence they have granted crucial identities that often outdo their functional relationship to the sacred or holy and their performative relations to the profane world.

We have known the concept of angels through Sunday schools, paintings, movies, works of literature, and many more. But today what we know is just a drop of knowledge from all the theological discussions, theories, assumptions, debates regarding the writings of the religious books all over the globe which took place centuries ago.

Vienna Baroque Angel Choirs Fresco
Credits: iStocks

To know the history of angels is quite interesting since it takes you on a journey of self-discovery and makes us often realize how little we know of this world. And what if this knowledge is just a glimpse of something more superficial?

The idea of angels which grasped our eyes came from the Egyptian era. That is a thousand years ago, before the time of Christ, winged creatures were shown along with the pharaoh. Their image was often crafted on the coffin or the walls of the tomb, symbolizing the afterlife, which was very significant in the Egyptian era as it led to the process of mummification.

Even though the concept of angels is instigated in a significant way in every part of the world. Still, angels are typically associated with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Also, ancient angels established that the angeloi were too a prominent figure of non-Abrahamic religions in the Greco-Roman culture.

statue of an angel
Credits: Pinterest

In relation to views of a tripartite cosmos

Reflecting upon the Biblical sculptures, Hellenistic ( Greco-Roman cultural ), and the Islamic worlds of thought, the terrestrial realm was considered a world in which humans were often limited by the factors of space, time, and cause-effect.

The idea of the celestial realm, generally composed of seven heavens or spheres dominated by previously known planets, was the realm of the divine and the spiritual world.

The subterrestrial realm was given the idea that it was the place of chaos and the spiritual power of darkness.

And then, at the highest level  of the celestial sphere, is the ultimate ( sacred or holy) e.g. Yahweh, the God of Judaism. The name is so holy that it shouldn’t even be spoken: the heavenly Father of Christianity known through the divine word)

and Allah, the powerful, the Almighty, and the sublime God of Islam.

Let’s highlight how angels were depicted in different religions and earlier forms of art.

Art

For centuries, angels have adorned works of art with their magnificent appearance. They are frequently portrayed as human appearance even though, theologists have claimed that they have no physical appearance or particular sex.
Appearing in ancient statues and adorning modern murals, these winged creatures have become a prominent figure in art history spanning time, cultures, and a variety of mediums.

Guardian Angels
Credits: Pinterest

Even though our contemporary idea of angels emerged in the 4th century, the existence of angel-like figures in the history of art can be outlined thousands of years ago.
If we look back at the earlier forms of paintings, we shall notice that in the middle ages they were depicted as human in form but with angelic wings.
Among those are the most famous paintings of The Dream of Joachim by Giotto ( c1266-1337) and The Annunciation by Fra Angelico (c 1400- 1455).
Angels appeared in sculptures also, like in 1495 Michelangelo carved an angel from marble.The renowned sculptor Bermini in the 17th century carved a series of statues of angels. Anthony Gomley, in the year of 1998 erected a steel sculpture, The Angel of the North.

An allegory of poetry by Francois Boucher
Credits: Wikipedia

Even though angels marked their appearance in paintings, they also made their way in many pieces of literature. E.g., in the play Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, there was the depiction of two angels, one good and the other one bad, and they both gave conflicting ideas and advice to Dr. Faustus. Similarly, William Shakespeare wrote “I charge thee, fling away ambition. By that sin fell the angels.” Angels also made their appearance in Paradise Lost by John Milton.

Christianity

Christianity probably was influenced by the analogy of Jewish sects as well as of the Hellenistic world. Further with time, enhanced forms of art and developed theories and beliefs in angels and demons.

If we look upon it, in the New Testament, we get to see celestial beings were grouped into seven now known ranks: angels, archangels, principalities, power, virtues, dominions, and thrones. In addition to these, in the Old Testament, cherubim and seraphim, along with the seven other ranks, constituted the nine choirs of angels in the later Christian mystical theology.

Hierarchy of angels - Wikipedia
Credits: Wikipedia

By the late 4th century, the church fathers finally agreed that there were different categories of angels which gave rise to hierarchy, based upon the appropriate missions and activities assigned to them. This can be noticed both in the older forms of church wall paintings as well as in quite some instances which are mentioned in the bible.

Looking upon the context of the bible, we shall notice that angels have been mentioned 273 times. They are represented as spiritual beings intermediate between God and Men.

According to Psalm 8:5, “Human beings were made a little lower than the angels.”, the bible also says that angels are quite powerful. ( Psalm 103:20). Similarly, various other characteristics and traits have been mentioned throughout the bible. However, the bible and the church forbid the worship of the angels ( Revelation 19:10). The worship of angels was referred to as angelolatry.

But if we look closely, only two angels have been mentioned by their names in the bible. They are Michael and Gabriel. And in the bible, Michael is the only angel called an “archangel” (Jude verse 9)

Over time, the concept of angels in Christianity further got complicated. After the resurrection of Christ, we have noticed that Christianity got further divided, with its own sets of rules and theological meanings of the bible.

Similarly, the Catholic church recognizes the existence of only three Archangels ( they are of the highest order) or the three which are mentioned in the different scriptures, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, even though in the older texts, other archangels have been mentioned, the same as the number of the sects which are in the Book of Enoch: Uriel, Raguel, Raphael, Michael, Sariel, Phanuel and Gabriel.

It is considered that the system of seven archangels is an ancient tradition of Judaic origin. This led the Catholic Church to make clarifications, as it was considered necessary to stop such fanciful and arbitrary interpretations of texts which didn’t belong to the canonical Holy Scriptures.

Hence, in 1992, the decree Litteris Diei stated that “It is forbidden to teach and use notions about angels and archangels, their particular functions and personal names, outside of what is directly mentioned in the Holy Scriptures; consequently, every other form of consecration to the angels and any practices other than the official traditions of worship are forbidden.”

Considering the rank of Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael in the bible, we shall look upon its significant nature and its importance.

Saint Michael Angel
Credits: Pinterest

Saint Michael, appears in the Holy Scriptures, particularly in the book of Daniel, in the Apocalypse, and the letters of the apostle Saint Jude Thaddeus. The name is derived from the Hebrew word Mi-ka-El which means “who is like God?”

The popular iconography represents him as a warrior in armor wielding a sword. His cult, within the Catholic church, was basically in the east, but with that period it spread rapidly throughout Europe, especially following his appearance on the Gargano, in Puglia.

In conclusion, we can say that The Archangel Michael, the ‘celestial warrior’, is the master of arms and the protector of swordsmen. His skill set as a judge of souls has also made him recognized as the patron of all trades that include the use of assessment, and he is also considered as a patron saint of the police.

Angel Gabriel
Credits: History

Archangel Gabriel, like Michael and Raphael, has a festival day- which is usually celebrated on September 29th. His name is also derived from the Hebrew, and means “Power of God” or “ God is Mighty”. He is considered to be the one who will blow the horn announcing the Day of Judgment, according to the Apocalypse of John.

According to Biblical tradition, he is often considered to be one of the closest to the throne of God, to the point where he is being referred to as “the left hand of God.”

Gabriel is particularly remembered as a messenger in the Christian tradition as he was the one who appeared to Mary and delivered the news that God had chosen her as the mother for his only Son. And hence, the role of Gabriel is quite pivotal.

He is considered to be the protector for those who work in communications, journalists, and postmen.

Christian iconography depicts him as a young winged cherub, who carries a lily in his hands, which is a symbol of the Annunciation of Mary.

Angel Raphael
Credits: History

Raphael is depicted as the Archangel whose aim is to bring healing. His name is derived from Hebrew which means “God’s Doctor.”

According to the Bible, he is among the closest to the throne of God and was also chosen by Tobias to guide him on his journey.
His role as the ‘God’s Doctor’ should always be construed as the will to heal the soul, and to relieve it from suffering, and show the mighty grace of the Almighty.

As many instances prove this very fact, by restoring the sight to the father of Tobias, he opened his eyes to the light of Truth, just as, by driving out the demons that persecuted the girl, he made their marriage and love successful.

And that is the reason he is considered to be the patron of conjugal love, of young people, spouses, travelers, and refugees. He is often depicted with a jar containing medicaments and fishes.

Islam

In the Islamic tradition, Muslims believe that angels, or malaikah, were created before the creation of humans to follow the commandments of Allah and communicate with humans.

Depiction of an Angel in the Persian Miniature
Credits: Wikipedia

According to the sayings, angels were created on Wednesday, followed by the creation of other creatures. Although it is not mentioned in the Quran, the angels are believed to be created from the luminous substance, which is repeatedly described as a form of light.
As per the Islamic tradition and belief, the angels constantly praise God.

“They exalt him night and day and do not siacken.” ( Qur’an 21:20)

In Islamic belief also, they have important angels in the Qur’an.

Archangel Gabriel Questions Muhammad in the Hadith
Credits: Pinterest

Jibril is considered to be the bringer of good news, he has been mentioned both in the Qur’an and the Hadith. The angel Jibril is the one who reveals Allah’s words in the form of Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad on the night of power, as of this he is also referred to as the Angel of Revelation, due to his key role in communicating Islam to humanity. In the Qur’an, it is mentioned that anyone who opposes Jibril or any other angels shall become an enemy of Allah.

Mika’il, also known as angel Michael in Christianity, is considered to be the friend of humanity as he is the protector of the worship places and rewards people for their selfless acts and deeds. Often known as the angel of mercy, he asks Allah for the forgiveness of people’s trespasses.

According to some scriptures and sayings of the people, it is believed that both Michael and Jibril will be present on the Day of the Judgement.

Israfil, the angel who shall be present on the day of the judgment, is responsible for the blow of the trumpet for the announcement. It is also considered that Israfil will be present on the day of resurrection.

Israel is known as the angel of death who is responsible for the collection of souls from the bodies once the person dies.
In the same manner, Munkar and Nakir are the angels who are responsible for questioning the soul of the person who has died.

It is also believed in the Islamic tradition that angels are always present with them and they have two angels who sit on each side of their shoulder, Al-Kiram and Al-Katibum, where one is responsible for the collection of good deeds and the other one for bad deeds. Based upon the recordings, Allah will make the final judgment of whether they are worthy of Paradise ( Jannah ) or Hell ( Jahannam).

Significance in Anthropology

The Anthropological history of angels is expanded way beyond the liturgical texts and it keeps on expanding with the period, what is more, exciting is to know that, this world is filled with many cultures and traditions, and each group of people has their own significant religious historical belief. In today’s world, we shall notice that the concept of angels is everywhere, in musical plays, novels, and even in popular songs. Hence, the concept of angels is not only restricted to religions but has a strong foundation in the secular world as well. And from Gabriel to Lucifer, who was also once considered an angel, this tale goes in a different direction. All these give us plenty of cultures, but not enough history. As such, it ranks as a missed opportunity.

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