Popular culture reflects the true nature of angels as faithfully as a funhouse mirror. It shows glorious incorporeal spirits in fanciful shapes, from pudgy winged babies to ethereal Nature goddesses and turns these false images into almost every kind of artifact known to man. Mass media adds more distortions: human souls can earn their wings to become angels and dissatisfied angels can become human. Angels in film and fiction may serve probations on Earth, require human teammates to perform good deeds, collaborate with their demon counterparts to save the world, form homosexual attachments, or even pretend to be God.
None of the above fit angels in the Bible. Their name (Latin angelus from the Greek angelos) means “messenger” because they carry messages and execute commands for God. Collectively, they are the heavenly court, eternally praising their Creator in music, song, and prayer. By nature, they’re pure spirits endowed with intellect and will who belong to a separate order of creation.
But they can take physical form to accomplish their missions. For instance, the Easter angels seen at Our Lord’s tomb and at his Ascension appeared as young men in dazzling white garments. The Gospels don’t mention wings or give other details. We assume that their faces, like those of the three angels who visited Abraham, the two who rescued Lot, and Raphael who traveled with young Tobit, matched the looks of the people around them. That assumption justifies adapting angels’ likeness to suit every human culture.
Scripture also has room for marvelous angels who wouldn’t be mistaken for mortals: the six-winged forms of stormy cherubim and fiery seraphim supporting and surrounding God’s presence: Ezekiel’s rushing tetramorphs and many-eyed wheels, the splendid horseman in golden armor trampling a Gentile intruder in the Temple, and the mighty angel of Revelation “with legs like pillars of fire.”
The Church Fathers used Biblical data to develop a specifically Christian angelology. They taught that angels are our fellow creatures who help and protect us. They are never to be worshipped. Angels aren’t gods; Jesus Christ True God and True Man isn’t an angel. God alone made the universe out of nothing. Angels are his servants, not his co-creators. Some angels–traditionally one-third of the heavenly host— freely and irrevocably chose to rebel at the beginning of time. They were cast out of heaven to become demons. Since then, good and evil spirits wage cosmic war as guardians and tempters of individuals as well as communities until God’s triumph at the consummation of the world. Monastic records made this combat vivid for holy monks’ lives were often punctuated by diabolical temptations and angelic favors.
A Syrian monk known as Pseudo Dionysus the Areopagite (ca. 600) grouped angels in nine choirs arranged from greatest to least in three triads: (1) seraphim, cherubim, and thrones; (2) dominions, virtues, and powers; (3) principalities, archangels, and angels. As proposed in his Celestial Hierarchies, this system became the standard model. Although he scrambles the middle ranks, St. Gregory the Great names them all in a sermon read in the Divine Office for the Feast of the Archangels (29 September). Various choirs are also invoked in Mass prefaces for both the Extraordinary Form and the Novus Ordo.
Building on the Patristic consensus, medieval theologians explored some question in more detail as they responded to challenges raised by newly available Aristotelean philosophy and dualist heresies. They concluded that as created beings, angels were immortal but not eternal. They might be able to shape pre-existing matter “as a potter does clay” but not bring it into existence. All angels were originally good but fell through the sin of pride. Demons could never be redeemed but humans could eventually occupy their vacated seats in heaven. Despite differences in the quality and quantity of their knowledge, both mankind and angelkind are wholly dependent on grace to experience God.
Angels are individual but how do they differ one from another? Aquinas said that every angel is its own species because there’s no matter in their natures to differentiate them. Dun Scotus on the contrary proposed that a quality he called haecity, “thusness” differentiated angels. Even if they were immaterial, Bonaventure speculated that angels were not just pure form because they still possessed some subtle, ethereal corporeality. On this issue Aquinas prevailed.
Angels can occupy the tiniest space, even a pin head, but not an abstract mathematical point. They can move from place to place instantly without passing through intervening space: “an angel is where he works.” They can transport living humans as well as human souls. Being immaterial, they can’t learn by sense impressions but don’t need to because God infused them at creation with all the knowledge they’ll ever need. Angels are guardians of chastity because they’re asexual. (Succubae and incubi operate with stolen human gametes.)
In theory, pure spirits shouldn’t feel emotions. Artists ignored the theory. They presented angels who do more than express sober joy. For instance, smiling angels adorn Reims Cathedral (13th C.); Giotto’s weeping angels tumble like stricken sparrows in a Crucifixion fresco (14th C.); and Botticelli’s angels dance above the stable at Bethlehem (15th C.).
Christians expected—and still expect—angels to interact with them just as they had in the Bible. Angels inhabit visions of the afterlife, deliver messages, administer tests, give comfort, or work miracles through God’s power. Their true identity often goes unrecognized until after they have disappeared, but angels can show themselves undisguised in dreams and apparitions. Many saints could see their guardian angels. (St. Birgitta of Sweden received dictation from hers that entered her Order’s liturgy.) Because Satan can pass himself off as “an angel of light,” angelic encounters required very careful discernment. St. Joan of Arc’s judges tried to show that her messages from St. Michael came from a demon. She didn’t take the bait. When asked what the archangel looked like, she sweetly replied: “That would be good to know,” and said no more.
Medieval people of all classes ought the intercession of angels, especially their own guardian angels, in private prayer. Hours of the Guardian Angels sometimes appeared in Books of Hours for the elite. In honor of the angels. People made pilgrimages to apparition sites, joined guilds, held festivals, prepared ritual foods, and lit bonfires. Churches and other religious institutions were dedicated to angels, especially on hilltops and promontories overlooking the sea. On earth, races, nations, cities, and religious communities had their special patron angels; in the heavens, angels moved the sun, moon, and planets within Ptolemy’s crystal spheres.
Angelic intervention was crucial in the hour of death. Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying) guides pictured the guardian angel repelling a devil’s final assault. This association has left ancient prayers embedded in Roman Rite funeral liturgies: Subvenite (“meet him ye angels of the Lord, receiving his soul, offering it in the sight of the Most High,” and Suscipiat (“may the angels conduct thee into Abraham’s bosom”). In paradisum (“May the holy angels lead thee into paradise) accompanies the coffin as it leaves the church. Angels bestow crowns of glory when souls enter heaven and will clothe resurrected bodies in white garments so that together all may celebrate “the eternal chorus that angels sing with men.”
Christian art strives to make the invisible visible. Angel pose a special challenge because Biblical descriptions are so sparse. No consistent iconography for the nine choirs emerged but a mosaic inside the dome of the Florence Baptistry colorfully differentiates each rank. (13th C.) In Scripture, only cherubim and seraphim have wings—three pairs of them. In the East those angels still keep that ancient form. But in the West, medieval artists trimmed them down to bodiless winged children’s heads, red for seraphim, blue for cherubim. During the Renaissance, the latter turned into putti, naked baby boys symbolizing innocence, which remain the usual concept of cherubs to this day.
Other angels appeared on earth as young men so they didn’t initially have wings in Early Christian art. But they began acquiring them by the fourth century. A mosaic of the Annunciation in Santa Maria Maggiore (ca. 450) shows a winged angel but the original under-drawing was wingless. Scholars debate how much pagan images of supernatural beings influenced the change. But once Christian angels got their wings, they got splendid ones, often featuring peacock eyes. There are, of course, exceptions: a late medieval Annunciation gives Gabriel falcon wings and Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel angels are wingless. Vivid colors faded after the Renaissance, leaving angelic wings mostly plain white.
When Biblical angels take the form of youths—maidens being culturally unfeasible—it’s meant to signal their asexual nature. Traditionally, angels should look androgynous. For example, an exquisite Russian icon fragment known as The Angel with Golden Hair (15th C.) would never be mistaken for a mortal male. Unfortunately, angelic imagery has been sliding away from this ideal, turning effeminate and even overtly feminine in recent times, especially since the late twentieth century angel craze.
The features, coloring, and clothing of angels in art evolved to suit the cultures that produced them. Angels can be dark or fair, blond or brunet. They can wear white Roman tunics or gold brocade vestments or fluttery many-layered robes. Although golden ringlets and pale complexions have dominated Western iconography since Pope Gregory the Great called captive Angles “angeli,” these aren’t universal characteristics. Olive-skinned Byzantine archangels acquired the gear and insignia of eunuch court officials. Ethiopian angels with afro hairdos look like local noblemen in brightly patterned trousers and voluminous cloaks. The angels of colonial Peru are costumed like Baroque gentlemen in petticoat breeches and have startling auburn hair like the children of Incas and conquistadors. Inculturation still continues all over the world. For instance, Japanese-American artist Daniel Mitsui’s marvelous samurai angels are inspired by traditional woodblock prints.
In 1625, Cardinal Federico Borromeo summarized the proper Catholic iconography of angels after Trent in his treatise De pictura sacra: “Angels are endowed with wings to denote speed; with a garment for decorum; with a human appearance, because there is no other more perfect; their figure is youthful to denote strength and vigor, which no senile decline can threaten.”
This isn’t the place to explore how the imagery of fallen angels developed, from scrawny little black figures to loathsome hybrid monsters to humanoids with goat horns, bat wings, and barbed tails. But it’s worth describing the earliest surviving likeness of Satan when he still had angelic traits. A mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (6th C) shows Christ sitting in judgment flanked by two angels. The vigorous one on his right, with the sheep, glows fiery red; the effete one on his left, with the goats, shimmers pallid blue.
Having surveyed who angels are, what they do, and how they look, let’s examine individual angels. The only angels named in canonical Scripture and the only ones that the Church recognizes are the three archangels: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. They bear the honorary title “saints” even though they aren’t human and obviously haven’t been canonized. Note that they belong to the eighth choir yet played major roles in salvation history. The Lord likes to invert hierarchies.
The Bible mentions St. Michael (“who is like God?”) four times. In Daniel he is the “great Prince” and patron of the Jewish people. The Epistle of Jude refers to an obscure dispute between him and Satan over the body of Moses. He commands the celestial armies to cast Satan the ancient dragon out of heaven (in Revelation. Some have suggested that St. Michael was the unnamed angel who stayed Abraham’s hand to prevent the sacrifice of Isaac and who annihilated the Assyrian army to save Jerusalem (2Kg 19:35). St. Michael also appears in the influential–though apocrypha–books of Enoch, The Assumption of Moses, and The Ascension of Isaiah as the captain of the heavenly host as as the recording angel. Some have suggested that St. Michael is also the angel who stayed Abraham’s hand to prevent the sacrifice of Isaac and who annihilated an Assyrian army to save Jerusalem. Finally, according to legend, it’s St. Michael who warns the Blessed Virgin of her impending death and thus, he became the guide of departing souls. The Offertory of the Requiem Mass formerly begged God to “bid holy Michael, thy standard-bearer to bring them into the holy light.”
In the East, the first sites honoring to St. Michael were healing hot springs. In the West, his great shrines were at his apparition spots: Mt. Gargano, Italy (530), Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome (590), and Mont-Saint-Michel in Brittany (8th C). All drew pilgrims. In England, more churches were dedicated to Michael during the Middle Ages than to any other saint except Our Lady. Medieval France had a chivalric Order of St. Michael and Portugal a military one (also known as the Order of the Wing). His feast day, still called Michaelmas in England, marks the beginning of court sessions and school terms.
In Western art, St. Michael is commonly shown battling the Devil, wearing late Roman or medieval armor. Sometimes he weighs souls at the Last Judgment, either in armor or wearing an elaborate cope and a deacon’s sash. Eastern Christendom sees St. Michael more as a healer, protector and intercessor than a warrior. It’s customary for, Sts. Michael and Gabriel, richly garbed as imperial officials, to flank the Deesis Group of God’s Mother, Christ, and the Baptist on the iconostasis screen in Byzantine churches. Like his fellow archangels, St. Michael also appears alone on icons or joins an angelic company for common prayer.
As the great opponent of Satan, St. Michael is widely invoked against demons and demonic possession. For Catholics, he’s the official patron of soldiers, security forces, bankers, radiologists and radiology, the sick, and the dying. He watches over the city of Brussels, England, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. The prayer that begins “St. Michael the Archangel defend us in battle….” used to be required after Mass but is lately returning as a popular devotion.
St. Gabriel (“God is strong”) has been called “the messenger of Divine Comfort.” In the Bible, he interprets visions for Daniel and announces the coming births of St. John the Baptist and Jesus. He’s also credited with destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, wrestling with Jacob, protecting the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace, causing the disgrace of Queen Esther’s predecessor, announcing the future births of Samson and the Virgin Mary, proclaiming Christ’s Nativity to the shepherds, and comforting Jesus in Gethsemane.
In art, Gabriel’s emblems include the lily, the olive branch, and the herald’s baton. Western artists usual dress him in flowing pseudo-classical robes or occasionally in lavish brocade vestments. He’s the official patron of radio, television, telecommunications, military signal corps, postal service, stamp collectors, and the diplomats of Spain and Argentina.
St. Raphael (“God heals”) is featured in the Book of Tobit. Taking the form of a man called Azarias, he accompanies young Tobias on a journey where he protects his charge, expels a demon to save a marriage, collects a debt, and afterwards restores the elder Tobit’s sight. Then he reveals himself as one of the seven angels who stand before the Divine throne and disappears. He’s also identified with the anonymous angel who healed Jacob of his wrestling injury and stirred the waters of the Pool of Bethsaida to heal the sick.
St. Raphael is usually depicted in the pilgrim garb he wears in Tobit, sometimes carrying a fish or a pot of ointment. Milton calls him the “sociable archangel” and has him instruct the newly created Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. St. Raphael is officially the patron of travelers, young people leaving home, pharmacists, health inspectors, the blind, and victims of eye diseases.
Together, these three archangels are assumed to be the “men” who appear to Abram at Mambre. After enjoying his hospitality, they predict the birth of his heir Isaac. In Byzantine iconography, their visit is entitled the Old Testament Trinity, and is considered a prefiguration of the Triune God. Andre Rubelev’s marvelous rendering is one of Russia’s greatest holy images.
Although 29 September originally celebrated the dedication of a basilica to St. Michael near Rome in the sixth century, it’s now the feast of all three archangels Therefore, let’s honor them with lines from a tenth century prayer:
. . . O Michael, Prince of heaven,
And Gabriel, by whom the word was given,
And Raphael, born in the house of Life,
Bring us among the folk of Paradise.
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