Wednesday, December 9, 2009


I seem to love things with wings: dragons, griffins, harpies, for example, and, of course, angels.  As a cross-stitch designer, it has been difficult finding medieval and Renaissance angels that are small enough or not too complicated so that they can be charted and still look reasonably angelic.  And all those feathers ... oy vey! 

There are big angels and small angels, serious angels and joyful angels.  But no matter their personalities, they are a very old, very important aspect of many of the world's religions.

"From the earliest times, the smiling cherubim, those chubby little aeronauts, have been especially admired," says Giles Neret.  "In the most ancient cosmogonies, Cupid was considered the god of creation, born of primitive chaos and one of the primordial elements of this world.  The Greeks called him Eros; he presided over marriages and victories, and from the 6th century BC onwards, he was perceived as the intermediary between gods and humankind ... ."  This sweet cherub riding a siren comes from a 16th-century French manuscript.

Hebrew culture and religion were influenced by contacts with the Babylonian and Egyptian worlds where they were exposed to such creatures as winged genie and protector goddess with wings.  The biblical iconography of an angel was a being born a male.  The apocryphal book of Enoch says that angels fell in love with the daughters of men.  This male angel (whom I call "Luigi da Angel") comes from an 11th-century French manuscript.

Islamic angels were strictly male; this depiction of the Archangel Gabriel was painted in Egypt or Syria in the 14th century.
However, most western angels were considered sexless and ageless.  They were, interestingly enough, wingless until the 4th century AD.  John Chrysostom explained it thus:  "They [the wings] manifest a nature's sublimity.  That is why Gabriel is represented with wings.  Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature.  Accordingly, the wings attributed to these powers have no other meaning than to indicate the sublimity of their nature.

Whether considered corporeal or ethereal, angels in every culture were considered messengers.  The word "angel" derives from the Latin "angelus" which came from the Greek "angelos", meaning "messenger".  But they served other functions as well and filled many "job" categories -- celestial host, warrior, fallen, musician, adoring -- and their levels of "expertise" were complicated and layered.  Pseudo-Dionysios the Aeropagite set down a clearly structured theory of angels and the nine orders they belonged to which were each then subdivided into three triads.  At the top were the seraphim; at the bottom, the angels.  And apparently there was the possibility of job advancement:  "After attaining a certain career status, archangel, for example, angels can form part of the celestial armies, and perforate demons with their spears from on high".  (Neret)
This little Spanish angel looks like it doesn't quite know what its job might be, let along what order it might call home!

It wasn't until the Renaissance that the glorious angels we all now think of as quintessencially "angelic", with their brilliant and powerful wings, their flowing and sumptuous robes, their curly blond hair, their "angelic" expressions -- those stunningly beautiful creatures painted by Fra Angelico and others -- appeared. This musical angel is powerful, a creature to be reckoned with, to be revered, to be placated, to be honored, to be noticed. This beautiful angel blowing its horn is from a 15th-century print by Durer.

In my next blog, I will talk about the process of taking a Renaissance print of an angel and turning it into a chart for stitching.  But until then, may I recommend some good sources for information on angels?

Barker, Margaret.  An Extraordinary Gathering of Angels.  MQ Publications, 2004. 

Bussagli, Marco.  Angels.  Abrams, 2006.

Neret, Gilles.  Angels.  Taschen, 2003.

Zuffi, Stefano.  Angels and Demons in Art.  J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005.

1 comment:

  1. My husband peered over my shoulder and read the article with great interest--after I drew his attention to it,of course. We are interested in history and historical figures and this site certainly has them! REALLY enjoy reading them all.