Guardian Angels, Angel Choristers, And Adoring Angels
( Originally Published 1898 )
FROM the classification of the angelic hosts by the early theologians, and the special duties assigned to each class, we learn that the word angels, as ordinarily used, refers to archangels and angels only; these two classes are associated with human life in all its phases, while princedoms protect monarchies, thrones sustain the throne of God, cherubs continually worship, and seraphs adore the Most High.
A belief in guardian angels—those especially devoted to the care of individuals - is far more widespread than the realism of the present day is inclined to admit. The godly man has a sure warrant for this trust in the ninety-first psalm :
" Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation ; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways."
We cannot think of angels as a reality in the winged, human forms that have been given them in Art, any more than we can look for mermaids to rise from the waters mentioned in the charming legends in which these maidens acted their parts. These imaginary and apparently palpable angels are but allegories, which long have been and continue to be the angels of Art, and we could not willingly give them up. We know that they are impossible, even fantastic, if we permit ourselves to be matter-of-fact; but as emblems of spiritual guardians, sent to mortals by an ever - watchful Father, we love them ; and we wish to believe in guardian angels for those who are dear to us, even if we cannot realize them for ourselves.
In one of the early councils of the Church the form of angels was considered, and it was maintained by John of Thessalonica that they were in shape like men, and should be thus represented. This decision is supported by the supposition that God spoke to the angels when he said, "Let us make man after our image;" and again by Daniel, when he describes his heavenly visitors as "like unto the similitude of the sons of men."
A guardian angel must be ever beside his charge from the beginning to the end of life, not only to guard from evil, but also to incite to good. In sorrow he is a comforter ; in weakness, strength; even in death he is faithful, and contends against the evil spirits who fight for the possession of every soul ; and after death he bears the spirit to St. Michael, the Lord of Souls. Thus is the guardian angel represented in Art, as is seen in our illustration called the Angel of Peace.
When we observe a beautiful, unselfish life that rises far above its surroundings, we recall the belief in angelic guardians, and the description which Milton gave of a chaste, saintly soul
A thousand liveried angels lackey her, Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt ; And in clear dream and solemn vision
Tell her of things that no gross ear can hear, Till oft converse with heav'nly habitants Begin to cast a beam on th' outward shape."
The impersonality of angels is one of their most precious qualities. An angel is never active except as the agent of the Almighty, deputed to manifest his mercy and love to the pious, or to inflict his punishments on the wicked. Thus angels must be perfect beings ; and while they love to serve, their service is void of the personality which is inherent in all human service. When they sing together it is because some good has come to men, and when they mourn it is for human affliction.
According to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church to which we have referred, the combat between good and evil angels is unceasing, and they also warrant Christians in invoking the aid of angels, and believing them to be ever near to prevent evil and encourage good. From the views of the early theologians the artists evolved their manner of representing the hosts of heaven, and while for a time angels were represented as colossal, gradually they became more graceful and lovely, as well as more human.
An ideal, a thought, must be personified to be represented to the eye, and I doubt if any new personification of angels could satisfactorily replace that which has been developed in Art during sixteen centuries, and to which we are accustomed from our earliest childhood. The angels that are known in pictures, watching over children, preventing harm to individuals, as in the sacrifice of Isaac, encouraging or even compelling worthy action, as in the case of Balaam, are dear to the heart of the world.
The representations of guardian angels in the more homely relations, watching sleeping infants, guiding their feeble steps,—as is seen in our frontispiece,—and shielding them from accidents, are modern. To the end of the sixteenth century guardian angels, while engaged in all these minor duties, according to the teaching of the Church, were only represented in Art as performing solemn and superhuman deeds.
This may have resulted from the fixed belief of the old artists in these angelic beings, and their deep reverence for them, while modern artists are simply seeking a graceful and poetic subject. But, be this as it may, the angels who perform miracles to prevent the torture of Christian martyrs and other superhuman acts, are as essentially guardian angels as are those bending over cradles and gathering blossoms for children in the fields.
After the guardians, the choristers, or musical angels, most appeal to us. They are beautiful in their representations, and fulfil an ideal mission. Their hymns of praise are not all devoted to the pure worship of the Almighty, — except as he is all and in all, — since they rejoice and sing when blessings are conferred upon mankind.
How exquisite is the story in the second chapter of St. Luke's Gospel, when the single angel announces the birth of Jesus to, the shepherds, " and suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ` Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." In the final sentences of this heavenly chant we have the assurance that angels delight to sing of happiness to mankind.
There is much that appeals to our imagination in the thought of these heavenly musicians. We fancy their perfect instruments attuned to perfect voices, creating such harmonies as no earthly orchestra can reproduce.
" The harp, the solemn pipe
In the early days of Christian Art, painters and sculptors alike delighted in the representation of musical angels, and it is surprising to find in how many scenes they are not only appropriate but indispensable. Our illustration, after Perugino, is from his picture of the Assumption of the Virgin in the Florentine Academy.
They are most fittingly present at the coronations of Jesus and the Virgin; they gladly welcomed the just to heaven; they join in the hymn of St. Cecilia, which they must have inspired ; they are always in harmony with pictures of the Madonna and child, and, in short, numerous as are the representations of them, they are never too many.
It would seem that certain sculptors and painters must have seen these blessed beings in visions, and listened to their music, so wonderfully did they embody them in statues and on canvas. Della Robbia, Ghiberti, Fra Angelico, Ghirlandajo, Melozzo da Forli, Vivarini, Gian Bellini, Raphael, Palma, must all have seen, at least with the eyes of the spirit, the angelic choirs which make so precious a part of their legacy to us.
The difference in the sentiments with which these angelic choristers seem to be inspired lends them a peculiar charm. Now they are alone intent on solemnly praising God; again they seem full of such overflowing joy as can only be expressed in vocal harmonies, in symphonies with viol, pipe, harp, and lute. Nowhere are these angels more lovely than when, with their sweet faces turned to the Infant Jesus, they chant their love for him.
Cherubim and seraphim are technically the adoring angels, as they are represented in pictures of God, the Father. But adoring angels are frequently seen in pictures of the Madonna and Child, as well as in scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin. Sometimes they appear in great numbers, as in Angelico's picture of the Last Judgment; or in smaller groups, as the three adoring angels by Francesco Granacci ; or singly, as in the case of the angel with bowed head, who stands behind the Virgin in the Madonna and Angels, by Boticelli ; the last three pictures being among our illustrations.
Mourning angels appear more frequently in sculpture than in painting, and are much used as monuments to the dead ; but there are pictures in which angels show their sympathy with sorrow and suffering. While from their nature they cannot be unhappy, they are not represented as joyful in pictures of the Crucifixion and other sorrowful scenes in the lives of Jesus, the Virgin, or saintly martyrs. They hide their faces, wring their hands, and manifest their sympathetic grief in various ways. I recall a picture of a mourning angel kneeling before a crown of thorns with tears upon his face.
There are occasional pictures of kneeling angels, who have the appearance of praying. Artists have naturally manifested their individuality in their works, but I do not recall any Scripture warrant for representing angels as themselves praying, although they are present with mortals who pray. It is, however, not in-consistent with their mission to bear the prayers of mortals to the throne of God and to return with a blessing.
In the early centuries of the Church there was a well-established belief that wicked spirits had power over men and tempted them to all manner of sins ; they especially desired, it was taught, to lead the pious to revolt against the true religion, and to become idolaters, as they had themselves revolted against the Almighty. It was also believed that good and evil spirits constantly contended over every human being, the struggle between angels and demons being unending.
Devils are introduced in many pictures, and are easily recognized by their demoniacal appearance. Frequently they are very small and numerous. They are represented as hovering above death-beds, they rejoice in the persecution of the martyrs, and wherever seen, are the very personification of all that is repulsive and loathsome.
The most important pictures in which the devil is represented as a human being are scenes in the temptation of Jesus, when he was led into the wilderness to be tempted forty days. Shakespeare says that " the devil bath power to assume a pleasing shape," but apparently artists have not recognized this. In their pictures of him there is always some characteristic which at once discloses his personality. His skin is an ugly brown, or the hoofs which he endeavors to hide are disclosed, or the repulsive expression of his face warns one of his dangerous character.
Happily such pictures are not numerous, but an ideal of the repulsiveness of the Father of Lies has been conceived by many from the famous representations of him by Raphael and Guido, in their pictures of his conquest by St. Michael. In numerous cases, however, the presence of Satan is indicated by symbols. The dragon and the serpent are the usually accepted emblems of the Evil Spirit, but there are many variations of this symbolism. A horrid dragon head with open mouth typifies hell. Frequently the serpent has an apple in his mouth and thus personates the wily tempter of Mother Eve ; but in many cases the serpent has no relation to the fall of man, and is personified evil.