Sunday, February 20, 2011

Angels: Wings, Violins, and Swords

Anyone who's moderately familiar with Western culture should recognize what three of the four people in that painting are: angels. It's mostly the wings: although the really pale skin and taste for stringed instruments sets them apart, too. Also the very, very delicate features.

That's how angels have been depicted in art since the Renaissance. For the most part. In the Euro-American part of the world. That William-Adolphe Bouguereau painting was made in 1881, by the way.

I think I understand what artists like Bouguereau are trying to do. Delicate features, pale skin, and languid poses seem to be some of Western culture's visual shorthand for "spiritual."

We have some pictures that express "being spiritual" that way in my household. They're not necessarily my favorite art - but some members of the family like them. And to the extent that they serve to remind us of elements of our faith, they serve a purpose.

On the other hand, I think there are appropriate ways of responding to God that don't involve being dreamy and insipid. And that's another topic. I've discussed culture in a universal church, art, and what I think happened to men and churches in English-speaking countries before:

Pretty Angels and Art

Despite - or maybe because of - some intellectual fashions of the last century, I don't have a problem with art that depicts beauty. I do take issue with how beauty is used.

For example, the delicate features of Bouguereau's angels represent an ideal of feminine beauty that's been in fashion, off and on, for quite a while. Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion: provided it doesn't slide into something like the "Twiggy look."1

But when folks start getting used to the idea that angels look like Clara Bow with wings and long hair - that, I think, isn't an entirely good thing.

That's because angels aren't women. They aren't men, either. They're not human.

At all.

I'm No Angel: And I Won't be One, Either

When our youngest child died, shortly before birth, I was told that 'she's an angel in Heaven.' That was a nice sentiment. It's also quite impossible. My wife and I are human beings. So are our children, of course. We're human. Angels aren't.

When I die, I'll still be a human being. A dead one, until my Lord sorts things out, but a human. Later, I'll still be a human being. I won't be a rock or a chipmunk: and I won't be an angel.

So, if angels aren't human beings who have died and gotten flight capability, what are they?
"ANGEL: A spiritual, personal, and immortal creature, with intelligence and free will, who glorifies God without ceasing and who serves God as a messenger of his saving plan (329-331). See Guardian Angels."

"GUARDIAN ANGELS: Angels assigned to protect and intercede for each person (336). See Angel."

(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary)
That's straightforward enough. And, as usual, there's more. Quite a lot more, including these excerpts:
"St. Augustine says: ' "Angel" is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is "spirit"; if you seek the name of their office, it is "angel": from what they are, "spirit," from what they do, "angel." '188 With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God. Because they 'always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven' they are the 'mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word.'189

"As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness.190

"Christ 'with all his angels'

"Christ is the center of the angelic world. They are his angels: 'When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him. . . .'191 They belong to him because they were created through and for him: 'for in him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.'192 They belong to him still more because he has made them messengers of his saving plan: 'Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?'193"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 329-331)

"From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession.202 'Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.'203 Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God."
(Catechism, 336)
The Bible mentions angels quite a bit, too. Like these passages:
That's what I got after a very quick Google search. Some of those bits from the Bible are familiar, or should be: like Matthew 28:2-7, where Mary Magdalene and the the other Mary meet one of God's agents at my Lord's tomb. Remember what I said, about angels not being human? Sometimes they've shown up looking like us. Sometimes, not so much. Like this:
"His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men."
(Matthew 28:3-4)
Maybe that isn't an entirely literal description. It's possible that someone steeped in contemporary Western culture would have recorded the encounter differently. I've discussed my native culture's quirks when it comes to metaphor and poetry before. (February 15, 2010, January 3, 2010)

Still, the guards were impressed by the angel's appearance, "and became like dead men." Maybe the description is fairly straightforward, after all.

In any case, it's a little hard to imagine someone looking like a member of that string trio in Bouguereau's painting scaring a guard. Not "shaken with fear" scared.

Then there's the account we have of Baalam's reality check. Picking it up after the angel, armed with a sword, let Baalam see him:
"When the ass saw me, she turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away from me, I would have killed you; her I would have spared.""
(Numbers 22:33)
"I would have killed you?!" I wouldn't expect the greeting-card angels I've seen to talk that way.

I know that angels - and their boss - are gentle. I also know that they're quite capable of taking decisive action if the occasion warrants it. Maybe it's time that folks in Western cultures start taking a look at the angelic reality.

Vaguely-related posts:

1 Before someone has a stroke: I have nothing at all against Lesley Hornby; I think women are people; and I think that most women aren't going to look like Twiggy in her teens without going on short rations. Yet more topics:

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