Sunday, March 22, 2009

Angels, pins and peacock feathers

click photo to enlarge
"...Angels can contract their whole substance into one part of space, and therefore have not partes extra partes..."
Richard Baxter (1615-1691), English theologian

The question of what exactly an angel is has long taxed Christians and others. Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians were lampooned by later writers for enquiring too gravely about their physical, gender (male, female or genderless?) and religious characteristics. The probem of "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" is ascribed to such debates, though without much historical authority. As far as the physical appearance of angels goes, the fact is that every age has interpreted them in its own way, based on the few clues contained in the Bible, other early texts, and the depictions of previous generations.

Thus, the earliest angels of the C2 and C3 are without wings. However, by the time of the mosaics at S. Apollinaire Nuovo at Ravenna (c.520) they have halos, wings and toga-like clothes, perhaps derived from Roman murals. In the Book of Kells (c.800) the clothing changes to a mixture of toga-style drapery combined with the edged tunics worn by nobles of that period. The Winchester Psalter (c.1150) shows angels in what look like regal, ermine-trimmed robes, in a style of painting that derives from the Byzantine of Eastern Europe. From Duccio onwards the Italian Renaissance painters settled on flowing, often diaphanous dresses-cum-robes, but the ever-present halos and wings continued. Later Renaissance artists of the C16 and C17 combined the tradition of the Christian angel with the putto of late classical antiquity.

The eighteenth century didn't depart too strongly from these conventions, though William Blake, characteristically, went his own way showing a rebel angel as a naked, anguished man. In the nineteenth century they sought "authenticity" in their depictions. Thus, artists like William Morris looked back at medieval precedents and then updated the basic idea using the aesthetic of the time. Today's photograph of a musician angel is by the stained glass firm of C. E. Kempe & Co. and dates from 1882. It draws on the ideas of Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, uses pale subtle hues overall, but with bold highlights in primary colours. The drawing is very strong, as is the sense of pattern, but what stands out is the clarity of the conception. The angel has Kempe's characteristic peacock feather wings, and is one of a group of six such musicians (each with a different instrument) that fill a south window in the chancel of St Michael in the village of Hallaton, Leicestershire.

Incidentally, one of the angel's colleagues provided a great Christmas card illustration for me a couple of years ago!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 94mm (188mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/200 seconds
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -2.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On