“The highest condition of art is artlessness.” ~Henry David Thoreau
Left: Giovanni Baldoni, Giuseppe Verdi (1886)
“Angels are very important, because they provide people with an articulation of the conviction that God is intimately involved in human life.”
Heaven is up. And it is that spectre of ethereal blackness lying far beyond the stars of a night-time sky that sparks our imagination. For the ancients, their gods lived here among us, performing magical acts, competing with each other and settling old scores. Mountain tops, roiling seas, wooded glens and drifting clouds were their domiciles; their kind only occasionally traversing the skies. But they were mostly earth-bound, much like their less-than-sempiternal counterparts. It took the monotheistic sensibilities of a handful of Christian zealots—diarists and letter writers mostly—hovering around a central sacrificial visage to move Western culture toward a theological new world order. xxxxx
Throughout most of human history, death and its accompanying departure from this mortal coil implied a journey to a place much like home, with the grave a mere post-mortem waystation before eventual deliverance, with all the accoutrements of survival provided by the living for that trek to the other side. That this coveted destination—some form of heaven—is far above our heads is a concept that dates back to the Mesopotamian Era (fourth millennium BCE). In general, though, heaven was not a place for humans in Mesopotamian religion. As Gilgamesh says to his friend Enkidu, in the Epic of Gilgamesh: “Who can go up to heaven, my friend? Only the gods dwell with Shamash (Sun god) forever.” For the Egyptians, death was a physical quest to an extra-Universal “dark place” beyond the stars, with obstacles and dangers along the way. In the end, the traveler’s heart would be balanced against that of a feather. If sin weighed it down, it would be consumed, assuring oblivion for all time.
Right: Karl von Blaas, The Miraculous Translation of the Body of Saint Catherine of Alexandria to Mt. Sinai (1860). Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Melvin R. Seiden Purchase Fund.
The concept of a heaven is closely linked to words and phrases with ancient etiological origins in terms for “sky” and “earth,” with direct and immediate theological constructs linking the two. The modern English word heaven is derived from the earlier (Middle English, 12th c. CE) heven; this in turn was developed from the previous Old English form heofon. By about 1000, heofon was being used in reference to the Christianized “place where God dwells”, but originally, it too, had signified “sky, firmament.”
For the ancients, the boundaries between ‘here’ and ‘there’ were permeable, with graduated levels of redemption based on one’s working understanding of the teachings or intentions of sacred teachings and manuscripts. Thence, the notion of ‘seven heavens,’ deriving from the presumed magical properties of the number seven, offers the living an incentive to walk the narrow path of righteousness for a greater reward in the hereafter. The number seven, dating to Babylonian magical rituals and astronomy, finds its way into contemporary theology, with seven Jewish and the seven Islamic heavens still found in their traditional teachings. Seven levels of Hell also figure into many faiths, as well. For the Hindu Jains, for example, each level of the seven-layered underworld is presided over by its own demi-god and demonic animal enforcer.
Left: Mohammed’s Seven Levels of Paradise, Persian miniature from, The History of Mohammed (15th c. CE).
Within this dynamic, multi-tiered framework, the stairway to heaven for many faiths appears to go both ways, with the departed occasionally returning to earth on a mission. The term angel is almost universally applied to describe these otherworldly—but humanly proportioned—figures. Angels are often depicted as benevolent celestial beings who act as intermediaries between God or Heaven and earth, or as guardian spirits or a guiding influence. In a Persian miniature from The History of Mohammed, there appears a depiction of “Mohammed’s Paradise,” with a flight of stairs leading to (and from) the first level above the earthly realm. Islam is clear on the nature of angels in that they are messengers of God. They have no free will, and can do only what God orders them to do. An example of a task they carry out is that of testing individuals by granting them abundant wealth and curing their illness.
Right: A cloth painting depicting seven levels of Hindu Jain hell. Left panel depicts the demi-god and his animal vehicle presiding over the each hell.
Within the context of Second Millennium theology, efforts to unravel the Old Testament, male-dominated scriptural references to angels like Gabriel, Michael and Raphael, an accounting had to be made for a host of hermaphroditic angelic forms that soon came to inhabit local folklore and emerging Christian communities. A narrative emerged around the 3-4th century—within the context of expanded, New Testament Biblical dogma—that not only provided the concept of a heavenly pecking order of angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim (some appropriated from ancient Judaic texts), but a physical representation in liturgical texts and paintings, as well. In the pre-modern Judeo-Christian tradition, then, angels (from the Greek for messenger) were represented, for the first time, with bird-like wings to allow for their gravity-defying decent from high above, and halos encircling their heads to denote their disembodied intellect, emanating directly from God. Angels, then, were codified as the immaterial voice of God—something different from God Himself, but conceived as God’s instrument here on earth. The once militant, avenging angels of the founding centuries of the nascent Church, clad for battle in military cloak, curriass and sword against the infidel and disobedient, became the Western European version of a benign interceder, cloaked in robes and sandals evocative of ancient times, basking in the light of the divine, and borne on oversized wings. Safe at last, Christianity had finally and firmly taken root, stable and secure in its role as a powerful mediator between Heaven and earth for the supplicant masses.
Left: Francesco Botticini, The Assumption of the Virgin (1475-76) National Gallery London), shows three hierarchies and nine orders of angels, each with different characteristics.
There is no place in science for angels—or for heaven, for that matter. Both defy the laws of physics, and reason. So, the acceptance of the presence of angels in our midst—invisible, but hard working spiritual emissaries from beyond the clouds—required an act of faith and a belief in something astounding. Human flight, or at least flight by someone (thing?) human-like captivated those prepared to place their lives in the hands of the church. Angels in all forms—infants, virginal females, and virulent men—were capable of delivering the reality of God’s presence on earth to everyone’s doorstep, dropping in out of the blue, undetected, a silent-winged apparition from on high.
Right: Jacob Peter Gowy, Icarus and Daedalus (c.1650), Prado, Madrid, SP.
Our collective imaginations have always been captivated by the notion of flight. The very act of levitating one’s body off the ground and soaring skyward was a fanciful notion that has held humankind in its thrall for centuries. In Greek mythology, Icarus is the son of the master craftsman Daedalus, the creator of the Labyrinth. Icarus and his father attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus’s father warns him first of complacency and then of hubris, asking that he fly neither too low nor too high, so the sea’s dampness would not clog his wings or the sun’s heat melt them. Icarus ignored his father’s instructions not to fly too close to the sun, whereupon the wax in his wings melted and he falls fatally into the sea.
In an ironic twist, a 1590-95 portrayal of the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, attributed to the studio of Pieter Breughel (left), depicts a ploughman, shepherd and angler, mentioned in Ovid’s original account of the legend; they are: “astonished and think to see gods approaching them through the aether.” Yet, that is not the scene depicted in this painting. Here, each continues at his earthly tasks, as the death of Icarus in the waters below goes unnoticed (lower right). Given the harsh realities of poverty, plague and a war-torn Europe at the time, the painting may depict humankind’s indifference to suffering by highlighting the ordinary events which continue to demand time and energy, despite the apparent fall from grace of this ‘angel’ from the sky. In stark contrast to other paintings of the period, where upwardly turned eyes suggest inspirational devotion and spiritual embrace, here the mundane tasks of everyday life at ground level dominate, perhaps signifying disillusionment with a society characterized by hardship—one no longer tuned into the miraculous.
Right: Leonardo da Vinci, diagram for a mechanical wing (1485).
The ancient myth of Icarus and Daedalus serves as a morality tale about excesses of pride and self-confidence, but it also speaks to the fascination that gripped story-tellers and inventors over the centuries. The tale teaches that the power of flight, given by God to the angels, could only be usurped by Man at the risk of failure and death. And yet, efforts to mimic the flight of birds, and angels, persisted. From Archytas of Tarentum’s supposed creation of a steam-propelled pigeon (400 BCE); to Roger Bacon, an English cleric’s treatise on mechanical flight (1250 CE); Leonardo de Vinci detailed designs to carry humans skyward with various ingenious designs (1480); Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier and Marquis d’Arlandes first free aerial voyage over Paris in a hot-air balloon (1783); the remarkable 20th century accomplishments marked by the Wright Brothers (1903), to a manned moon landing (1969), left, little more than sixty years later, humans have sought to share the skies with the angels.
As a result of our technical achievements, have we grown complacent with the notion of angels in our midst? Is an unauthorized ‘flight of angels’ likely to cause departure delays from JFK or Heathrow Airports, disrupting our schedules? Have we learned to keep our head down and continue plowing, like the figure in the Breughel-style painting? W. H. Auden once wrote of his experience in Brussels, Belgium, recently the site of so much anxiety and fear. There, in his visit to the Musee des Beaux Arts in 1938, he saw the Breughel studio’s Fall of Icarus. On the eve of yet another cataclysmic world war, he wrote (in part):
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Brueghel lived in hard times and his painting depicts a world indifferent to unexpected marvels, as did Auden, in that museum in Brussels, in 1938. So, as the season of angels commences, with nothing but more sad and shocking headlines each day, remember to lift your head, turn your eyes to the heavens and expect to see an angel cross your path.
Thanks for reading ARTES.
Our best to you for the holidays,
Richard Friswell, Publisher & Managing Editor