Art History By Number: Angels

By Michelle Railey
Angels in Art

1.) The Wilton Diptych; unknown. Tempera on oak panel. ca. 1395-1399.National Gallery, London. U.K.

Probably painted for Richard II, the Wilton Diptych is remarkable and in no small part because of the non-plussed miracle of humanity in angelic guise two angels to the right of the Virgin.

It’s worth noting that the angels are wearing the white stag of Richard’s order of knights and that the staff of the flag contains a teensy-tiny microscopic image of the British Isles ensconced in less than 1/4 of an inch of egg-based paint. The saints wear the Bohemian eagle, the sign of Richard’s bride, Anne of Bohemia. And the broomcod plant (planta genesta) for which the Plantagenets were named, is a motif on all sides of the diptych. The angel remains, forever, my favorite.


2.) The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus (triptych); Simone Martini (ca. 1284-1344) with Lippo Memmi. Tempera and gold on panel. 1333. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Annunciation by Simone Martini
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The year 1333 is also the Islamic year 733-734 and the year 11,333 in the Holocene Calendar. Martini was from Siena and this triptych was originally made for the St. Ansanus altar in Siena Cathedral. This piece is considered a major work in the International Gothic style: the flame-pointed (rayonnant) architectural details painted into the work both align this altarpiece with that style but also link this piece to French manuscript paintings, which also included architectural caps and plinths of this type to emphasize the illustrations. Martini is considered to be more closely aligned with Northern Gothic artists and architecture than with other Italian Gothic styles but Martini’s gold background and the Tartar cloth pattern which the archangel Gabriel wears demonstrate the international connections known throughout Italy: the gold background favors Eastern icons and the Tartar cloth became popular in Italy after one hundred Mongols visited Rome in 1300, influencing Italian textile design for the next century. The angel here is Gabriel, one of the seven archangels of God as listed in the non-canonical Enoch and is one of the three archangels recognized by the Catholic Church (the other two are Raphael and Michael). Gabriel is also recognized as an archangel by the Orthodox Church. And for what it’s worth, the co-author of this altarpiece, Lippo Memmi, was Martini’s brother-in-law. For my part, both Gabriel and Mary here are so non-plussed they could be emotionally related to my beloved angel of the Wilton Diptych.

3.) The Ecstasy of St. Theresa. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1628). Stone. Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, 1651.

Bernini Ecstasy of St. Theresa Detail
Image: Wikimedia Commons

This may be the slyest smile in all of art history: this angel, lance piercing the breast of Saint Theresa of Avila. “The Theatrical Baroque” and the Counter Reformation both elide in this one sculpture: Baroque’s proscenium and the Counter-Reformation’s reliance on emotional urgency. Both are seen here in the papal darling, Bernini’s, sculpture of the teenage (under-fed) child saint, Theresa. It is worth noting that Bernini punctured the walls behind this figural group with windows in order to incorporate and capitalize on the sunlight. If the medieval period had its “Rayonnance,” well, the High Baroque doubled it and added motion and sensuality. And the sly, insinuating smiles of most unearthly angels.

4.) Virgin of the Annunciation. Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro) (ca 1395-1455). Fresco. Convent San Marco, Florence, Italy. ca. 1437-1446.

Fra Angelico was so-called because of the “angelic” expressions of the figures he painted. In this, one of the best known examples of the brother’s art, both Mary and Gabriel feature the angelic expressions for which the artist was named. The Fra is considered to straddle both the High Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance. This Annunciation shows elements of both: a gold background with tympanic halos around the heads of religious figures (Gothic); architectural details in the vaulted ceilings (High Gothic and Northern Renaissance); the sense of perspective and three-dimensional space (Renaissance). I love this angel: butterfly wings on a face of innocence which straddle the ancient and old worlds. If Martini’s Gabriel is stern, this one is guileless. Gabriel is in the eyes of the beholder.

5.)The Angel of the Resurrection. Designed by Frederick Wilson (1858- 1932); Tiffany Studios. Glass. 1904-1905. Originally for the American Presbyterian Church of Montreal, now in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Detail Frederick Wilson Angel of the Resurrection

The Angel of the Resurrection (angel calling for the souls of the dead to rise on Resurrection Day) was a frequent theme for the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Sure, the militant version designed for the widow of President Harrison and now on display at the Indianapolis Museum of Art is more famous, but this more wistful version, also designed by Frederick Wilson, has an appeal that seems more wistful and less martial. Tiffany’s favrile glass is an Art Nouveau staple, as well as a frequently mentioned darling of twentieth century American art. But for me, the part where stained glass and religious themes stretches across centuries to meet its cousins anywhere glass was ever made is what makes it dear. People like shiny translucent things. With wings. Is it any wonder that angels are made from glass, then, now, forever?

6.) Le Sourire de Reims or L’Ange au Sourire (The Smile of Reims or The Smiling Angel); The Masters of Reims. Stone. Between 1236 and 1245. Reims Cathedral (Notre-Dame de Reims), France, completed 1275.

Reims Smiling Angel
Detail. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Cathedral at Reims has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and was built on a site of ancient Roman baths, as well as the site where Clovis was baptized by St. Remi in 496. The smiling angel is part of the Annunciation group on the north portal of the west fa├žade. Reims Cathedral is renowned for its exterior sculptures; in France, only the cathedral at Chartres has more figural sculptures. This angel was damaged by German air raids in 1914 and was restored and replaced in 1926. I love comparing the smile on this thirteenth century work to the Baroque smile of Bernini’s angel: brothers, under their stone skins.

7.) St. Michael Defeating Satan. Guido Reni (1575- 1642) Oil on canvas. 1635. Private collection.

Guido Reni Michael Defeating Satan
Image: Wikimedia Commons

It is worth saying that this painting does not exist without both Michelangelo (the musculature) and the Carracci (the triadic color scheme and the Neo-Classicist elements). It is the archangel Michael who defeats Satan’s forces in Revelations, and here Michael is ballet dancer (a burgeoning art in the seventeenth century), angel, and Roman warrior (the clothing choices are distinctly those of ancient Rome, even as the color choices harken to a Neo-Classic emphasis on the trinity of red-blue-yellow). This image was originally commissioned for a chapel by Pope Urban VIII in 1626 and was installed in the Santa Maria della Concezione church in Rome in 1636. Urban VIII was born into the Barberini family in Florence and was a Jesuit. Allegedly, a rival family’s scion, Giovanni Battista Pamphilj was the unwitting model for Satan: a fact which became weird in 1644 when Giovanni Pamphilj received his new name as Father of Rome, Innocent X. For my part, I love the strong diagonal of this painting: high left corner with the sword strongly directing to the lower right. I love the dimensionality and strange comic-book precision of Michael and his most innocent face. Angels will be angels, even with swords. And this face is angelic, even as it doles out punishment to evil.


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