Portrayals of Christian Angels in Art Throughout the Centuries
Angels have long been ingrained in culture as ethereal winged beings — ready to aid and guide the downtrodden. The Christian tradition recognizes them as “heavenly and above humanity” (Heb. 2:7), and throughout the Bible, they’ve always served an intermediary role between God and mankind.
But angels didn’t have the same portrayal in the past. The modern view of angels is a product of religious culture, shifted and altered over time. The angel we know today is inspired by elements borrowed from other civilizations and ideologies. So how did our view of them change throughout history?
The First Known Angel in Christian Iconography
The earliest known depiction of a Christian angel is found in the Catacombs of Priscilla, a quarry dug around 100 to 400 C.E. It’s located in Parco di Villa Ada, Via Salaria, an ancient route passing from Rome to the Adriatic Sea.
This depiction is named after the noblewoman Priscilla, wife of Roman consul Manius Acilius Glabrio. She was a prime benefactor in many Christian efforts and donated the land (in which the catacombs were found) to the religious community. It served as a burial site for many recognized martyrs in Christian history — including Priscilla herself, her husband, and her son, the venerated Saint Prudens.
As such, the Catacombs of Priscilla were a rich source of early Christian history and iconography. They include a variety of religious-themed frescoes — mostly centering on Jesus, Mary, and the prophets.
The catacombs house the oldest known depiction of the Annunciation, the biblical event in which the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she was to conceive Jesus, the Son of God. In this painting, however, was the then-simplistic view of angels: Gabriel didn’t have wings.
Despite this, it still validated the Christian view of angels as God’s intercessors for humanity. The word “angel” itself comes from the Greek word Angelos (meaning “messenger”).
In these early days, Jesus Himself was considered an angel until The Council of Nicaea (325) reformed this view. The council, which decreed that Jesus is fully divine, shaped some of the most fundamental principles of Christian faith: that Jesus is of the same nature as God. Therefore, angels were below Him but still above humanity.
The Byzantine & Middle Ages: Angels as a Marker of Divinity
The beauty — and challenge — in depicting angels lies in the fact that there’s very little physical detail of them in the Bible. This gave believers and artists more creative liberty to consider how they could be perceived. However, early Catholic figures such as St. John Chrysostom helped inform how society interpreted angels. The archbishop once said:
“[Angels] manifest a nature's sublimity. That is why Gabriel is represented with wings. Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature.”
By the time Christianity grew popular in the Byzantine and medieval societies, grand places of worship — cathedrals, basilicas, and royal chapels — were everywhere.
One such remarkable place is the Hagia Sophia, completed in 537 C.E. in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). It’s home to legendary panels of gilded mosaics, which eventually became the defining characteristic of Byzantine art.
Surrounding arches of the domes within the Hagia Sophia featured mosaics of hexapterygons, six-winged seraphs. In the book of Isaiah, these six-winged angels surrounded God in His holy throne: “With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying” (Is. 6:1-2).
Angels began to be active staples in religious art — this time, with their signature wings. Aside from interpretations from Christian scholars and authorities, it’s also believed that these wings were appropriated from other pagan and mythological traditions.
The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (New Basilica of Saint Apollinaris) also made use of angels to separate God from the worldly reality to the divine. Just as they surround God in heaven, angels surround the priest and the altar during holy celebrations. St. John Chrysostom further says: “The whole sanctuary and the space before the altar is filled with the heavenly Powers [that] come to honor Him who is present upon the altar.”
Angels in Illuminated Manuscripts
Books may have been inaccessible for the most part, but illuminated manuscripts still provided a glimpse into the world of medieval literature. These were handmade books gilded with gold and silver — requiring painstaking work and expensive material — and thus only available to nobles and religious authorities.
Stories featuring biblical characters, Christian martyrs, and creatures of the divine were common volumes in illuminated manuscripts. These were carefully handwritten by monks and lay scribes in writing rooms called scriptoria.
Many of these books delved into the nature of angels — including Catalan friar Francesc Eiximenis, who published his musings in Llibre dels Àngels (The Book of Angels) in 1392.
By the late 1400s, Renaissance elements — less somber, more vibrant — began to be in style. Italian illuminator Taddeo Crivelli, who worked on religious manuscripts, is credited as a pioneer of this technique.
Angels were beginning to be seen more proactively, interacting with humans instead of merely being elements that signified the presence of divinity. Crivelli’s interpretation of The Annunciation, for instance, shows Gabriel kneeling before the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Renaissance & Neoclassical Art: Angels Among Humanity
While angels are indeed of divine nature, artists began to explore how such heavenly creatures intermingled with worldly affairs. This time, they were depicted with more depth. Aside from being God’s messengers, they served as personal guidance for the humble human. This is typically portrayed through the stories of saints and martyrs who were shown with angels as constant companions.
The acclaimed painter Caravaggio produced his interpretation of angelic guidance in Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (1595). This piece became a quintessential model of what the Renaissance angel was like. It employed the freshly developed technique of chiaroscuro — the contrast between light and shadow — to give form to a state of ethereality.
Artistic renditions of angels leading saints to divine “ecstasy” became more recurrent — extending to the architectural feats of the period. In 1647, “outstanding” architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini was commissioned for the construction of the Cornaro Chapel — now recognized as one of the greatest Baroque edifices.
Here, Bernini sculpted The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which showed Teresa of Ávila being called by an angel. The angel was a cherub, a winged infant; similar to that of popular portrayals of Cupid. Bernini’s endeavors were aptly telling of the Renaissance period — a time characterized by the resurgence of Greco-Roman influences.
Aside from showing angels with people, other artworks illustrated angels in a more human light than ever. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) showed that angels are capable of “falling from grace” as much as humans are. This implies that angels, in fact, have free will — and were not merely created to be messengers.
“[Fallen] angels were intended to participate in the betterment of the universe, and that you have to take them very seriously, because they still did participate—but in a negative way,” John Cavadini, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, told National Geographic.
Once just beings of exaltation and protection, angels are now seen side-by-side with humanity; still divine, but with a more active and empathic role.
This stretched until the 18th century when society had begun to adopt rationalist ideologies. The gap between religious doctrine and societal foundation continued to widen, but religion remained an integral part of life. Incorporating Christian elements in art in a more “worldly” sense was a skillful way of mediation and compromise.
Angels in Modern Times
We’ve seen angels in different areas of pop culture. They’re no longer limited to a specific religious tradition, and even the Christian interpretation of an angel has been appropriated to suit modern culture.
Yet the religious function of angels persists: A survey from Baylor University conducted in 2008 found that some 55% of Americans believed that they “have been protected from harm by a guardian angel”.
Dr. Cristopher Bader, one of the authors of the study, found himself in disbelief over the results. “To find out that more than half of the American public believes this was shocking to me,” he said. “I did not expect that.”
“I've been looking at over 1,100 stories we collected from people about their experiences with their guardian angels," Dr. Carson Mencken, another member of the panel, told National Geographic. “People talk about close calls like auto accidents, especially accidents in which someone else was killed. Others were victims of assault or survived near-drownings or had combat-related near-death experiences.”
We continue to celebrate angels for what they are in the Christian faith and what they continue to do for humanity. They go beyond being heavenly intermediaries and are believed to offer hope and guidance in the most human of experiences.