Angels In Christianity

Annunciation (1443) by Fra Angelico; Fra Angelico, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Feature image: by Fra Angelico, Annunciation, 1443;  Fra Angelico , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How The Renaissance Movement Changed The Depiction of Angels In Christianity

New ideas and beliefs are the product of curiosity that traces human beings' psychological and physical evolution. Medicinal, technological, and philosophical advancements conjugated to birth the array of theories that exist today. 

The Renaissance Movement, spanning roughly from the 15th to the 17th century, was an era where critical and creative thinking fostered enlightenment and individualism in the Western world. It was a fervent period of European cultural, artistic, political, and economic rebirth. The Middle Ages—the Renaissance Movement’s predecessor—marked centuries of austerity, cultural stagnation, and solemn Christian religiosity. From the embers of the Medieval period, prominent historical figures emerged, such as Galileo, Thomas Hobbes, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, and Niccolò Machiavelli. These artists, thinkers, and writers created the foundations upon which modern Western thought was constructed and eventually glorified.

Philosophy and religion were at the forefront of thought and culture during the Renaissance era. From Hobbes’ beliefs on the human ego to Dante’s interpretation of Hell’s layers, there was certainly not a shortage of ideas. The Protestant Reformation, in which swaths of believers and political leaders disregarded the Catholic Church and the rule of the Pope, saw an enormous cultural shift and foresaw centuries of European conflict. However, Christianity remained a crucial part of Western culture throughout the movement, whether in Catholic or Protestant expressions. With the invention of the printing press in 1440, religious texts like the Christian Bible were readily available to the masses, and literacy rates rose from abysmal Middle Ages levels. The arts also played a prominent role in the Renaissance Movement. Iconic artists like Raphael, Michelangelo, and Da Vinci were at the forefront of Renaissance art. Churches, particularly the Catholic Church, invested enormous sums in commissioning artists to adorn cathedral ceilings and walls with heavenly imagery. 

The Last Judgment, depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel (1535-41).
The Last Judgment, depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel (1535-41)

Before mass literacy in Europe, pictures were the only way to tell a story clearly. The Sistine Chapel ceilings, painted by Michelangelo, relay many Biblical tales. Some of the most recognizable religious paintings came from the Renaissance era, such as “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo and “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci—both of which reference the Bible. As churches and wealthy politicians commissioned artists to visualize certain scenes and figures from the Bible, artists depicted these scenes in the way their patrons desired, shaping and changing interpretations of religious texts throughout the centuries. 

Angels in other religious texts

While angels are highly associated with Christianity, these supernatural beings appear in many other religions and cultures. Islamic cultures view baby angels—also known as cherubim—as Malak and are considered messengers of Allah. Angels, usually depicted as masculine beings, are illustrated in some manuscripts of Muhammad’s life and with Adam and Eve. Over time, artists began depicting angels as feminine beings to highlight the beauty associated with angels.

The Qu’ran also mentions angels, specifically zebāniya, the black angel of Hell that brings the souls of sinners down to punish them. The Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, notes angels throughout the text. Similarly to Muslims and Christians, Jews associate angels associated with fire and as messengers to their God. As all three are Abrahamic religions, angels play important and similar roles in each of their respective holy texts.

Biblically-accurate Angels in the Christian Bible

As previously mentioned, the physical depiction compared to the verbally described versions of angels in Christianity evolved over millennia, especially in the Renaissance era. Angels are mentioned sporadically in the Christian Bible. However, in the Book of Ezekiel, God is said to have revealed what the angels look like to the prophet. He described three types of angels that exist atop a hierarchy of sorts: seraphim, cherubim, and ophanim. 

The Nine Types of Angels Chart
The Nine Types of Angels Chart

Seraphim are the direct communicators with God and are the highest level among the three Ezekiel recounted. He describes the Seraph angels as having six red wings: one set to cover the face, one set to fly, and one set to cover the feet. Ezekiel describes the Cherubim as having four faces: the face of a man, a lion, an eagle, and an ox. Ophanim, or thrones, the third hierarchy, are wheels covered in many eyes that chant glorias to God. These angels are in God’s presence for eternity. 

Since the Book of Ezekiel was written—sometime between 593 and 571 BC—the standard depiction of these angels (and angels in general) has completely shifted. Renaissance and post-Renaissance art depict Seraphim as beautiful, ethereal women. Cherubim evolved to be chubby babies. Thrones, while still in their original form, evolved to be illustrated as simple rings, similar to the Olympic rings.

Angels have become an all-encompassing term. However, there are many types of angels besides the three highest in the hierarchy: dominions, Powers, Virtues, Principalities, and Archangels. Although angels can take different forms and have various abilities and significance to the religion, artists encompass all angels as human beings. In Francesco Botticini’s “Assumption of the Virgin,” he denotes the angel hierarchy but only illustrates the angels as men, women, and babies, not multi-faced, winged beings. This illustrates how the ever-changing winds of culture impact even the interpretations of sacred texts. 

Assumption of the Virgin, Francesco Botticini (1475).
Assumption of the Virgin, Francesco Botticini (1475)

But what exactly does the Renaissance Movement have anything to do with this visual evolution? 

The Renaissance Movement and Depiction of Angels

As churches began commissioning artists to create religious paintings, the organization requested that the artists take creative liberty in illustrating Biblical characters. Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones are not visually pleasing and do not strictly embody peace and serenity. So, artists like Michelangelo and Botticini created a more appealing and sensual visualization of angels. 

Inspired by the Greek depiction of Cupid, the Christian church declared a plump baby with wings the best representation of a cherub. Because of Ezekiel’s haunting description, the Church saw it fit to re-innovate how people visualize angels. A baby, associated with innocence, was a fine choice for a rebrand. Thus, the Church directed Renaissance artists to create new artwork to showcase this new humanization of angels. Even today, we still see cherubim depicted as babies--clearly, this rebrand was successful. 

“Angels” by Raphael (1513)
Raphael, Angels, (1513)

Although the Bible never assigns the angels a gender, artists tended to attribute them a feminine appearance. Women often were (and are still) viewed as subservient, innocent, and beautiful—which communicated quite clearly what the church wanted its adherents to think about angels--and women.

The Renaissance Movement is not the only era to blame for this misrepresentation of angels—though the use of babies is strictly from this era. Even before the Renaissance Movement, artists still inaccurately portrayed angels and other religious figures. Artists still painted angels as humans, but rather than ethereal women, they chose more masculine features. The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome features a 432-440 AD mosaic depicting male angels with a halo and white wings.

However, there is no doubt that the cultural impacts of imagery and iconography from the Renaissance have resounded powerfully throughout the generations. This is in no small part to the European colonization and forced conversion of indigenous peoples all over the world that began during this time, as well as the systematic extermination of non-Christians from the Iberian Peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition.

Winged Angels in Togas, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome
Winged Angels in Togas, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

The depiction of angels as women and babies continued well past the Renaissance Movement, speaking to the staying power of this imagery. Rococo-style art adopted cherub babies and female angels. Even in the 21st century, churches continue to represent all angels as innocent, mortal beings, not eye-covered and multi-winged supernatural beings. The familiarity of this manifestation of angels has become the default depiction, completely superseding the original Biblical descriptions. Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones are the closest celestial intermediaries to God; representing those beings as humans has proven to elicit a more comfortable response from believers and art enjoyers alike. 

Angels in a post-Renaissance world

The Renaissance Movement brought forth an enlightened society with new knowledge, social practices, and technologies that continue to influence subsequent generations of the Western tradition. In a time when literacy was uncommon, religious believers relied on pictures to understand their creators’ stories. Extraordinary artists like Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Raphael provided exquisite visuals to tell the Bible’s anecdotes. While religion may not be as prevalent as it was in the 15th century, we still see new art of different genres representing Renaissance-inspired representations of angels. For example, in Haring's signature style, Keith Haring’s “Winged Angel” depicts a simple outline of a traditional angel. 

Winged Angel, from Icons, Keith Haring, 1990. Photo courtesy of Artsy.
Keith Haring, Winged Angel, from Icons, 1990. Photo courtesy of Artsy.

History and art are two pillars of society that humans can not separate. Art is the backbone of storytelling, even in ancient history. The evolution of how we view certain things is inevitable. But the beauty of art is how we can remind ourselves we are forever changing. 

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