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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
Angels and Archangels
in Christian art. The early artistic representations of these reproduce the ideas concerning them which have prevailed in the Church, and these come before us in a series of monuments from the 4th to the close of the 14th century.
I. First Centuries. — These monuments are, for the first five hundred years or more, almost exclusively from the West, and probably not earlier than A.D. 400. D'Agincourt (Histoire de l' Art, 5, 5) thinks that the earliest of these' is a representation of Tobias and the angel in the Cemetery of St. Priscilla, and of the 2d century. The angel has a human figure and the dress commonly assigned to apostles and other Scripture personages, but is without wings.
II. Fourth and Fifth Centuries. — The first representation of angels in mosaic is supposed to be that of the Church of St. Agatha at Ravenna, and believed by Ciampinus to belong to the beginning of the 5th century. The first to which a date can be positively assigned are those in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome, put up by Xystus III A.D. 432-440. On the Arcus Triumphalis of this church is a series of mosaics of great interest, among them being the Worship of the Magi, in which four archangels appear as ministering to a king, and thus teaching the divinity of Christ. To this period is to be assigned the diptych of Milan, containing angels as created beings doing service unto Christ.
III. Sixth Century. — In this century we notice the following examples: the triumphal arch of the Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damianus at Rome, about 530; and the mosaics of St. Michael the Archangel at Ravenna, about 545.
IV. From A.D. 600 to 800. — Art monuments of this period are few in number, and contain nothing to call for special remark save that, in the 8th century particularly, the wings of angels became more and more curtailed in proportion to the body. One such example in sculpture is Michael and the Dragon. (See MICHAEL).
V. Eastern and Greek. — Early monuments of Christian art in the East are very rare, many having been destroyed by the iconoclasts, the Saracens and Turks. The earliest Greek example is a representation of an angel in a MS. of Genesis, Imperial Library at Vienna, believed to be of the 4th or 5th century. It is a human figure, winged, and without nimbus or other special attributes. The fiery sword, etc., spoken of in Genesis 3 is there represented, not as a sword in the hand of the angel, but as a great wheel of fire beside him. Next in date is the Ascension, in a Syriac MS. of the gospels, A.D. 586, written and illuminated at Zagba, in Mesopotamia, in which is a representation of the order of angels designated as "thrones" and cherubim, known as a Tetramorphon (q.v.). Four other angels in human form and winged are represented as ministering to their Lord; two as bearing him up in their hands, two offering him crowns of victory, while two others minister to men, asking of the apostles, "Why stand ye gazing up into heaven?" According to Dionysius (Celestial Hierarchy), celestial beings are divided into three orders. In the first are the "thrones," the seraphim, and cherubim; in the second are dominions, authorities, and powers; and in the third, principalities, archangels, and angels.
VI. In Later Greek Art.— The language of the Painter's Guide of Panselinos, a monk of Mount Athos in the 11th century, may be regarded as embodying the unchanging rules of Greek religious art from the 8th century to the present time. The writer says, as to the first order, that "the thrones are represented as wheels of fire compassed about with wings; their wings are full of eyes, and the whole is so arranged as to produce the semblance of a royal throne. The cherubim are represented by a head and two wings. The seraphim have six wings, whereof two rise upward to the head, and two droop to the feet, and two are outspread as if for flight." Of those in the second order he says, "‘ These are clothed in white tunics reaching to the feet, with golden girdles and green outer robes. They hold in the right hand staves of gold, and in the left a seal formed thus ." Of the third order he writes, "These are represented vested as warriors, and with golden girdles, and hold in their hands javelins and axes."
VII. Attributes of Angels. — The two sources of information respecting the attributes regarded as proper to angels in these early times are Dionysius and actual monuments. Dionysius says that angels are represented as of human form in regard to the intellectual qualities of man, and of his heavenward gaze, and the lordship and dominion which are naturally his; that bright vesture, and that which is of the color of fire, are symbolical of light and of the divine likeness; while sacerdotal vesture serves to denote their office in leading to divine and mystical contemplations, and the consecration of their whole life unto God. He mentions, also, girdles, staves or rods (significant of royal or princely power), spears and axes, instruments for measurement or of constructive art, among the insignia occasionally attributed to angels. Turning to monuments, we find to be noted,
1. The Human Form. — In the earlier monuments angels were represented as men, and either with or without wings. The prevailing opinion, however, of early Christian writers was that this manifestation was not actual flesh, but only a semblance.
2. Wings. — Heavenly messengers have been represented in all ages of the Church as furnished with wings. As to the number of these wings, two only appear in the earlier representations, No examples of four or of six wings are known earlier than the 9th century.
3. Vesture. — The vesture assigned to angels, in various ages of the Church, has ever been such as was associated in men's minds with the ideas of religious solemnity, and, in the later centuries, of sacerdotal ministry. In the mosaics of the 5th and 6th centuries, at Rome and Ravenna, we find white vestments generally assigned them, resembling those of apostles. In mosaics believed to be of the 7th century (St. Sophia, Thessalonica), angels have colored outer robes over a long white tunic, and their wings colored too, red and blue prevailing — red as the color of flame, and symbolical of holy love; blue as significant of heaven, and of heavenly contemplation or divine knowledge.
4. The Nimbus. — Before the middle of the 5th century angels were sometimes represented without the nimbus, but after that era this ornament is almost invariably assigned to them.
5. The Wand of Power.— Only in exceptional instances, during the first eight centuries, are angels represented as bearing anything in the hand. Three examples may be cited, in mosaics, of the 6th century, at Ravenna, in which angels attendant on our Lord hold wands in their hands, which may either represent the rod of divine power, or, as some have thought, the "golden reed" — the "measuring reed," assigned to the angel in Revelation 21:15, as in Ezekiel 40:3. The representations of archangels, particularly of Michael, as warriors with sword, or spear, and girdle, are of later date.
6. Instruments of Music. — In the Ravenna mosaic already referred to, the "Seven Angels" are represented holding trumpets in their hands. In the later traditions of Christian art, representations of angels as the "choristers of heaven" have been far more common, various instruments of music being assigned to them Smith, Dict. of Christ. Antiq. s.v.
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Angels and Archangels'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/a/angels-and-archangels.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.