Giving form to the angels

Published June 1, 1999

Art work from the travelling exhibit The Invisible Made Visible: Angles from the Vatican, at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto: The Assumption of the Virgin, c. 1365, by Silvestro dei Gherarducci (tempra on wood).

THE BIBLE tells us the nature of the hierarchy of angels, from archangels and seraphim through to the lower orders of principalities and powers. And they have played important roles in the stories of Moses, the Annunciation, and the Resurrection of Christ, to name a few.

But what do angels look like? Where do they come from? What is it they do? Can they really fly? These and other perplexing questions have fuelled theological debate for centuries and there is no resolution in sight.

Though the church has not come to any conclusion, artists from such diverse backgrounds and ages as Raphael and Salvador Dali have been willing to tackle the subject, and have provided a theme for the second travelling exhibit from the Holy See, The Invisible Made Visible: Angels from the Vatican. It is currently showing until June 27 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the only Canadian stop on the tour.

Collected from Vatican museums and collections, the approximately 100 pieces are an impressive array of Assyrian and Etruscan antiquities from 3,000 years ago, tempra or oil paintings, sculpture in various media, reliquaries and a selection of liturgical items, all featuring angels.

“This is a chance to look at the angel job description,” says David Wistow, education director of the gallery. “They carry messages from God. In Greek angel means messenger, and they can be our guardians as well.”

In researching the subject for the exhibit, Mr. Wistow came across some interesting theories about angels. “There are no hard facts; it’s about faith,” he commented. Aside from their hierarchical structure – “almost as complicated as the Canadian Civil Service” – angels are hard working, kind and friendly, and love to sing the praises of God. They are also thought to be beautiful beyond anything known.

Popular culture in our time abounds with angel imagery, ceramic cherubs, angel postcards, films about angels such as It’s a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra, and pop songs on the radio featuring angels. However, Rev. Allen Duston, international director of the Patrons of the Vatican and one of the curators of the exhibit, hopes that the show will inspire thought and conversation about the meaning of the “messengers of God.”

“Many people have commented that seeing these works have caused them to think again about their own religious traditions,” Fr. Duston said in an interview. “I hope that they are also moved by being with an object that has a long history.”

Though the show is small by most travelling exhibit standards, each piece was carefully chosen to reflect the development of angels in art, starting with ancient artifacts and the first winged beings that would develop into what we now consider to be the form of angels.

An interesting example is a stone relief Winged Genius from 883-859 BC of a human figure endowed with wings. Like the guardian angels of Christianity, Mesopotamian genii were responsible for protecting mankind, similar to the seraphim. There are also several powerful modern renderings by the surrealist painter Dali, sculptor Virginio Ciminaghi and pre-expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker.

The Annunciation by Ciminaghi dating to 1967 is a bronze sculpture of two figures, Gabriel and Mary, caught in a swirling, dance-like motion that expresses intimacy and tenderness, the angel communicating respect and Mary modesty. “It’s almost like a courtship dance,” reflected one visitor.

The best buy in the gallery gift shop is the 320-page catalogue which contains fine reproductions of the works that didn’t or couldn’t travel. The accompanying text provides historical as well as theological background.

Margaret Dinsdale is a Toronto freelance writer.


Keep on reading

Skip to content