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A guide to angels
The original meaning of angel is ”messenger” or “emissary”: an envoy delivering divine messages to people. Angels have appeared in every period of art from ancient antiquity to the present day, and can be found in the traditions of various cultures and religions. Besides the winged angels of antique mythology, the majestic heavenly servants of the Gothic era, chubby putti and the fearsome heralds of the apocalypse, there are angels who play an important part in the Christmas celebrations. How were angels viewed by people in different periods? What are the traditional and contemporary interpretations of angels in artworks?
- Maria Gravida, fragment of a panel painting from Németújvár, 1409
- Annunciation altarpiece from the Church of John the Baptist in Kisszeben, 1510–1520
- József Engel: Young Girl with Amor, 1861
- Giovanni Segantini: The Angel of Life, 1894
- Imre Ámos: The Painter in front of a Burning House, after 1940
- Rezső Rudolf Berczeller : Apocalypse, 1990–1991
Maria Gravida, fragment of a panel painting from Németújvár, 1409
Although it may not appear to be so, you can see three angels in this painting. Two of them are assisting the Virgin Mary in her spinning: one of them is holding a bundle of fibres, while the other is winding up the thread spun by the Virgin. So where is the third angel? The answer is provided by the feathers on the left side of the panel hanging into the picture plane. The picture, which only survived in a fragmentary form, was altered several times in the past. Under the layer of paint, a brush drawing, which was not implemented in the final version can be found on the Virgin Mary’s belly, showing the baby-to-be born in an embryo pose, with a halo around his head and holding a cross on his shoulder. A straw hat hanging on a string on a stick, a little barrel and a detail of a red dress on the left suggest that once Joseph could also be seen in the composition; what is more, a part of the halo that must have surrounded the now absent saint can be seen in the background. The original piece most certainly depicted the scene when the angel of God appears to Joseph and assures him that the Virgin Mary’s child to be born was conceived by the Holy Spirit, thus dispelling his doubt.
Annunciation altarpiece from the Church of John the Baptist in Kisszeben, 1510–1520
The ornate Gothic winged altars often decorated with sculptures began to appear in churches in the fifteenth century. The wing panels made it possible for the altars to be closed or open, allowing various representations to be viewed. They generally had a simpler composition on their outer side, which the faithful saw for most of the year. The panels were only opened at important festivals, when their more ornate, gilded inner sides were revealed to the believers. The two main figures in the magnificent inner composition of the altarpiece from Kisszeben are the Virgin Mary, alarmed by the unexpected visitation, and Archangel Gabriel, who brings one of the most important messages of the Holy Scripture: the news of Christ’s birth. Gabriel is the most often featured archangel in Christian art exactly because of the significance of this event. God is watching the moment of the Annunciation from the cloud above the protagonists’ head in the company of a band of angels playing music.
József Engel: Young Girl with Amor, 1861
Although angels are mainly associated with Christianity, celestial beings on wings had already appeared in stories of ancient Oriental cultures, as well as in Greek and Roman myths. Amor, the son of the goddess of love who shoots his arrow into people’s hearts, is featured in many artworks. The figure known as Cupid, or Eros in Greek and depicted as a winged child or young boy simultaneously symbolises the joy of love and suffering. During classicism the gods and heroes of Antique myths were among the most frequently treated themes in art. József Engel, a Hungarian artist of this period, drew the subject and stylistic features of this sculpture from antiquity. The proportionate and idealised body of the figures, their timeless faces and the harmony exuded by the entire composition are well known from ancient Greek and Roman sculptures.
Giovanni Segantini: The Angel of Life, 1894
The angel in the painting of Giovanni Segantini, a symbolist artist, is not represented as a celestial being but as a human figure embodying gentle motherly love. The mother and child are not only bound in an inseparable unity to each other but also to the nature that surrounds them. The long locks of hair and the folds of the clothes are intertwined with the contours of the tree branches; moreover, the exquisitely carved frame with curling motifs reminiscent of the tendrils of plants also fit in with the motifs of the composition. Dissolving the borderlines between different branches of art was a characteristic feature of secessionist art at the turn of the century; painters often designed the frames for their pieces and regarded them an integral part of the artwork.
Imre Ámos: The Painter in front of a Burning House, after 1940
“Only one thing is sure; the rest is merely extension: the earth below you, the sky above you, the ladder within you.” (Sándor Weöres: Towards Completeness)
Angels are often present in Imre Ámos’ paintings. They are recurring companions in his self-portraits and can also be seen in many of his pictures with other themes. His winged beings appear as peaceful protectors in the early compositions and grow ever more threatening as the tragedy of Ámos’s life was unfolding. The pictures painted by Imre Ámos, born in Nagykálló, contain motifs of both Hasidic Jewish and Christian culture. The ladder is one of his recurring, semantically layered symbols, which also appears in this work next to the angel. This motif has a strongly sacred meaning: it refers to connecting what is above and below, and seeking the connection between heaven and earth. The unique palette and forms as well as the use of symbols lend an air of mystery to the composition. What can the ladder leading from the house on fire to the sky mean? Why did the angel turn its back on the painter?
Rezső Rudolf Berczeller : Apocalypse, 1990–1991
Are the figures floating in the interior of the cupola people or angels? Are they flying freely or falling desperately? The title of this sculptural ensemble refers to the final judgement in the Bible, when seven angels blow their trumpets to signal that the end of the world has come to pass. The artist wanted to install his transparent figures made of metal mesh either in the church interior of the Metropolitan Picture Gallery or in the space where it can currently be found: under the cupola of the museum. One wonders if this same ensemble created a different effect in what was once a sacred space than here, inside a museum.