Archangels: Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Archangels

Archangels -1

The Seven
Who in God’s presence, nearest to His throne,
Stand ready at command. — Milton.

There are several angels who in artistic representations have assumed an individual form and character. These belong to the order of Archangels, placed by Dionysius in the third Hierarchy: they take rank between the Princedoms and the Angels  and partake of the nature of both. Like the Princedoms, they have Powers; and, like the Angels, they are Ministers and Messengers.

Frequent allusion is made in Scripture to the seven Angels who stand in the presence of God. (Rev. viii. 2, xv. 1, xvi. 1, etc.; Tobit xxii. 15.) This was in accordance with the popular creed of the Jews, who not only acknowledged the supremacy of the Seven Spirits, but assigned to them distinct vocations and distinct appellations, each terminating with the syllable El, which signifies God. Thus we have —

I. Michael (i. e. who is like unto God), captain-general of the host of heaven, and protector of the Hebrew nation.

II. Gabriel (i. e. God is my strength), guardian of the celestial treasury, and preceptor of the patriarch Joseph.

III. Raphael (i. e. the Medicine of God), the conductor of Tobit; thence the chief guardian angel.

IV. Uriel (i. e. the Light of God), who taught Esdras. He was also regent of the sun.

V. Chamuel (i. e. one who sees God), who wrestled with Jacob, and who appeared to Christ at Gethsemane. (However, according to other authorities, this was the angel Gabriel.)

VI. Jophiel (i. e. the Beauty of God), who was the preceptor of the sons of Noah, and is the protector of all those who, with a humble heart, seek after truth, and the enemy of those who pursue vain knowledge. Thus Jophiel was naturally considered as the guardian of the tree of knowledge, and the same who drove Adam and Eve from Paradise.

VII. Zadkiel (i. e. the Righteousness of God), who stayed the hand of Abraham when about to sacrifice his son. (But, according to other authorities, this was the archangel Michael.)

The Christian Church does not acknowledge these Seven Angels by name, neither in the East, where the worship of angels took deep root, nor yet in the West, where it has been tacitly accepted. Nor have they been met as a series, by name, in any ecclesiastical work of Art, though there is a set of old anonymous prints in which they appear with distinct names and attributes: Michael bears the sword and scales; Gabriel, the lily; Raphael, the pilgrim’s staff and gourd full of water, as a traveler. Uriel has a roll and a book: he is the interpreter of judgments and prophecies, and for this purpose was sent to Esdras.”The angel that was sent unto me, whose name was Uriel, gave me an answer.” (Esdras ii. 4.)

And in Milton —,

Uriel, for thou of those Seven Spirits that stand
In sight of God’s high throne, gloriously bright,
The first art wont his great authentic will
Interpreter through highest heaven to bring.

According to an early Christian tradition, it was this angel, and not Christ in person, who accompanied the two disciples to Emmaus. Chanmel is represented with a cup and a staff; Jophiel with a flaming sword. Zadkiel bears the sacrificial knife which he took from the hand of Abraham.

But the Seven Angels, without being distinguished by name, are occasionally introduced into works of art. For example, over the arch of the choir in San Michele, at Ravenna (A. D. 545), on each side of the throned Saviour are the Seven Angels blowing trumpets like cow’s horns: “And I saw the Seven Angels which stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets.” (Rev. viii. 2, 6.) In representations of the Crucifixion and in the Pieta, the Seven Angels are often seen in attendance, bearing the instruments of the Passion. Michael bears the cross, for he is “the Bannerer of heaven,” but the particular avocations of the others is uncertain.


In the Last Judgment of Orcagna, in the Campo Santo at Pisa, the Seven Angels are active and important personages. The angel who stands in the center of the picture, below the throne of Christ, extends a scroll in each hand. On the scroll in the right hand is inscribed, “Come, ye blessed of my Father,” and on the scroll in the left hand, “Depart from me, ye accursed.” The angel is supposed to be Michael, the angel of judgment. At his feet crouches an angel, who seems to shrink from the tremendous spectacle, and hides his face. This angel is supposed to be Raphael, the guardian angel of humanity. The attitude has always been admired — cowering with horror, yet sublime. Beneath are another five angels, who are engaged in separating the just from the wicked, encouraging and sustaining the former, and driving the latter towards the demons who are ready to snatch them into flames. These Seven Angels have the garb of princes and warriors, with breastplates of gold, jeweled sword belts and tiaras, and rich mantles; while the other angels who figure in the same scene are plumed and bird-like, and hover above, bearing the instruments of the Passion.


Again we may see the Seven Angels in quite another character, attending on St. Thomas Aquinas, in a picture by Taddeo Gaddi. Here, instead of the instruments of the Passion, they bear the allegorical attributes of those virtues for which that famous saint and doctor is to be reverenced. One bears an olive-branch, i. e. Peace. The second holds a book, i. e. Knowledge. The third, a crown and sceptre, i. e. Power. The fourth holds a replica of a church, i. e. Religion. The fifth holds a cross and shield, i. e. Faith. The sixth holds flames of fire in each hand, i.e. Piety and Charity. Finally, the seventh angel holds a lily, i. e. Purity.

In general it may be presumed that when seven angels figure together, or are distinguished from among a host of angels by dress, stature, or other attributes, that these represent “the Seven Holy Angels who stand in the presence of God.” Four only of these Seven Angels are individualized by name: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel. According to the Jewish tradition, these four sustain the throne of the Almighty; they have the Greek epithet arch, or chief, assigned to them, from the two texts of Scripture in which that title is used (1 Thess. iv. 16 ; Jude 9), but only the three first, who in Scripture have a distinct personality, are reverenced in the Catholic Church as saints, and their gracious beauty, divine prowess, and high behests to mortal man have furnished some of the most important and most poetical subjects which appear in Christian Art.

Source: Jameson, Anna. Sacred and Legendary Art – Volume 1. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longman’s & Roberts, 1987.

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