The Angel of Peace by Wilhem von Kaulbach
From the classification of the angelic hosts by the early theologians, and the special duties assigned to each class, we learn that the word angels, as ordinarily used, refers to archangels and angels only; these two classes are associated with human life in all its phases, while princedoms protect monarchies, thrones sustain the throne of God, cherubs continually worship, and seraphs adore the Most High. A belief in guardian angels those especially devoted to the care of individuals is far more widespread than the realism of the present day is inclined to admit. The godly man has a sure warrant for this trust in the ninety-first psalm:
Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
We cannot think of angels as a reality in the winged, human forms that have been given them in Art, any more than we can look for mermaids to rise from the waters mentioned in the charming legends in which these maidens acted their parts. These imaginary and apparently palpable angels are but allegories, which long have been and continue to be the angels of Art, and we could not willingly give them up. We know that they are impossible, even fantastic, if we permit ourselves to be matter-of-fact; but as emblems of spiritual guardians, sent to mortals by an ever-watchful Father, we love them; and we wish to believe in guardian angels for those who are dear to us, even if we cannot realize them for ourselves.
In one of the early councils of the Church the form of angels was considered, and it was maintained by John of Thessalonica that they were in shape like men, and should be thus represented. This decision is supported by the supposition that God spoke to the angels when he said, “Let us make man after our image;” and again by Daniel, when he describes his heavenly visitors as “like unto the similitude of the sons of men.”
A guardian angel must be ever beside his charge from the beginning to the end of life, not only to guard from evil, but also to incite to good. In sorrow he is a comforter; in weakness, strength; even in death he is faithful, and contends against the evil spirits who fight for the possession of every soul; and after death he bears the spirit to St. Michael, the Lord of Souls. Thus is the guardian angel represented in Art, as is seen in above in the illustration called The Angel of Peace.
When we observe a beautiful, unselfish life that rises far above its surroundings, we recall the belief in angelic guardians, and the description which Milton gave of a chaste, saintly soul:
A thousand liveried angels lackey her,
Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt;
And in clear dream and solemn vision
Tell her of things that no gross ear can hear,
Till oft converse with heavenly habitants
Begin to cast a beam on the outward shape.
The impersonality of angels is one of their most precious qualities. An angel is never active except as the agent of the Almighty, deputed to manifest his mercy and love to the pious, or to inflict his punishments on the wicked. Thus angels must be perfect beings; and while they love to serve, their service is void of the personality which is inherent in all human service. When they sing together it is because some good has come to men, and when they mourn it is for human affliction.
According to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church to which we have referred, the combat between good and evil angels is unceasing, and they also warrant Christians in invoking the aid of angels, and believing them to be ever near to prevent evil and encourage good. From the views of the early theologians the artists evolved their manner of representing the hosts of heaven, and while for a time angels were represented as colossal, gradually they became more graceful and lovely, as well as more human.
An ideal, a thought, must be personified to be represented to the eye, and I doubt if any new personification of angels could satisfactorily replace that which has been developed in Art during sixteen centuries, and to which we are accustomed from our earliest childhood. The angels that are known in pictures, watching over children, preventing harm to individuals, as in the sacrifice of Isaac, encouraging or even compelling worthy action, as in the case of Balaam, are dear to the heart of the world.
Guardian Angel Pictures
Guardian Angel by Bartolome Esteban Murillo
The representations of guardian angels in the more homely relations, watching sleeping infants, guiding their feeble steps, as is seen in the image above, and shielding them from accidents, are modern. To the end of the sixteenth century guardian angels, while engaged in all these minor duties, according to the teaching of the Church, were only represented in Art as performing solemn and superhuman deeds.
This may have resulted from the fixed belief of the old artists in these angelic beings, and their deep reverence for them, while modern artists are simply seeking a graceful and poetic subject. But, be this as it may, the angels who perform miracles to prevent the torture of Christian martyrs and other superhuman acts, are as essentially guardian angels as are those bending over cradles and gathering blossoms for children in the fields.
Source: Clement, Clara Erskine. Angels in Art. Boston: L. C. Page and Company, 1898.