At the close of the previous article [Angel Art - Part 2] I ventured to express the opinion that we should find the most successful modern artists who have pictured the angelic form to be those who have worked in the same simple spiritual manner as did the Pre-Raphaelite Italian painters. The religious ideal in art has been seldom attained: it demands something more than mere technical skill: the quietude of life, the purity of thought, the calm faith which Fra Angelico cultivated, are needed to produce the proper state of mind to direct the physical power of the work. There have been many modern painters who have set themselves to paint religious pictures, but those to whom success can be attributed are few.
Some there are who condemn the effort to delineate the physically unseen. Materialists themselves, they deny the right to others of finer susceptibilities to see visions and dream dreams. The imaginative faculty, however, properly exercised and controlled, combined with due facility of expression, is capable of doing great things in art; and in no direction can this faculty have greater play, or demand greater technical skill, than in the picturing of angels.
Mr. Ruskin treats fully of this matter in one of the chapters of “Modern Painters,” and the following passage dealing with this point is of great interest:—
“There is one true form of religious art, nevertheless, in the pictures of the passionate ideal which represent imaginary beings of another world. Since it is evidently right that we should try to imagine the glories of the next world, and as this imagination must be, in each separate mind, more or less different, and unconfined by any laws of material fact, the passionate ideal has not only full scope here, but it becomes our duty to urge its powers to its utmost, so that every condition of beautiful form and colour may he employed to invest these scenes with greater delightfulness (the whole being, of course, received as an assertion of possibility, not of absolute fact). All the paradises imagined by the religious painters— the choirs of glorified saints, angels, and spiritual powers, when painted with the full belief in this possibility of their existence, are true ideals: and so far from our having dwelt on these too much, I believe, rather, we have not trusted them enough, nor accepted them enough, as possible statements of most precious truths. Nothing but unmixed good can accrue, to my mind, from the contemplation of the scenes laid in Heaven by faithful religious masters: and the more they are considered, not as works of art, but as real visions of real things, more or less imperfectly set down, the more good will be got by dwelling upon them.”
Modern pictorial angels have, of course, for the most part figured in illustrations of Bible stories, and, as a rule, have been drawn strictly on conventional lines, and on this account, therefore, I shall omit references to many artists, reserving the greater space for those who demand it by their greater imaginative faculty.
Satan in his Original Glory by William Blake
To many, doubtless, the name of William Blake is familiar; but few are acquainted with the curious temperament and character of the man. His work, too, is probably unknown to many, but those who saw a collection of his drawings at the winter exhibition of the Royal Academy a few years ago must have been struck with the curious originality, amounting almost to eccentricity, of his illustrations of Bible incidents. He was a man distinctly in advance of his times—he lived towards the close of the last century—and was possessed of a mind always dwelling upon the mysteries of the unseen. When but eight years of age he declared that he saw angels in the trees on Peckham Rye, thereby incurring his father’s displeasure to the extent of a threatened flogging, and in his after-life his imagination ran far ahead of the powers of his pencil. But he believed firmly in his visions, and religious faith was the foundation of his life. On one occasion a young artist complained to him that at times his inventive faculties appeared to vanish.
“It is just so with us, is it not,” replied Blake, turning to his wife, “for weeks together, when the visions forsake us? What do we do then, Kate?”
“We kneel down and pray.”
And judging his work in the light of this fact, we have to acknowledge it was honest and conscientious—the outcome of his heartfelt convictions. Blake’s angels are unique in their unconventionality: they suggest the strength and majesty of the heavenly messengers rather than their beauty.
Archangel Gabriel in The Annunciation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
A great admirer of Blake’s work was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the most original painters of recent years. The special work by him, which calls for attention here, is The Annunciation in the National Gallery. This charming water-colour drawing is undoubtedly one of the most precious gems in the collection, and to those unfamiliar with it a visit to the Gallery should become a necessity. The figure of the angel is beautiful and imposing, and the whole composition tenderly reverent. Rossetti discarded the conventional wings at the shoulders of the angel, bestowing instead wings of flame on the feet. Clothed in a long blue robe, in his right hand a branch of lily blossom, Gabriel stands delivering his message to Mary.
Alleluia by Sir Edward Burne-Jones
From Rossetti the mind turns naturally to Sir Edward Burne-Jones, his companion and co-worker. It has fallen to him above all others to carry on the tradition associated with Rossetti’s work, whilst retaining to the full his own originality of conception and execution. Working apart from all academic associations, he “has steadfastly” gone his own way, uninfluenced by criticism, either hostile or favourable; he has conquered prejudice, and wrung recognition of his talents from all quarters. Never seeking preferment or honour, they have been bestowed upon him in spite of himself. And in all he has retained his independence of spirit, resigning the grudgingly bestowed Associateship of the Royal Academy rather than sacrifice it. Then came the royal conferment of a baronetcy, of which today he is the sole artistic possessor.
The two works of his which we reproduce are typical of his art. Truly religious in artistic feeling, his greatest powers have been bestowed upon schemes of decoration for ecclesiastical purposes, and his lifelong companionship with the late William Morris gave him full opportunity for their display. The illustration on page 772 represents one of a series of figures of angels executed in mosaics, forming part of the decoration of the American Church in Rome. The large figure of an angel shown on page 776 [shown above] is taken from the wonderful tapestry in the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford, illustrating the visit of the wise men to the infant Christ.
The beauty of the many windows designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and placed in churches in various parts of the country, places him in the front rank of designers of such work. One of the finest examples is to be seen in Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, London.
Angel from St. Paul’s Cathedral, London
The mention of this affords opportunity for referring to the commendable growing practice of beautifying our places of worship. One of the most notable instances is, of course, St. Paul’s Cathedral, upon which Mr. W. B. Richmond, R.A., has been engaged so long and so successfully. The now completed choir testifies to the patient skill of the artist, and the harmonious splendour of the work will justify the placing of his name on the same enduring roll of fame which contains that of the great architect of the building. Angels figure largely in Mr. Richmond’s scheme of design, and are of great beauty. As the choir is now thrown open to the public, an opportunity is afforded of getting within reasonable distance to see the work.
A Spandrel in the Dome of St. Paul’s
We also reproduce on page 778 one of the designs from the spandrels under the dome of the cathedral, designed by that other noble artist. Mr. G. F. Watts R.A. He, too, always works at his art for art’s sake. Disregarding popularity, he steadily follows his heart’s biddings in his work. With opportunities for acquiring great wealth by his painting, he has put them aside, and generously given the best of his life’s work to the nation.
Source: Fish, Arthur. “Picturing the Angels.” The Quiver. London: Cassell & Company, Ltd., 1897.
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Bearing these remarks in mind, [Angel Art: Part 1] let us examine the pictorial representations of angels by the early masters in art. It is necessary, too, to remember that Christian art at the first was directed and controlled by the Church. Art was bound to the service of religion: all its life and force were expended upon it, and, indeed, the workers themselves were, for the most part, until the thirteenth century, of the Church. We cannot touch upon the crude productions of the very early artists, and can only barely refer to the culmination of their art as exhibited in illuminated manuscripts. The beauty and delicacy of these decorated parchments are wonderful. With the use of the primary colours and gold, these, to us nameless, workers produced miniature pictures the charm of which—more than six centuries after their creators have passed away—still enthralls us.
Madonna and Child by Cimabue
It is not until we come to the thirteenth century that we can identify any particular artist with his work; and in our National Gallery is to be seen a painting by Margaritone, dating from this period, which shows us exactly how far art had progressed, and, as it contains representations of angels, is of interest to us. It is ugly and crude; the figures are lifeless, stiff, and, judged by our canons of art, absurd; but the angels show that even then the conventional form of heavenly beings was accepted. Before Margaritone died, Cimabue and his talented pupil Giotto had become known. Their work marks the first real step in the advance of art. We have one of Cimabue’s works in the National Gallery—and, for convenience sake, reference will be chiefly made in this article to pictures in that collection. It is, of course, a painting of the Madonna and Child, and on either side of these figures are three half-length representations of angels—beautiful female faces, with heavily gilt halos behind, and hands clasped in adoration.
Angels Adoring by Orcagna
In a picture marked of “The School of Giotto” there are also angelic figures; but passing to our first illustration—a group of angels by Orcagna (1329-1376?)—we shall find a great advance has been made. Although the influence of the illuminator still lingers in the colouring, we have now a suggestion of movement in the figures. Designed as one wing of a triptych, decoration was the main object of the artist. The angels are clad in robes of white, red, blue, and green, and are both male and female with halos of gold, richly decorated.
Angel Art by Fra Angelico
But the most refined, the most skillful, the most religious, of the fourteenth-century painters was Fra Angelico, the Dominican monk. Entering the convent at Fiesole when about twenty-one years of age, his work was carried out under the spell of the Church and in the quietude of a devotional life, and it all reflects the steadfast faith and purity of soul of the artist. Old Vasari says of him:—“He laboured continually at his paintings, but would do nothing that was not connected with things holy. . . . He used frequently to say that he who practised the art of painting had need of quiet, and should live without taking thought, adding that he who does Christ’s work should always live with Christ. It is also affirmed that he would never take a pencil in his hand until he had first offered a prayer.”
The picture by him at the National Gallery, “Christ with the Banner of the Redemption” (No. 663), contains over two hundred figures, and among them a large group of angels, the beauty of whose forms and countenances has never been equalled. He was the ideal painter of the celestial choirs, infusing into his work the enthusiasm of a holy joy in beauty and spirituality.
from The Annunciation by Fra Angelico
Mr. Ruskin writes of Fra Angelico and his angels: “By purity of life, habitual elevation of thought, and natural sweetness of disposition, he was enabled to express the sacred affections upon the human countenance as no one ever did before or since. In order to effect clearer distinction between heavenly beings and those of this world, he represents the former as clothed in draperies of the purest colour, crowned with glories of burnished gold, and entirely shadowless. With exquisite choice of gesture, and disposition of folds of drapery, his mode of treatment gives perhaps the best idea of spiritual beings which the human mind is capable of forming. With what comparison shall we compare the angel choirs of Angelico, with the flames on their white foreheads waving together as they move, and the sparkles streaming from their purple wings like the glitter of many suns upon a sounding sea, listening in the pauses of eternal song for the prolonging of the trumpet-blast and the answering of psaltery and cymbal, throughout the endless deep and from all the star shores of Heaven?”
Angels by Van Eyck
It is curious to turn from these spiritual creations of the Italian monk to the work of a contemporary in another country—Jan van Eyck, the Flemish master. It is difficult to imagine they were contemporary when we look at their work. These Flemish angels are so mundane, the Florentine so ethereal: the one so human, the others so sweet and soulful.
Annunciation by Fra Lippo Lippi
Returning to Italy, we find in the fifteenth century that artists, while still chiefly devoting their attention to religious subjects, have learned more of the technique of their art. They had begun to study Nature, and to use objects about them for their models. Fra Lippo Lippi painted some sweet faces in his angelic representations, but they are not spiritual, being obviously modelled from people of his time. His angel in “The Annunciation,” in the National Gallery, is a Florentine boy—very beautiful, but still human. His dress is a wonderful piece of workmanship, the wings are marvellously executed, evidently based upon the form of the peacock’s. It is curious to note, too, that he suggests the connection of these with the body for the first time, so far as I can trace; for the angel has an epaulette arrangement of feathers on the shoulder. Fra Filippo’s son, Filippino Lippi, too, was, a fine painter; but the angel of his, which we reproduce, approaches still nearer the merely human.
The Nativity by Botticelli
We come now to one of the greatest painters of the period — Sandro Filipepi, generally known as Botticelli, an artist of lively imagination. His angels, which may be seen in two of his best works—fortunately in our gallery — “The Nativity” and “The Assumption of the Virgin,” are quite different from all those of his predecessors. In the former—painted when the artist was under the spell of Savonarola—the angels are in a frenzy of enthusiasm. They carry palms and crowns as they float round in a circle over the stable containing the newborn Redeemer, and in the foreground of the picture embrace each other ecstatically in the fervour of their joy.
A Chorus of Angels by Simon Marmion
Angel by Fra Bartolommeo
Angel from The Presentation in the Temple by Carpaccio
Our illustrations on this page and the preceding date from the fifteenth century. That by Simon Marmion, a French painter (No. 1303 in the National Gallery), is curious from the fact that the artist has evaded the necessity of painting the lower limbs by the arrangement of his drapery; and all three markedly show the difference between the work of Fra Angelico and that of his successors. Fra Bartolommeo’s is an example of the “cherub” type, which was replacing that of former years; while Carpaccio’s still retains some of the beauty without any of the spirituality of his predecessor’s.
Assumption by Matteo Giovanni
Nativity by Piero della Francesca
Of the numerous other artists of the Italian school, space will not allow us to speak: we can only draw attention to their works in the National Gallery. By Matteo Giovanni there are some beautifully idealised children, who serve as angels in his “Assumption” (No. 1155); and in a “Holy Family,” by Ludovico Mazzolini, there is a charming group of angelic beings playing upon harps and an organ. The angels of Piero della Francesca in his “Nativity” are exceedingly unconventional, being wingless as well as haloless. They are simply beautiful Italian peasant-girls playing upon mandolines.
Francia’s wonderful picture of “The Virgin and Angels Weeping over the Dead Body of Christ” contains two angels of surpassing beauty: one robed in green, and the other in red. No. 781—a painting of “The Angel Raphael accompanying Tobias”—is remarkable for the skill and beauty of the wings. By Perugino (Raphael’s master) there is only one example with the angels; and they are but decorative adjuncts to the principal figures; and there is but one by Michael Angelo (No. 809), an unfinished work.
Tobias and the Angel by Elseheimer
The example of German art, which we give, can also be seen in the National Gallery. It dates from the sixteenth century, and serves to show the “fleshly” style, of the Northern art. The angel is of the same type as Tobias, who is merely a German peasant of the day. Never again did the angel in art attain the glory of the fourteenth century.
Assumption of the Virgin by Valdes Leal
The Spanish school made him merely a chubby boy—which can be typified in Valdes Leal’s “Assumption of the Virgin” at the National Gallery (No. 1291). The painters seem barely to recognise the difference between Cupids and cherubs; indeed, Poussin, the Frenchman, made no difference whatever. We shall consider in a subsequent article the treatment of the subject by modern painters, and shall find that the most successful of them have gone back to the spirit of the pre-Raphaelite artists.
Source: Fish, Arthur. “Picturing the Angels.” The Quiver. London: Cassell & Company, Ltd., 1897.
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