Thursday, 18 July 2013

Depicting angels as a reminder that worship on
earth is participation in the worship in heaven

The Archangel Gabriel in a depiction of the Annunciation by Aidan Hart

Patrick Comerford

The icon writer Aidan Hart gave two lectures on angels and icons this afternoon at the IOCS Summer School. The theme of the summer school is Angels, and he spoke to us about ‘The Historical Development of Angels in Eastern and Western Iconography’ and on ‘How the different ranks of Angels are depicted in Orthodox iconography.’

Aidan Hart is an ordained Reader of the Greek Orthodox Church and has been a professional icon painter and carver for over 25 years. He has works in more than 20 countries and in many cathedrals and monasteries.

His aim, in accordance with the Byzantine icon tradition, is to make liturgical art that manifests the world transfigured in Christ. For inspiration he draws in particular on the Byzantine, Russian and Romanesque icon traditions. He works in a variety of iconographic mediums, including carving and fresco as well as panel icons. He also lectures, teaches and writes.

Tracing ‘The Historical Development of Angels in Eastern and Western Iconography,’ he said the word icon means an image or likeness, and so asked if an icon should look like its subject, even if in an abstract way. If so, then, he asked how angels can be depicted in icons.

Icons of angels tell us what icons are not like. What is meant by those visionary icons is to say they are not like anything we know, and they are not just beings with wings.

An angel at the Resurrection ... a wall painting in the monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

He identified four main phases in the depiction of angels in Christian art and iconography.

In the first and early period, which continued until the late fourth century, angels have a literal and rather humanised depiction. All these depictions are of angels without wings. The oldest image dated from ca 180 and shows the Annunciation in the Pricilla Catacomb in Rome. The angel is clothed in a toga like a Roman citizen; slaves were not allowed to wear a toga, which was confined to citizens, and a purple stripe showed the angels as aristocratic spiritual beings.

A rare image from the Pricilla catacomb ca 250-300 shows an angel as a dove. Others show angels with beards.

A wall painting in the Via Latina ca 320 of the Visitation of Abraham, shows them as young men but without and beards, perhaps to distinguish them from pagan gods.

In the second stage, they start being depicted with wings. In this period, from about the fourth century, they are winged mythological figures, appropriating depictions of Nike, such as Nike of Samothrace, the goddess of victory, for angels fight battles against demons. Nike was also associated with strength, speed and wisdom. He provided comparisons with coins of Augustus, the Arch of Constantine in Rome, and San Vitale in Ravenna.

However, there were problems about angel worship, so depicting angels with wings became a way of showing that they were created beings, with limited abilities.

They are depicted with wings, not because they have wings, but to show that they move between the heavenly realm and the human world.

In the third or imperial stage, from the fifth century on, angels are depicted like courtiers in the Byzantine court, particularly from the inner court. Many of these courtiers, in reality, were eunuchs; they acted as counsellors, were masters of ceremonies, controlled access to the imperial throne, were intermediaries and diplomats and were messengers – all roles similar to those of angels.

Images from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome ca 435 and the apse in San Vitale in Ravenna ca 435, 546 and 547 show angels as winged court attendants and bodyguards, wearing chlamys cloaks.

An image of the Sinai Virgin in the sixth century shows entirely classical angels. In Aghia Sophia, an angel is depicted in the ninth century with a tablion across a chlamys cloak.

The Archangel Raphael ... a mosaic in the Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights (Photgraph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

By the sixth century, angels were then given a secular loros, first confined to the emperor, but then also worn by their delegates and closest bodyguards. The Archangel Michael is depicted in Byzantine military garb with a sword, both other angels are shown with swords.

In ninth century Nicaea, “Arche and Dynamis” or “Authority and Power” are shown with the loros pallium, adorned with jewels, and with Aghios staffs to represent authority.

In Armenia and Cyprus from the sixth and seventh century, angels are depicted with peacock wings, as a symbol of everlasting life, the resurrection and because of the many eyes.

In the fourth stage, from about the 11th century, there is a wide variety of types to select from. So, for example, Archangel Gabriel is not shown in a military uniform, for example, but in a courtly toga-style robe.

By the 12th century, how angels are depicted depends on the relation other icons, the emphasis and distinctive colours of the church. Angels in the iconostasis and deisis are usually in court uniform but not in military uniform. Michael can be shown with a staff for authority and an orb for wisdom.

In icons of the Annunciation, the angel is shown in ‘bodiless’ silver tones. In Rubelv’s icon of the Visitation of Abraham, the colours are chosen for theological emphasis. When angels are depicted at the Resurrection, they are always depicted in white togas.

Later in the afternoon, Aidan lectured on ‘How the Different Ranks of Angels are Depicted in Orthodox Iconography.’ They include seraphim, cherubim, thrones, archangels and angels.

A six-winged seraph depicted on a ceiling in the monastery in Tolleshunt Knight (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The seraphim are six-winged creatures above the throne (see Isaiah 6), two wings covering their faces, two covering their feet, and two for flying, and crying out: “Holy, Holy, Holy ...” They are often shown supporting the dome in a church, above the doors on the icon screen, for they guard the gates of Paradise, above Christ in the apse in churches without a dome, and in illuminated manuscripts.

Cherubim often look like seraphim, although they are a different order. They are depicted as many-eyed. They guard the entrance to Paradise with flaming swords, they guard the Ark of the Covenant and the veil of the Holy of Holies. They are also idenitifed by Ezekiel with the “four living creatures.”

The thrones (or wheels in Ezekiel’s and Daniel’s visions) are often depicted on the Epitaphios. The tetramorph are the four living creatures (see Ezekiel 1: 1-14), are now identified with the Four Evangelists: the Man for Saint Matthew; the Lion for Saint Mark; the Ox for Saint Luke and the Eagle for Saint John. They can appear on Gospel covers, and they appear inside in the Book of Kells. The heavenly host may be depicted as stars.

Angels and Demons ... the Last Judgment on the West Wall of the Funerary Chapel in the Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The demons are often shown with their faces blacked out, and Satan is sometimes show as an old man – “sanctity keeps you young.” Demons are small, reflecting the idea that bullies try to shown themselves bigger than they actually are.

The best known depiction of them may be in the 12th century Ladder of Divine Ascent in Mount Sinai, although there they are larger in scale than the humans climbing the ladder, to show their cunning which is distorted intelligence. They can be seen as disfigured, grotesque, unnatural and deformed, with creaturely and human characteristics.

They are shown in the punishments in hell, such as the 11th century Doom Wall in Torcello near Venice or the icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent in Mount Sinai.

He concluded by saying the whole purpose of the depiction of angels reminds us that worship on earth is participation in the worship in heaven.

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