Angels in Art: Presentation


For centuries theologians, Saints, and artists have debated what Angels look like and even whether they can be seen at all. St. Thomas Aquinas, writing  in his Summa Theologica about Angels with a theologian and philosopher's precision during the thirteenth century, declared them to be pure intellect and hence without any physical form. This has been the teaching of the Church. For artists, however, Angels must be made visible or else no art . . . the style of depiction is as varied as there are periods of art and the various cultures in which the artist worked.

      Images of winged beings-----man, woman, and beast-----can be found in many ancient cultures. Some of the most familiar of these "proto-angels" are the monumental winged figures on Assyrian palaces, wall paintings of various Greco-Roman spirits. [Angels in Art, Nancy Grubb, p. 7] For the most part the differences between such prototypes and the later Judeo-Christian Angels are greater than the similarities.  Until the Victorian era of the mid to late nineteenth century, these figures in the great masterpieces of Western culture have all been portrayed as masculine, in keeping with Catholic tradition.

The Victorian period was mostly devoted to the cult of man, that is woman in its cultural expressions and not one centering on God and service to Him. One of the hierarchies of the Angels most affected by this distorted emphasis was that of the guardian Angels. Now, as already touched on in the NOTE, the Church permits some artistic leeway so long as the sensual is avoided. Fortunately, most of the Victorian Guardians do not fall into bad taste and so the Church has permitted Catholics to display these images, provided the Catholic, Thomistic teaching is not diminished thereby.

          St. Thomas Aquinas' three-part hierarchy of three choirs each is the Church's traditional teaching, with only those names given in Scripture, assigned to a specific Angel; the choirs are by assigning each a rank or certain relationship to God and man. The first rank is dedicated to face-to-face worship of God; the second rank to knowing God through contemplation of the universe; and the third to human affairs. Within that third rank, the principalities watch over nations; the Archangels interact with humans in extraordinary circumstances; and the Angels function as guardians to individuals. For a complete discussion see the Angels Directory. A number of artistic representations have given non-Scriptural names to Angels. Catholic Tradition never exhibits any of these images, period.

From the first pages of the Book of Genesis to the last pages of the Book of Revelation, Sacred Scripture testifies to the existence and activity of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings we call Angels. They belong to the realm of eternity, where they are God's servants and messengers: the "mighty ones who do His word, hearkening to the voice of His word" [Ps. 103: 20].

   Above all, in high art the Angels serve the saving plan of the Incarnate Word: An Angel announces to Our Lady that she is to be the Mother of the Savior. Choirs of Angels hail His birth. Angels protect Jesus in His infancy, serve Him in the desert, strengthen Him in His Agony in the garden, and proclaim His Resurrection to the astonished women at the empty tomb. Angels watch over the Apostles and intervene to guide and guard Peter and the others and they will be present at Christ's return, when the Son of Man will come in His glory, "and all the Angels with him" [Mt. 25: 31].

   In the Holy Mass and in devotions, the Church professes her faith in the Angels, and invokes their help and protection. She venerates their memory with special Feast Days. Christian art and literature are full of Angels' stirrings. [Angels from the Vatican, Allen Duston, OP and Arnold Nesselrath, p. 7]

   Through the Angels, the invisible world plays a vital-----though hidden-----role in the visible world of the Church's history, in the Mystical Body of Christ. Religious art can lift us up toward Heaven and the purpose for our being created, to be happy with God in Eternity.

Revelation Concerning the Angels or Christian Angelology
Taken from the Summa Theologica

    § 26. Existence, Origin and Number of the Angels

1. Existence and Origin of the Angels

      In the beginning of time God created spiritual essences (Angels) out of nothing. (De fide.) The existence of the Angels was denied by the Sadducees (Acts 23, 8: "The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection neither Angel nor spirit; but the Pharisees confess both."), and by materialists and rationalists in all times. Modern rationalists explain the Angels as personifications of Divine attributes and activities, or see in the Jewish-Christian doctrine of the Angels traces of an original polytheism or a borrowing from Babylonian and Persian legends.

The 4th Lateran and the Vatican Councils declare: simultaneously at the beginning of time He created from nothing both spiritual and corporal creation, i.e., Angelic and mundane. Denz. 428; 1783. It is not defined that the creation of the Angel-world was contemporaneous with that of the material world (simul can also mean: in total, together; cf. Ecclus. 18, 1), but the sententia communis is that both were created at the same time.

Holy Writ, even in its oldest books, affirms the existence of the Angels who glorify God, and as His messengers and servants. transmit His commands to mankind. Cf. Gn. 3, 24; 16, 7 et seq.; 19, 1 et seq.; 18, 2 et seq.; 22, 11 et seq.; 24, 7; 28, 12; 32, 1 et seq. The creation of the Angels is indirectly attested in Ex. 20, 11: "In six days the Lord made Heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them," and directly in Col. 1, 16: "For in Him (= Christ) were all things created in Heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether Thrones, or Dominations or Principalities, or Powers."

Tradition affirming the existence of the Angels is unanimous from the very beginning. The early Christian apologists, in refuting the reproach of atheism, also mention the existence of the Angels (St. Justin, Apol. 16: Athellagoras, Suppl. 10). The first monograph on the Angels was composed about 500 A.D. by Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita under the title: De coelesti hierarchia. Among the Latin Fathers, St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great occupied themselves minutely with angelology. The Liturgy of the Church also offers many testimonies.

Natural reason cannot prove the existence of the Angels, since their creation is a free deed of God. From the known sequence of stages of the perfections of the creatures, however, the existence of purely spiritual created essences can, with a high degree of probability, be inferred.

2. Number of the Angels

The number of the Angels is. according to Holy Writ, very great. The Scriptures speak of myriads (Heb. 12, 22) of thousands and thousands (Dn. 7, 10; Apoc. 5, 11), of legions (Mt. 26, 53). The various biblical names indicate a gradation and order among the Angels. Since the time of Pseudo-Dionysius, nine Choirs or Orders of Angels are named of which each three form a hierarchy. In accordance with Holy Scripture these are called: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Principalities, Dominations,  Virtues, Archangels, Angels. Cf Is. 6, 2 et seq.; Gn. 3, 24; Col. 1, 16; Eph. 1, 21; 3,10; Rom. 8, 38 et seq.; Jud. 9; 1 Thess. 4, 16.

 Revelation testifies however that the functions of assisting and of serving are not mutually exclusive. Cf. Tob. 12, 15; Luke 1, 19, 26.

According to the teaching of St. Thomas, which is connected with the doctrine of the principle of individuation, the Angels are specifically distinguished from one another; thus each Angel forms a separate species.


The name, Angel, is derived from the Greek ánghelos, which means "messenger" or "envoy" and translates the biblical Hebrew mal'akh, which has the same meaning and is the most frequently used to specifically indicate Angels. Angels bear God's particular words to humanity or execute His specific commands on earth.  In the biblical Hebrew text, only three of the nine Angelic orders of the Hebrew-Christian tradition are present: Angels, Seraphim, and Cherubim.

   Angels are mentioned often in the Old Testament. Their first mention is in Genesis 16: 7-11, which tells of an Angel of the Lord who appears in order to comfort Hagar, a slave of Sarah, Abraham's wife. Here it is interesting to note that Hagar identifies, in a certain sense, the Angel of the Lord with the Lord Himself [v. 13]. The archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are called by their proper names in the Bible.

Biblical angelology is particularly well developed in the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Tobit. Seraphim, according to the name's Hebrew etymology, are "the burning ones." They are mentioned in Isaiah 6: 2-6, where they sing the praise of God. With reference to their image, it is said that they are endowed with six pairs of wings: two for covering their faces, two for covering their feet (so as to not be identified with human characteristics), and two for flying. It is said that one of them flies toward Isaiah and purifies his mouth with a live coal taken from the altar [hence the name "the burning ones"]. While The Old Testament lacks visual representations as such, the literal descriptions are more than sufficient to help us understand the image that the ancient Hebrews had of Cherubim and of Angels in general.

   The first time that the Cherubim are mentioned in the Bible is in Genesis 3: 24. It is written there that God placed Cherubim to the east in the Garden of Eden in order to prevent man, who had been driven away, to come near the tree of life. The most important reference is in Exodus 25: 18-22 [see also 37: 7-9; Numbers 7: 89; 1 Kings 6 :23-28; etc.), where the story of the building of two golden, winged Cherubim to decorate the lid of the Ark of the Tabernacle is told. [Angels from the Vatican, Allen Duston, OP and Arnold Nesselrath, p. 98]

A Note on Cherubs

The name, Cherub, is certainly derived from Cherubim; artistic portrayals of cherubs are mostly found in works glorifying Saints and Our Lady, especially Madonnas with Child. Cherubs are part of the artistic license that the Church permits us to enjoy, because the point of using Cherubs in art is to associate the Madonnas with Child and the Saints with purity and innocence, just as young children are. Thus the child Angels, Cherubs or in Italian, Putti. A number of the paintings feature this device. When St. John Bosco says that they are unworthy, he means a poor representation, as indeed they are since the actual Cherubim are so much more glorious, certainly if we had the ability to portray them as they really are they would not be as "cute".