The angel is a predictable image. Through movies, TV programs, commercial advertising, popular reproductions of Renaissance paintings and decorative ornaments, modern Western audiences are thoroughly familiar with the image of an angel as a youthful being adorned with feathery wings. We also know that angels are intermediaries between mankind and a divine being. Angels help you when you're in trouble, they watch over you and they deliver messages from God. Anyone who's seen "Angels in the Outfield" can tell you that. Angels are such a pervasive and trivialized image in our culture that it takes extra effort to invigorate them with deeper meaning.
When I went to see "Angels in Italian Art" at the Mississippi Museum of Art, I expected to learn something new about angels, something unexpected that would broaden my view of them. And while there are some exceptional paintings in the show, I was disappointed by the lack of information presented alongside the artwork; the introduction to each phase of the exhibit only deals with the angel's role within the context of Christian faith, and each artwork is labeled with a minimal amount of contextual data. The layout of the exhibit suggests that Christian images of the winged angel sprang fully formed from Etruscan and Hellenistic culture (with only hints in the audio tour that such is not the case). There is no analysis of how the angel became a part of ancient Hebraic faith or how the iconography of the angel evolved when angels were incorporated into Christian faith.
For instance, the importance of angels in the Torah is conventionally tied to the different sources that comprise the volume. The anthropomorphic God that personally turns Adam and Eve out of Eden is attributed to the J (or Yaveh) source, while the more distant God of Abraham, who uses angels to stay Abraham's hand and to command Hagar back to Sarai, is attributed to the E (or Elohist) source. Such differences in the importance of angels as God's intermediaries can be attributed to the various influences of conquering and neighboring cultures on the evolving Hebraic faith: cultures that range from ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and finally the Greeks and Romans.
The long development of the angel in Judaic faith is integral to our understanding of why angels appear in Christian faith and Italian art. The catalogue to the exhibition itself states that "The long sojourn of the Jew within the (Assyrian and Babylonian) empire ... inevitably had consequences on the Jewish perception of angels; of all the ancient faiths of the Near East, the Assyrian-Bablylonian religion promoted intermediary presences the most."
The Tanakh Translation of the Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press) indicates that the iconography of wings comes from the neighboring cultures as well, noting that "Israel and Judah made unrestrained use of the typical Levantine Egypto-Phoenician and Mesopotamian repertoire of motifs: winged sun discs, scarabs, moon god symbols, sacred trees of life, paradise imagery, cherubim, winged cobras, etc." But while early Hebraic iconography may have made popular use of wing iconography, the Bible rarely describes angels as having wings. The catalogue to the exhibit provides a clear explanation of the complex relationship between angels and their wings.
I highly recommend reading the catalogue to the exhibit before attending the show. Since the "Italian angel" has become the prototype for the popular image of angels, without some in-depth background information, this exhibit runs a danger of blending into a pretty pastiche of itself. The inclusion of unfamiliar angelic and pre-angelic forms would have shown that angels did not simply arrive on Italian canvases with rosy cheeks and snowy wings, but that they were descended from six-winged, semi-bestial demigods.
But there are some truly once-in-a-lifetime paintings in this exhibit. The crown of the exhibit is "Annunciation" by Filippo Lippi. This tempera painting simply glows with sumptuous color and graceful form. The angel of the annunciation, robed in coral pink and twilight grey, bows humbly to Mary. He also holds a slender lily (a symbol of purity) and wears an expression of utter tenderness. The angel's wings, however, betray his power and divine authority with fiery reds and golds. Thus, Lippi tells us that this angel, despite his gentle demeanor, is making a non-negotiable demand on behalf of a powerful patron.
At the top of the painting, God's hands release a dove that flies to Mary in a stream of golden rays. One of the golden rays glances seductively on Mary's breast, hinting at the intimate and mysterious contact between divinity and humanity in that moment. The combination of impregnation, a deity embodied by a bird and the sensuous use of gold also alludes to the classical narratives (and iconography) of Leda and Danae, who were impregnated by Zeus when he manifested himself as a swan and a shower of gold, respectively.
Another thought-provoking painting by Lippi and Fra Diamante, "Annunciation in the Presence of Saint Julian," also depicts the annunciation, but shows us a much more eager and optimistic Mary, who looks directly up into God's hand as he issues his command. The Mary of the "Annunciation" in the previous piece looks away from God and his angel with a look of fright and sadness. But behind this depiction of the joyous handmaiden of the Lord, Lippi and Diamante have placed a window that looks out into a dark garden. Silhouetted against the night sky is a cypress tree, a tree that symbolized death and the underworld. Clearly, Lippi and Diamante are indicating that Jesus' conception is extraordinary because he is, from this moment on, destined for a painful death that will cast a shadow over his entire life.
The exhibit presents multiple interpretations of the same Biblical scene in close proximity. This allows the viewer to compare subtle differences in expression, gesture, color and composition among each painter's interpretation of the story. For example, there are three forceful paintings of the sacrifice of Isaac, each with its own distinct tone. My favorite is by Orazio Riminaldi, which shows Isaac's contorted body lying prone on the sacrificial stone with his head projecting directly into the viewer's space. Meanwhile, Abraham, with his knife raised, grasps Isaac's hair with fingers that are at once tender and forceful. Abraham's expression of raw disbelief is also striking because it reveals the great patriarch in obvious confusion.
Another notable juxtaposition involves two magnificent paintings of Hagar in the desert with Ishmael. One painting is by Tiepolo, and the other is by Francesco Solimena. In Tiepolo's interpretation, the elegant and desperate Hagar tips her head imploringly at the hovering angel and holds her hand palm up like a beggar. Nestled in her lap is the pale form of her dying son, Ishmael. In this painting, Hagar's body is a link between human frailty, which Tiepolo expresses in the pallid greys of Ishmael's skin, and the eternal youth of divinity expressed in the rosy hues of the angel. Hagar's hands, chest and shoulders are painted with the same ashen pallor as Ishmael, but her face is kissed with a rosy blush that seems to come from sheer proximity to the angel.
Solimena, on the other hand, presents us with a sullen Hagar who has turned her back on her dying son and whose fleshy flanks could not be less in sympathy with Ishmael's starvation. Here it is not Hagar who begs the angel for help. Instead, it is the angel who, with an upturned palm, implores Hagar to humble herself and return to Sarai for the sake of her son.
I could write pages and pages about the paintings that I loved in this exhibit, and I will definitely go see it again before it leaves the Mississippi Museum of Art. But when I go, I will go see individual paintings because of the complex stories they each have to tell, not simply because they have an angel in them.
A New Dialogue
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