Sometimes artists are to blame. Sometimes it’s Hollywood’s fault. Sometimes the problem is sentimental. And sometimes all of these ingredients are baked into one crappy casserole that shouldn’t be swallowed.
I’m talking about sappy ideas some folks have about angels, and a host of other things that are not even remotely associated with the host of heaven. Unravelling the truth from stupidity is long overdue, and it’s high time we wrap our heads around the difference.
|"Nike of Samothrace"|
(The Louvre, Paris)
NIKE OF SAMOTHRACE
This gal is most assuredly the one most influential image behind many artistic renditions labeled as “angel.” The sculpture belongs to the cult surrounding Athena Nike, an ancient Greek goddess of victory. This particular piece, however, does not follow the traditional pattern of the goddess, in which she was shown wingless. Presumably, that was so victory would never leave the Athena Nike temples and their surrounding area.
This can be a generic term for specific heavenly ranks or, in proper context and in the singular, can even be used to indicate the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. It’s hard to get a good handle on the garden-variety angel, because they are not always given detailed descriptions in Holy Scripture and because there are different kinds. The typical commercial image, however, of a smiling, golden-haired damsel with fiber optic wings, does not fit at all with the reality of spiritual beings doing the will of God perfectly – even when man stupidly gets in their way.
|"Cupid in the Landscape." c. 1510.|
Giovanni Antonio Bazzi.
(The Hermitage, Russia)
This annoying little intruder loves to show up on St. Valentine’s Day. He is so stinking cute that few bother to ask what the heck an erotic, pagan god is doing at a party for a Christian saint and martyr. We can only hope that he overdoses on a ten pound box of questionable chocolates and retraces his steps across the river Styx.
Renaissance artists allowed their day’s massive interest in all things Classical run away from them. These Cupid-like punks flew straight out of Ancient Greece and started showing up everywhere, including sacred art. Apparently the only way to stop a running child, sans diaper, is to clip their wings. To make things even more confusing, sometimes the little tykes are referred to as “Cherubs.”
|"Sistine Madonna" with|
putti below. 1513-1514.
(Old Masters Gallery, Dresden)
These are the real deal and not some pack of squealing, flying kids. Don’t even think of getting on their wrong side. Three pairs of wings, but they only need one pair to fly.
We’re definitely on holy ground. Whenever you hear cherubim and seraphim in the same sentence, it’s probably a good idea to bow your head and acknowledge that the Lord of heaven and earth is nearby. And be ready for some serious post and lintel vibrations when they start praising God.
There IS a place for naked babies in sacred art. Context is the key. The Holy Innocents may LOOK like putti or cherubs, but they are young males from the region surrounding Bethlehem. They took the hit for the infant Jesus, when Herod found out he had serious kingly competition. The Holy Innocents can sometimes be seen in Christian imagery playing near Mary, the mother of our Lord, and occasionally can be seen carrying palm branches – a symbol for martyrdom.
|"Madonna and Child Surrounded|
by the Holy Innocents" 1616.
Peter Paul Rubens.
(The Louvre, Paris)
LITTLE SUSIE SNICKERDOODLE
For some stupid reason, a lot of folks lean on the idea that humans earn wings when they die. Never mind the fact that Scripture pointedly says that Jesus Christ died for man – and not the angels. This alone should give real comfort, but apparently man wants more than that. “Every time a bell rings...” is a nuisance phrase that has lodged itself into the sentimentality of sappy dolts, thanks to Hollywood, and it has morphed itself into all sorts of nonsense. The belief that a child turns into an angel at death is an unfortunate, misguided, and false notion, and often is written into heart-rending obituaries. It is one idea, however, that simply does not fly.