Written by Stefan Sencerz, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Part 1: Angels in the Western Tradition

When Michelangelo accepted a commission to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, he stepped right into it. And by it” I do not mean just an exquisite work of a breathtaking scope; that much is obvious. Rather, I mean the centuries-old debate concerning angels and the nature creation. You can see his input right there, on the ceiling of the chapel, painted into his frescoes for posterity. Both the first human, Adam, and all Michelangelos angels are endowed with navels.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (detail)

Perhaps its not a surprise at all for someone adopting the 21st century perspective on arts. After all, the greatest artist of his era, Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) has established many artistic conventions. But the matters were much less clear during the times of High Renaissance. For example, there are no angelic navels at all in paintings of Leonardo. And there are but few of them in works by Raphael and none of these is very pronounced. And yet, interestingly enough, not only Adam and angels but also even God the Father himself are portrayed as endowed with navels.

The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1472–1475

Taken literally, this approach makes no sense. God is supposed to be a pure spirit not having any bodily parts. The first human is supposed to be created by God and not born from others. And even if angels have bodies, surely, they are not born from other beings, they are not flesh of other flesh. If they exist at all, either they are everlasting like God, in which case they have never come into existence, or else they are like Adam, brought into existence by a direct divine act of the Creator. One way or another, why would they need to have navels and be portrayed as having them?

Now, to put Michelangelos choice in its historical and philosophical contexts, since time immemorial angels have been considered to be benevolent celestial beings mediating between Heaven and earth, sacred and profane, the world of the Divine and the world of mortals. That much has been constant. And just as consistently, philosophers and theologians have debated issues concerning their nature.

Some conceived angels to be mere messages from God or, perhaps, the divine tasks rather than real beings carrying those tasks. A radical position, indeed, but one that has some textual support at least in the context of the Scriptures.

For example, in the Book of Genesis, three angels visit Abraham (18:2) but only two meet Lot (19:1). The first one appears to inform Abraham about his coming child (18:10) and, after this task is completed, this angel is never mentioned again. The job of the other two was to protect Lot and to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah; so, they stayed with mortals quite a bit longer.

Lot Fleeing from Sodom, 1810, by Benjamin West

Pointing to passages like these, some esoteric teachings of Kabbalah suggest that, after the message is delivered or the task is completed, the angel literally ceases to exist.

This is not, however, the view that emerged as prevalent in Western and Middle Eastern circles. A more popular approach postulates that angels are not just messages but rather messengers, not just tasks but rather beings who carry those tasks, not just aspects of divine actions but rather independently existing substances”.

If this is so, however, what kinds of beings are they? What are they made of? Do they have physical bodies like ordinary mortals or are they pure spirits unattached to anything physical?

Angel detail, The Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece by Francesco Pesellino, 15th century, National Gallery of Art

Again, let us turn to Scripture. Almost all encounters with angels begin with humans trembling in their presence and an angel saying fear not” or do not be afraid”. It seems obvious that angels were thought of as having not only immense powers but also a rather terrifying aspect or presence.

As Rainier Maria Rilke observed in both in the 1st and the 2nd Duino Elegy, Ein jeder Engel is schrecklich” – “every angel is terrifying”.

Jacob wrestling with the angel, Italian School, 17th century

A far cry from representing them as sweet-looking babies with golden locks and delicate fairy wings or good-looking young ladies and lads painted by Michelangelo and Raphael! But whatever their looks might be, what does their physical aspect hide? Or what does it reveal?

Some thought angels to be essentially like humans in terms of having real physical bodies, eating real physical food, wearing real physical clothes, using real physical tools and, perhaps, even being able to mate with us.

Thus, to use but few examples, the cherub guarding the Garden of Eden is wielding a flaming sword” (Genesis 3: 24); Abraham slaughters a calf and treats his visitors to a fine meal”; and fallen angels have children with daughters of men (Genesis 6: 1-4).

Abraham Serving the Three Angels, by Rembrandt, 1646

The view that angels are, in part, made of physical stuff found its expression in their typical visual representations. The archangel Michael leading the forces of good in the heavenly war against the dragon” (Revelation 12: 7-12). He is usually portrayed as a warrior wearing an armor and carrying a shield. (Below, on the left Saint Michael Overthrowing the Demon” by Raphael and, on the right, Saint Michael expelling Lucifer and the Rebellious Angels” by Peter Paul Rubens.)

Gabriel, described by Daniel (8:15) as appearing in the likeness of man”, is frequently depicted as carrying a white lily or a cross. Eventually, depictions of angels were routinely seen as possessing not only heads, torsos, arms, legs, and wings but also even navels, as in Michelangelos frescoes.

Other theologians argued, however, that no matter how we might choose to represent angels, these images are but visual metaphors rather than the real thing. For, in reality, angels are pure spirits, disembodied intellects, bundles of mental energies unattached to anything physical.

However, this approach raises some fundamental philosophical questions. Having no bodies at all and thus no senses, how can angels see, hear, feel, smell, or taste? How do they perceive the world? How can they relate to us? What mediates between their surroundings and their subjectivity? If not senses and sensations, what anchors them to our “reality”?

End of Part 1 of 4