Jessica Helfand | Essays

Calling All Angels

Detail, Madonna di San Sisto, Raphael, 1519

In traditional religions, the cosmological order of the universe recognized the primary function of the angel as a messenger of God. (The word "angelos" in Greek means messanger.) Angels were believed to be celestial beings who controlled certain spheres through which a soul was to pass as it freed itself from the shackles of material existence. Knowledge of these angels and their names was a prerequisite for achieving eventual union with the ultimate spiritual reality. Appearing in both the Old and New Testament are the seven archangels as well as the governing angels of the four seasons, the seven planets, the twelve months of the year, the nine celestial orders, the twenty-eight mansions of the moon and the sixty-four Angel-wardens of the seven celestial halls. (There are numerous fallen angels, too.)

Many theologians have written at length on angels and their symbolism: Thomas Aquinas, for example, was known as the Angelic Doctor for his extensive writings on angels in the Summa Theologica. Yet while they were intangible and dream-like, we always imagined these winged creatures as vivid and real.

Visually, we can trace the angel through medieval iconography, Renaissance allegory, Baroque myth, the Neo-classic liberation of the soul, Victorian symbolism and the birth of psychoanalysis in late nineteenth-century, Art Nouveau Vienna. With the twentieth century came war and loss, a period in which the growth of industry discouraged the kinds of imaginative illustrations which had for centuries depicted angels in the classic cosmos of sun and sea, heaven and hell, black and white. From Marlene Dietrich's sardonic portrayal of "The Blue Angel" in the 1930's to Fiorucci's adoption of Raphael's cherubs in the 1970s, the angel became, over time, a symbol of satire. Soon, we began to equate the angel with violence and fear and crime: there were Charlie's Angels, Hell's Angels, even New York's Guardian Angels to remind us of our human frailty in an age of great uncertainty. As the millennium approached, angels reclaimed their spiritual associations ("Angels in America") their sports associations ("Angels in the Outfield") and their literary associations ("Angels and Insects"). Philanthropic angels lent financial support to non-profit cultural institutions, and when they weren't doing crystal, hog, tic, zoot or PCP, the fallen angels had angel dust.

At the conclusion of a year so indelibly marked by natural disaster, the notion of the angel as a catalyst for public good is at once hopeful and very real. We have seen, I think, how swiftly things can shift, how vulnerable we are to life and loss, and how the design comunity is more than merely a sum of its parts. And so tonight, as you ready your Christmas tree or light your Hanukah candles, think about angels as something other than those winged creatures. You might know one. You might even be one. Or maybe, just maybe you could become one. What a wonderful way that would be to ring in the new year.

Happy Holidays to all.

Comments [6]

Thanks to all of you for another year of being messengers (even if not always angelic ones.)

And remember to support the troops in the war on Christmas.
Gunnar Swanson

My mother has had a fascination with celestial objets (angels then, now sun and moon). I grew up surrounded by winged chubby angels made of everything from porcelain to wood. As I come of age as a designer in grad school, reading the geneology of angels fills me with comfort and fondness.

You guys have fast become one of my favorite places on the web for interesting things to learn and know. Dumb me, it finally occured to me that I should be sharing the wealth, so today I put a blurb on my own blog about you and will be adding a link later this week when I feel geeky enough to mess with my blog template. Thanks to all of you for your great stuff, keen eye for the interesting, and your generosity in sharing it with the rest of us!

Tom Atkins
Tom Atkins

Ms. Jessica -

It would take a lot of reading of the bible to make such a concise summary of what it says about angels. Is there an alternative source of info you can recommend that you've used?

Recent movies and tv shows portray angels as friendly and almost human, even humanly flawed. The bible actually says that they are rather terrifying in their rare appearances, and that they have no emotions.

It also says they're definitely not cherubs, and that guardian angels are not angels either. Sort of like turtles and turtle doves.
john massengale

John: Years ago, I made a book for Bradbury Thompson's famous "Brad Book" project, in which students chose a topic (in my case, angels) and carried it through history, with each spread representing the typography and composition of a particular era. Thus did I embark on my own (admittedly uneven) research: more serious scholars might want to begin here.
jessica Helfand

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Brian Ballard

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