Angels have been one of the most frequent subjects in art of any period, and this is why they are so familiar in our shared imagination. They have accompanied us throughout our lives: from the angels in the fairy tales of our childhood and in traditional sayings, to their appearances in literature, music, and in more modern times, film. Who doesn’t remember Clarence, the angel, who on Christmas Eve saves the leading character from suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra? The visual power of angels is such that they are now even a staple in Japanese manga, where they have become curious fantasy characters, somewhere between Christian tradition and extra-terrestrials.
If we want to see why there continues to be so much interest in angels, who are as fascinating as they are mysterious, we need to take a huge step back in time. The cult of angels has ancient roots, originating in the cultures of the Middle East, from the Babylonians to the Egyptians, both of which mention angels some centuries before they make their entry into Jewish thought. In the Old Testament, angels were identified with the word mal’ak, meaning ‘messenger’, a term that would later be used in the Koran, the holy text revealed to Muhammad by Archangel Gabriel after he was sent by God. Translated from the Greek word anghelos, which was used to refer to Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, the word began to enter the Christian faith, becoming established in almost every language today.
It is as messengers of God that we find many angels in the Old Testament. They appear in the Book of Genesis to sanction the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden or they rush in to stop Abraham seconds before he is about to sacrifice his son, Isaac. They also take the role of spirit guides, such as in the case of the young Tobias, escorted by the Archangel Raphael on his long journey to collect money on behalf of his father. In the New Testament too, angels had the task of connecting Heaven and Earth, of accompanying the life of Jesus and that of his family. An angel was sent to tell Mary of her pregnancy; a group of angels sang hymns of praise on the night that Christ was born, and again when the Magi arrived. Angels ministered to Jesus after the temptations suffered in the desert of Judea, and they waited for Mary Magdalene on the empty tomb to announce the Resurrection. They also surround the Virgin as she ascends into the heavens and the ministers on the Day of Judgement described in the Book of Revelation are angels. Myriad events at the root of the reflections of early Christian theologians on the nature and role of angels, and the codification of the orders that Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite brought together in his celestial hierarchy, from the Seraphim to the Cherubim - the closest to God and literally aflame with his love - to the archangels and the guardian angels, responsible for the destiny of humankind. However, aside from the voices of the Church Fathers, the affection found in popular tradition for some angels, such as Michael, the warrior who defeats the Devil, soon led to a need to portray them in some way. Angels needed to be made recognisable with their most distinctive feature, as evoked in the scriptures: their feathered wings. This characteristic was also used for many pagan divinities but was also useful for explaining the essence of these creatures, pure spirits midway between the heavens and at the same time, a profound part of human destiny here on earth. To this specific feature, the colour of which changes to distinguish the fact that they belong among the Seraphim (red wings) or the Cherubim (blue wings) we can add clothing details, such as long, precious robes, the details on their delicate, almost feminine faces, their musical instruments and their role as singers of the divine. The route, shown through HyperVisions, invites visitors to look at famous works as well as lesser known pieces from this special viewpoint. In each one, it will be possible to uncover the variations and iconographic choices used to portray angels, especially those around Mary’s throne in the grandiose Madonna Enthroned by Giotto, passing from the extremely delicate, blond youth who is approaching an almost terrified Mary in the Annunciation by Simone Martini, to arrive, after the enchanted heavens painted by Beato Angelico, at the interpretations by the Mannerists, from Rosso to Parmigianino, and by the major artists of 17th-century Florence. Every piece reveals a symbolic universe used by each artist to embody these enchanting messengers. This is a journey through Italian and European artworks, which brings together different periods while inviting us to take a deeper look at and appreciate ourselves as human beings.