On a recent visit to Le Marche we visited Urbino. In the Ducal Palace we looked very carefully at two paintings by Piero della Francesca that many of us had seen before, the ‘Flagellation’ and the ‘Madonna di Senigallia’. The first is a celebrated mystery. Who are the three figures in the foreground and what is their relationship with the whipping of Christ happening in the background? Different theories abound. Refreshingly simple by contrast is the Madonna and Child. She is flanked by two angels, one in pale blue and one in pink. The painting is wonderfully full of details to enjoy: the different jewels of the three adult figures, the branch of coral on the baby’s necklace, and in the background a brilliant shaft of sunlight lights the dusty atmosphere of a back room. But there is perhaps a conundrum here too. The two angels look so like the Madonna, who herself has an ordinary enough Umbrian face, just like the young woman who served us in the bar half an hour before. They all look very solemn, almost to the point of truculence. Looking after the Christ child is obviously a serious business. The angels could be Mary’s younger twin sisters, a pair of trusted baby-minders. Except for their wings. Did Piero believe in angels? Or does the earthbound ordinariness of his two angels suggest otherwise? Probably he simply didn’t ask himself such a question: they were an appropriate element in the painting he was tasked to complete, in the way he knew and liked best.
Angels are the messengers of God (Greek angĕlŏs means messenger). They are neither fully godlike nor human. Their wings seem to have been borrowed from Greek and Roman images of Victory (Nike), and Eros. In Byzantine churches angels stand in the squinches and pendentives, with God the Father and Son in the perfection of the circular dome above them, and the human apostles and saints below them.
Angels abound in scenes of the Nativity. Gradually they move into other biblical stories. Giotto’s Crucifixion in the Arena chapel has small angels in an agony of pity whirling in the sky like fireworks. In his so-called ‘Sacred Conversation’ paintings Bellini’s angels play musical instruments, sitting at the foot of Mary’s throne. His angels are a bit like putti, the non-religious male toddlers beloved by Donatello (often confused in name with Cherubim, quite a different species, who properly have four animal faces and many wings).
Milton in Paradise Lost has Cherubim, Seraphim, and Archangels (the highest ranking in the angelic host). In Book V, ll. 600-1 others are listed: “Hear all ye angels, progeny of light, / Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers…”
This reproduces a biblical list (Colossians 1. 16), one of the sources for the many attempts to categorise angels into their separate ranks. Milton’s is one of the most variously imagined angelic worlds in literature, depicting as he does the glamorous Fallen Angels as well as their victorious rivals (Blake famously remarked that Milton was “of the Devil’s Party without knowing it”). Living in the time of the Civil War, Milton conceives his angels in terms of a terrible battle between rival armies. He is immensely scholarly, finding biblical and classical sources for every aspect of his language and narrative, but this epic angelic world is the product of his own vigorously creative poetic imagination.
Earlier in the Le Marche week we
encountered another angel in Lotto’s ‘Annunciation’ (another topic which is a
rich source of angelic images). Here a frazzle-haired Gabriel puts to flight a
frightened cat, while Mary (unusually on the left of the picture), comes
towards us, almost falling forwards. She looks directly at the viewer, her
hands raised towards her face in a strange and inscrutable gesture. Of what?
Anxious astonishment? Fear? Thrilled excitement? God and the Angel are pointing
authoritatively, almost angrily, in different directions, while she turns her
back on them, apparently seeking refuge. This is a wilfully strange and
personal version of such a familiar subject. So what did Lotto believe about
angels? That they would terrify a cat?