Monday, April 17, 2017

For the Angels - 3:02; the Passions of Angels

The famous Ribaudo Angel found in the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno, sculpted by Onorato Toso in 1910. This monument was introduced to pop culture as the cover image for the (1980) Love Will Tear Us Apart 12" single by the British band, Joy Division. (YouTube video.) For more images from the Staglieno cemetery, try here.
(All images in this post can be clicked-on for a larger view.)

“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.”

- George Elliot, from "Scenes of a Clerical Life."

"A professed belief in angels would, inevitably, involve me in a belief in the supernatural, and that was the golden snare I did not wish to be caught in. Without committing myself religiously I could conceive of the possibility of there being, in dimensions and worlds other than our own, powers and intelligences outside our present apprehension, and in this sense angels are not to be ruled out as a part of reality - always remembering that we create what we believe. Indeed, I am prepared to say that if enough of us believe in angels, then angels exist."

-- Gustav Davidson. from his introduction to A Dictionary of Angels (1967), a compendium of angel lore which served as a major source for this post.

"... But the skies that angel trod,
Where deep thoughts are a duty,  
Where Love’s a grown-up God,
Where the Houri glances are
Imbued with all the beauty
Which we worship in a star.

Therefore, thou art not wrong,
Israfel, who despisest
An unimpassioned song;
To thee the laurels belong.
Best bard, because the wisest!
Merrily live, and long!

The ecstasies above
With thy burning measures suit -  
Thy grief, thy joy, thy hate, thy love, 
With the fervour of thy lute -
Well may the stars be mute!

Yes, Heaven is thine; but this
Is a world of sweets and sours;
Our flowers are merely—flowers,
And the shadow of thy perfect bliss
Is the sunshine of ours..."

- Edgar Allen Poe, from his poem "Israfel". Inset (above) is an illustration for Poe's poem by Edmund Dulac, found here. Another illustration for Poe's poem, by Hugo Steiner-Prag (shown after the jump, inset, right) can be found here.


In my previous installment of For the Angels I wasn't able to progress much further than a brief outline of the general history of angels and a few key points of esoteric angelology.  But, even with what little I provided, there seemed to exist an underlying conflict in almost all of the information. Although difficult to understand in the context of modern life, the theologians, philosophers, scholars and occultists of the past took the existence of angels very seriously; so much so that they developed a vast, complex body of lore regarding them; presumably independently, as the would-be chroniclers could not seem to agree on any one single point. For instance, due to the number of variations on any one single name, any one single angel might be conceived of as either good or "fallen", depending upon the source of the information. Names might also be interchangeable, as in case of the Islamic, trumpet-blowing archangel, Israfel (inset, left, and the contemporary Western interpretation below, inset right), who is sometimes confused with other trumpeting angels, such as Gabriel.

So, there are a lot of variables in the field of angelology and, for a novice, the "angel trail" can became so dismayingly convoluted, one is tempted to move off the subject altogether. On one hand, the general consensus of opinion seems to be that angels were predominately spiritual beings created of light; benevolent, extraterrestrial messengers whose primary goal was to proclaim and/or enforce the will of the One God. At the same time, we get the alternative impression that the celestials were not always so benign and were actually terrifying in many respects: immense, god-like and merciless. Some were referred to as "avenging angels" or the "heavenly host" and these had a distinctly military aspect.

To your left is a diagram from the alleged Book of Raziel - the "medieval grimoire of unknown origin" mentioned briefly in my previous post, which reads: 'He hath given his angels charge concerning thee, that they may keep thee in all thy ways." As it happens, Raziel is a prime example of the beneficent angel who taught humankind languages, agriculture, music, art, and esoteric knowledge. But, in contrast, we learn of Amitiel who, along with archangels Michael and Gabriel, was considered to be an "angel of truth and peace." Unfortunately, a number of Amitiel's noble comrades opposed the creation of humanity and "for this opposition... were burned."

Which brings us to the fallen angels... entities which had somehow "fallen" out of grace with the Godhead - or, perhaps, merely "fell" into the "hell" of the material realm - due to the "sins" of pride, rebelliousness, and the unforgivable crime of mating with humans. We are indoctrinated to perceive these dark angels as "demons" ... the progenitors of all the evils in the world, although, in more enlightened minds, neither pride, rebelliousness nor sensuality are considered diabolical offenses.  Moreover, depending upon the source, life as we know it may not have existed without these offending angels. For instance, according to Gnostic texts, it was due to a "flaw" or a "passion" within the angelic entity, or Aeon, which inadvertently created the material world...

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, modern humanity seems to have a singular, almost unconscious spin regarding the reality of angels. For us, they are almost always beautiful and very often experienced on a personal level. There are the angels of death, who guide us to the afterlife, or guardian angels of our living selves who protect us and set us on the right path, or (merely) the colorful figures who stand atop our Christmas trees and decorate Valentine greeting cards. Most importantly, regardless of whether they exist beyond the symbolic level as actual entities, or are merely metaphors for forces we cannot explain, they have come to symbolize the beloved. Even the least religious of us, when referring to a lover, a child, or someone we adore, use "angel" as a term of endearment and we call our lovers and loved ones "angels," without giving it a second thought. Maybe it's because we envision angels as the loveliest creatures to behold. But, one thing's for certain, regardless of their reality, angels and love (both sacred and profane) have become almost synonymous in modern consciousness, and, taking into account all the many variables in their alleged and legendary natures, we might ask ourselves why this might be so; especially as the concept of love rarely entered their official (religious) job description at all.

So, once again, regarding the reality of angels, we're asking the questions "why?" and "who?." Of course, as in the case of my last post, there aren't any precise answers to the questions... It's just a matter of enjoying the journey. But, where do we begin this time? Well, we might go back to the very first post of this series, and peer from the eyes of one of the earliest and possibly the best of the Italian Renaissance angel artists, Sandro Botticelli, and, additionally, the group of 19th century British artists most heavily influenced by him: the Pre-Raphaelites. I think, ultimately, it will always be the muse-inspired makers - the artists, poets, musicians, and storytellers, etc. - who will have the last definitive word regarding the existence of any or all members of our preternatural pantheon; not the theologians, the philosophers, nor, for that matter, the disciples of the Hadron Collider. The denizens of our Otherworlds traverse paths across (and within) a convex, inward-turning terrain; and before you chalk them up to figments of the imagination, well, first, define "imagination." ;-)


The Angels of the Annunciation

"And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."

- From the King James version of the Bible, Luke (1:26-34).

"It is often the highly unusual and idiosyncratic artists who remain the most difficult to appreciate. At a later date their works harmonise perhaps with certain academic and artistic trends and are seen as a precedent for contemporary styles or ideas. This was certainly true in the case of Botticelli, when he became the main artistic touchstone of the Aesthetic Movement in Britain. His reassessment coincided with the rise of the Aesthetes and was informed by the taste of the earlier Pre-Raphaelite school. Although not confined entirely to this country, the Botticelli Revival was distinctly English and Victorian. His champions were such pillars of the critical and literary establishment as John Ruskin, Walter Pater and Algernon Swinburne. The Pre-Raphaelites and before them the Nazarenes in Germany had already directed artists to the beauty of Early Renaissance ‘primitive’ paintings and frescoes and encouraged connoisseurs and collectors to acquire examples."

"For Pater, Botticelli expressed perfectly the power and resonance of Greek mythology, by which he himself was so fascinated. The qualities of statuesque coldness, subdued colour and bodily attenuations that had repelled the early Victorians, delighted Pater, who described them as the artist’s strengths. He praises the “sadness” of the Venus, the “chilled” and “cadaverous colour”. Although Venus is the goddess of love and sensual delights, Pater living in the age of Baudelaire, perceives that she is never, “without some shadow of death in the grey flesh and wan flowers.” This interpretation of Botticelli’s art and the artist’s use of pagan themes endeared him to the aesthetes, who instigated a Botticelli cult that permeated Victorian artistic life."

- Excerpts from an excellent article regarding Botticelli and the Pre-Raphaelites by historian  Antony ClaytonThe Botticelli Revival and the Art of Edward Burne-Jones.


Sandro Botticelli actually painted at least four versions of the Annunciation according to web resources, but they - apart from the Cestello version (below) - never strayed too far from the standard artistic interpretations of his day. Similar to his 1490 version (shown above) and his 1485 version (above, inset, right)*, these generally featured a humble young woman either standing or sitting, solemnly and passively off to the side, while the winged angel Gabriel - bearing a lily, a Christian symbol for purity - either hovers above her, crouches before her, stands ominously nearby, (or, in the unique case of Botticelli's 1490 Annunciation, appears as if he's about to jump her bones!). The scene is often played out in some elaborate architectural structure which tends to dwarf and polarize the figures. That is, they both appear within the frame, but they rarely occupy the same intimate space. Da Vinci's version (inset, right)) differs slightly from the the norm in that scene takes place outdoors, but, once again, the figures are polarized, and, in this case, neither betrays the slightest emotion. And, despite the nature of the angel's message - informing a virgin she would miraculously give birth to the Savior of the world - well, unless you actually knew the biblical story, you'd never guess. Certainly no one appears enthusiastic about it. Okay, maybe Gabriel has yet to drop the proverbial bombshell.

The Cestello Annunciation - tempera on panel - 1498, Sandro Botticelli, housed in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

However, when Botticelli painted the Cestello version (above) in 1489, he seems to have been otherwise inspired. Gabriel is not a mere prop - a passionless "instrument of the Lord" - he is an emotionally charged presence, seemingly more corporeal than the Immaculate Mary. He hasn't merely entered Mary's realm - her element - but is now intimately within her reach.  And, within this shared sacred space, the two divine entities are responding to each other. But, the crux of the matter - the painting's central feature - is the position of their hands. Is he merely holding up a hand in salutation - as is commonly the case in the various Annunciation paintings - and is she actually in the act of hesitating, or even recoiling? Or, is she swaying towards him and are their hands about to touch? It lends a weird tension, a sort of perpetual motion to the scene. And, possibly a tension which existed in the artist himself.

In any case, if we weren't aware that Gabriel was merely a messenger in this strange scene, we might think the figures portrayed two potential, if unusual, lovers: Gabriel, urgently but gently imploring, while a demure Mary is about to give consent. In other words, Gabriel isn't merely running an errand for his Master; he's on a personal mission to woo the virginal Mary like any hopeful lover bearing flowers. (Note: while the lily represents feminine chastity in Christian symbolism, for the Greeks the lily was, amongst other things, a masculine symbol of high eroticism). Moreover, he bows before her like a supplicant; note how much smaller than Mary he appears. And, as for their hands (inset, right) - hovering dead center and architecturally framed - one can't help but wonder if their inevitable contact symbolically represented the consummation of the final act itself: the conception of Christ. Clearly, Botticelli had more in mind - and perhaps, something more personal - than a simple, chaste, biblical vignette.

Meanwhile, one element of Botticelli's painting began to confuse me. For, although both figures are crafted with love, it is the angel who seems more vitally present, while Mary - although almost preternaturally graceful - appears bloodless and symbolic; more like a pale, luminous statue than a vibrant young girl. I wondered about this and came to the conclusion that Botticelli - and/or his assistants - never used a live model for the Mary figure, but, instead, utilized sketches he quite possibly had on hand. His model for the Gabriel figure, however, was most likely an actual person whom Botticelli knew and knew intimately. Then, there is the biblical inscription (in Latin at the base of its original frame): "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee." In the light of this, Boticelli's intent seems ambiguous. Who is overshadowing who? Who, in fact, is "the Highest"? I decided I needed to know a little more about Sandro Botticelli.

As it was, what little we know about Boticelli's life is also vague and ambiguous. Strangely enough, his popularity faded after the Renaissance, and it wasn't until the nineteenth century, when he was rediscovered by the British Pre-Raphaelites - that his work became desirable. So much so, that he is now, possibly, the most popular and well-known of the Renaissance painters.

As for the Pre-Raphaelites themselves, often referred to as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or PBR, the paintings of Botticelli made an deeply indelible impression on them, specifically Dante Gabriel Rossetti and, later in the period, Edward Burne-Jones. (As it was, Burne-Jones was, himself, almost obsessively drawn to angels - he was once quoted as saying: “The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint.” - and he, like Botticelli, executed a number of Annunciations; one which is shown above, inset, right, and another which can be found here.)

The important thing to keep in mind though, is what attracted the members of the Aesthetic movement  - the British counterparts to the French Symbolist or Western European Decadent movement - was not so much Botticelli's religious paintings, but his more sensual and provocative images drawn from classical (pagan) sources, such as The Birth Of VenusPrimavera, or Venus and Mars (shown above).

Keep in mind that, for the Aesthete, the only prerequisite for good art was that it be beautiful - "Art for Art's sake" or "L'Art pour L'Art." You might also keep in mind that many of the men associated with the Aesthetic movement (and/or the "Botticelli Revival") were either flamboyantly gay or sexually ambiguous: (Uranian poet) Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, (pederastWalter Pater, Algernon Swinburne, and John Addington Symonds.

That being said, apart from Rossetti, not all members of the PRB were considered true Aesthetic painters, so, it should come as no surprise that there are a number of Pre-Raphaelite versions of the Annunciation besides those of Burne-Jones (see this Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood page).

And, lo and behold, even Dante Rossetti - the true Aesthete - gravitated towards this same religious theme, and more than once! But, before we ask ourselves why the Annunciation theme should attract so many artists from two diverse periods, we might want to address another anomaly in the Annunciation gallery, and that would have to be Rossetti's odd portrayal: Ecce Ancilla Domini, (inset, left). While not exactly a tribute to Botticelli's Cestello version, it does have one thing in common: Gabriel and Mary are responding to one another within a shared, intimate space. But, Rossetti, either consciously or unconsciously, carries the metaphor to a far darker place. To all appearances, this place appears to be Mary's bedchamber, but, taking into account the antiseptic whiteness of this room, one is almost inclined to view it as part of hospital unit. Worse still, considering the neurotic expression on Mary's face while she visibly cringes on the bed, we might almost suspect this is a psychiatric unit! Moreover, "Nurse" Gabriel - who, apparently, has not only lost his wings, but is emerging from flames - isn't merely brandishing a lily but appears to be "sticking it to her." If we didn't know better, we might suspect that Gabriel - his face in shadow - is neither an angel nor a messenger of any sort, but a woman's worse nightmare: a rapist. (Note: As it happens, Rossetti's model for Mary in the painting was his own dear sister, poet Christina Rossetti, who, in reality, suffered from both depression and episodes of "nervous breakdown" throughout her youth.)

And, so, for the first time, an artist - either knowingly or accidentally - has alluded to an underlying demonic aspect in angelology that had heretofore remained unaddressed; a most important aspect that will be discussed in my following post regarding the "Passions of Angels." (hold the thought). But, meanwhile, there's another aspect of angel lore - and angel love - that can be illuminated here, and that is the love between men, (i.e., homoerotic love). And, that may have been one form of love Botticelli (inset, right) was, himself, no stranger to. Below (and inset, left) are two details from Botticelli's The Mystical Nativity. While art authorities tend to translate the angelic embraces as expressions of reverence for Christ and the sheer joy accompanying his nativity, I'm less than convinced... especially in light of the following paragraph found in Botticelli's Wiki entry (quoted below).

"Botticelli never wed, and expressed a strong aversion to the idea of marriage, a prospect he claimed gave him nightmares. A summary of a charge has been found in the Florentine Archives for November 16, 1502 which reads simply, 'Botticelli keeps a boy'. The painter was then fifty-eight. Jacques Mesnil who discovered the document in 1938 dismissed it as a customary slander by which the partisans and adversaries of Savanarola abused each other. Opinion remains divided. Some historians have agreed with Mesnil's view; while others have cautioned against hasty dismissal of the charge. However, while dismissing the charge, speculating on the subject of his paintings, Mesnil nevertheless concluded 'woman was not the only object of his love'."

So, Botticelli "kept a boy"... which, thankfully - unless the "boy" was under-age - is neither considered a "charge" nor a scandalous bit of "slander" by modern standards. Moreover, maybe I was onto something when I intuited that the Gabriel in the Cestello Annunciation was the portrayal of a young man Botticelli knew "intimately." Which is not to say we love his Gabriel any less for this, but, rather, we are able to love his Gabriel all the more because Botticelli was able to convey his love to us.

It would be a large oversight on my part, however, if we were to leave Botticelli's story solely in the hands of his "angels." No, there was another aspect to the breadth of Botticelli's love which he expressed in the (Cestello) figure of Mary. For, I believe, in his eyes, it was she who represented the "power of the Highest" in the painting. And the figure of Mary also represented an actual figure who lived during Botticelli's lifetime. But, in this case, the person was a woman Botticellli did not intimately know; his love was of the idealized, unrequited kind, bestowed upon a beloved who was married to another and beyond his physical reach: Simonetta Vespucci.  Although the Castello Mary is generally not among those images said to represent Vespucci - while Boticelli's Venus (inset, left) generally is - I can't help but see a resemblance between the two. And, while at least one historian dismisses the entire "love story" as "romantic nonsense" - especially as Simonetta Vespucci died (at the age of 22) before Botticelli painted any of the images attributed to her, the fact remains that Botticelli's one request was that he be buried at Vespucci's feet at the time of his death. And, so he was, in the chiesa di Ognissanti (the church of All Saints) in Florence, Italy, in 1510.**

But, the question still remains: why is it that the Annunciation captured the imaginations of so many artists both in the Renaissance, and then again in the 19th century? What was it about the portrayal of a (male) angel and a (female) human - generally depicted like a pair of bookends on either side of the painting (as in the example shown above)*** - which so fascinated them?

We can take into account the difference in gender, and weave a subtly sultry tale (which, in a sense, I more or less, alluded to). Or, then again, we might surmise that the angel represents the divine, celestial Other... an entity who is utterly separate from the human element, i.e., the conventional religious interpretation. But this, in turn, begs one last question: is there really an empty, cavernous divide between the two entities... or are we (merely) being shown both sides of a looking-glass?

A detail of Aurora Triumphans, painted in 1887 by an (often-overlooked) Pre-Raphaelite Sister, artist and follower of Burne-Jones, Evelyn De Morgan.

* An earlier fresco of the Annunciation painted by Botticelli in 1481 can be found here. Note the elaborate bed in the background.

** Unfortunately, although the location of Botticelli's remains is presently marked by a small plaque in the church of Ognissanti, Simonetta's grave was washed away in devastating floods in 1966. (Found here.)

*** The panel of the Annunciation shown here is actually part of the Ghent Altarpiece, painted by Flemish artist Jan van Eyck in 1432 (and found in this article). As it happened, the Flemish Renaissance artists rivaled the Italians in producing numerous versions of the Annunciation (see here).

For a comprehensive view of numerous works by Botticelli, visit Maria Laterza's Botticelli page.


"And when I wake on a dreary Sunday morning
I open up my eyes to find there's rain
And something strange within says, "Go ahead and find her,
Just close your eyes, yeah
Just close your eyes, and she will be there."
- From "Pretty Ballerina," 1965, The Left Banke. An interesting related article can be found here.

"So she went along and went along and went along, till she came to the end of the wood..."
- A line from the Cinderella-like tale of Catskin.

Well, we've come to the end of the first part of the Passions of Angels... although, originally, my intention was to upload the entire article in one post. But, sadly, you know - and I know - that seldom do things unfold according to one's best-laid plans.

In reality, I have had to put all posting on the back, back burner these days due to the fact that, yes, I'm going "on the road" again. What this really translates into is that I'm trying to find a place to live which I can afford, but, I still feel like little Catskin (illustrated inset, left by Arthur Rackham) dragging my heavy sack through the wilderness in search of a place to hang my cat-ears.

Actually, I (synchronistically) found this image of Catskin in a blog post by Terri Windling recently - The Long Tale - in which she reminds us that, although the incidents and episodes of our lives seem disjointed and disparate, they are actually part of our "long tale," a silent, personal narrative we both create and follow... like a path through the wilderness...

...which made me feel better. But, Inevitably, while repacking the mementos of my past lives back into boxes, I began to have an old set of tunes echoing through my head... music I loved to listen to at the very beginning of my long tale. A few of those originals, like Pretty Ballerina, currently appear on the sidebar - just in case you wondered what that was all about - along with a couple of 1980's cover versions. Pardon me while I indulge myself; this, too, will pass.

Anyway, it may take awhile, but I hope to be back ASAP with the second half of the Passions of Angels (3:03). In a very weird sense this blog has become my truest "home, sweet home," a permanent place in cyberspace which outlasts all my material abodes. Can't say I ever foresaw that part of my story!


  1. So very intriguing...and such depth plumbed in this expose of Messengers.

    I've always tended to see angels as bright terrifying beings -- devoid of human emotion and devoid of free will (that most precious of all gifts if we subscribe to the Religions).

    Superb. And don't trudge through the wilderness for 40 years.

    1. Thanks once again, BG. I wasn't actually able to get to the point in this post... hopefully I will in the next so we can finally MOVE ON!

      Re: "free will"... for that we must turn to the "fallen" angel, Lucifer... and we shall.

      Re: "trudging through the wilderness for 40 years"... been there, done that. ;-)