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Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, by John Vinycomb, [1909], at

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Mistaken Modern Conception of Angels

Many poets and artists of modern times appear to have lost sight of the traditions of sacred art, and in their endeavours to spiritualise the character of angelic beings have in this respect been led to portray them as altogether feminine in form and appearance. This error should be carefully avoided, because in a spiritual as well as in a human sense the vigorous active principle they represent, besides having the warrant of Scripture, is more fitly represented by man than by woman.

Mahomet, who borrowed his ideas mostly from the Christians, in this instance, possibly to guard his followers from some latent form of idolatry, said of angels with some show of reason, that "they were too pure in nature to admit of sex," but to meet the ideas of his followers he invented another race of celestial beings for the delight and solace of the faithful in the paradise to which he lured them.

Ministering Spirits or Guardian Angels.—These form a frequent theme of poets and artists. The idea was apparently evolved from the mention of "ministering spirits" before the throne of God in holy writ, and from the ecclesiastical legends and traditions of the Christian mythology of early date, derived from still earlier sources. Thus Milton speaks of—

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                    "one of the Seven
 Who in God's presence, nearest to the throne
 Stand ready at command, and are his eyes
 That run thro’ all the heavens, and down to earth
 Bear his swift errands."
                                     Paradise Lost, iii.

According to ancient Jewish belief, each person had his or her guardian angel, and a spirit could assume the aspect of some visible being:

"But she constantly affirmed that it was even so.
 Then said they, 'It is his angel.'"
                                  Acts xii. 15.

"Brutus as you know was Cæsar's Angel:
 Judge, O ye God, how dearly Cæsar loved him."
        Shakespeare, Julius Cæsar, Act iii. sc. 2.

Spenser finely expresses the idea of the good and evil influences continually warring unseen about us, and his gratitude for the effective protection of the guardian spirits:

"How oft do they their silver bowers leave,
 To come to succour us that succour want!
 How oft do they with golden pinions cleave
 The flitting skies, like flying pursuivant,
 Against fowle fiends to ayde us militant
 They for us fight, they watch, and dewly ward,
 And their bright squadrons round about us plant;
 And all for love, and nothing for reward:
 O why should heavenly God to men have such regard?

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Milton beautifully assumes the pure nature of saintly chastity attended by ministering spirits:

"A thousand liveried angels lackey her,
 Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt,
 And in clear dream and solemn vision,
 Tell her of things that no gross ear can hear;
 Till oft converse with heavenly habitants
 Begins to cast a beam on the outward shape."

And Scott, in figurative language, apostrophising woman in her higher and more spiritual sphere, says in "Marmion":

"When pain and anguish wring the brow,
 A ministering angel thou!"

Shakespeare expresses a prevailing idea that the pure in heart will become ministering angels in heaven; Laertes, at the grave of Ophelia, fiercely thunders forth:

"I tell thee, churlish priest,
 A ministering angel shall my sister be
 When thou liest howling."

Next: Mediæval Art Treatment of Angels