Tuesday, March 11, 2014

An Exploration of Winged Figures

I'm thrilled to be working on a new series of paintings involving winged figures and ballerinas. It was this painting from last year, "Little Warrior," that got the whole thing started:

"Little Warrior" (2013) - by Anna Rose Bain - 14.5" x 24" 
Oil on linen glued to board - Private Collection

Before beginning the series, however, I decided to study up on the history of "winged figures" in art and culture. I realized that I knew quite a bit about angels in the biblical sense, but was at a loss as to how our modern-day image of the angel came to be. In my mind, I needed to justify why I would be taking a deliberately cultural (and not literal) take on angels, knowing that the Bible strictly describes them as masculine beings who serve as either messengers, heavenly attendants, or warriors.

The word "angel" itself comes from the Greek angelos, meaning "messenger." In our current culture, we confuse angels with a "winged human motif," something that has been embraced by many key cultures including ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. Our modern-day images of angels are perhaps most closely related to ancient Babylonian and Greek winged figures. The statue of the goddess Nike, in particular, is the most iconic winged image from ancient history, and she dates to nearly 2300 years ago. With such a powerful motif being around for so long, it's no wonder that we are always moved and fascinated by it.

The concept of the halo originated from images of Helios, the Greek sun-god, as well as the self-applauding emperors of ancient Rome. According to one article I read, "The Greek and Roman tradition in the portrayal and use of the Nike/Victory icon were at least 600 years old by the time Nike/Victory was adapted by the Byzantine Church (400-600 AD) as the standard depiction of an angel." So the primary source of the modern standard for angel imagery is Greek in origin, not Hebrew.

An Orthodox icon of the angel Gabriel depicting the halo, from Mileseva Monestary, Serbia (c. 1230 AD)

There are so many different types of angels that have emerged throughout the ages in art history (and I have skimmed over some of the biblical creatures like cherubim and seraphim, probably because the idea of a figure having six or more wings kind of freaks me out). Here is just a brief list:

- Child angels: In Western art, "cherubs" have become confused with "putti," who are innocent childlike souls, often bearing wings. These images can be found everywhere in Renaissance art and were especially made popular by artists such as Raphael. The image of the putti came from classical mythology and probably originated with Eros (or Roman Cupid), the Greek god of erotic love, who was traditionally depicted as a winged youth holding a bow and arrow.

"Putti (from the Sistine Madonna)" - by Raphael (1512-1513)

- Musical angels: Technically, these would include the cherubim and seraphim, whose sole purpose as members of an angelic choir is to worship God. However, the stereotypical image of an angel playing a musical instrument such as a lyre or a trumpet, really began to appear in the 14th century, and may be more closely related to Platonic and Pythagorean ideas of divine harmony within the cosmos. These ideas were fully embraced by the humanist artists of the Renaissance. While the symbolism is probably lost on most of us today, there was importance to the meaning of each type of instrument played by the angels in art up until the mid-16th century. For example, the trumpet symbolized the power of God (including destructive power as in the Last Judgement), stringed instruments represented the self-manifestation of the Divinity, and percussion represented "profane" or secular music. In the Middle Ages, even the number of strings on an instrument had symbolism; usually it was given six strings to represent the days of Creation.

"Rest on the Flight to Egypt," by Michelangelo Caravaggio (ca. 1599)

- Worshipping/adoring angels: We see these in classical images of moments of epiphany or revelation, or festive events, including the Nativity. There is some biblical evidence of this purpose for angelic beings, as the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 148) make numerous reference to angels worshipping and contemplating God.

- Guardian angels: This concept was started by the early Catholic church. While I don't find a lot of scriptural basis for it, the church has adapted this concept to its catechism based on this Bible verse (Matthew 18:10), and the teachings of Saint Jerome, who stated that "the dignity of a soul is so great, that each has a guardian angel from its birth."

- Angels as sex objects: Victoria's Secret. Need I say more? Click the image below to read a very well-written and interesting article on the history behind this cultural icon...

Why are angels depicted as women? The female angel didn't arrive in art history until the 19th century with the Romantic and Victorian periods. We were given masters like Thayer and Bouguereau, but alongside such beauty came the ostentatious kitsch that still remains wildly popular to this day, including the fat cupids used on Valentine's Day cards and the overtly Anglo-Saxon women depicted by Sunday school artists as guardian angels. Perhaps women are more popular than men as winged figures because they are less intimidating, more nurturing or comforting, or more maternal. I hate to put it this way, but women are also more "decorative". Perhaps they emerged in art as a response to the androgynous angelic figures seen in paintings from the Middle Ages. They certainly are much more beautiful, when portrayed the way Thayer or Bouguereau painted them.

"Angel," by Abbott Thayer (1889)

"Virgin of the Angels," by William Bouguereau (1881)

Above and below: Victorian images of angels

You can see my dilemma. Choosing to depict winged figures in my paintings using the female form has me knowingly going against the literal biblical description of angels. I have asked myself if this series will just add to the enormous pool of false imagery (or, God forbid, kitsch!), or if I will be able to create something of beauty that stands the test of time while upholding both the classical humanist tradition and my faith. I hope it's the latter.  For this reason, I have purposefully omitted the word "angel" from any of the painting titles. The use of wings is more for design and power of imagery, as well as enhancing the emotions I hope to convey in these pieces. Gustave Courbet said he would never paint an angel, as he had never seen one. Perhaps rightly so. Yet I choose to use this imagery not to be literal, but to be evocative as well as empathetic, and to convey beauty in a way that is both classical and yet otherworldly, perhaps somehow even pointing to God. In short, the purpose of this series is to depict a wide spectrum of emotions and to express the human desire for deeper meaning.

With that, I give you some of the recently finished paintings from this series. I had the privilege of working with some professional ballerinas as well as some of my favorite art models in helping me make this vision come to life. There are still many more paintings in the works, but here is the beginning.

"Devotion" - by Anna Rose Bain - 30x20" - oil on linen - Available

"Exultation" - by Anna Rose Bain - 30x20" - oil on linen - Available

"Passage" - by Anna Rose Bain - 36x24" - oil on linen

Though all of the paintings are emotional, this one is a bit darker and more symbolic than the others. You can barely make it out, but inscribed on the tombstone is the Latin quote, "Ars Longa, Vita Brevis," meaning "Life is short, but art is forever."



  1. Beautiful work. I really dont have words to express the beauty of your work...Splendid!!

  2. You have lovely artwork. I don't think you should feel bad or anything for using images of female angels because I know that they do exist. The bible just doesn't explicitly speak much about them. There are female spirits mentioned in the bible, in Zechariah 5, I believe. And the Bible actually says quite clearly that the Holy Spirit is a SHE! She is WISDOM spoken of in Proverbs (and in other books). I've done youtube videos explaining this but people still like to cling to incorrect traditional teachings because they're afraid to go against the popular opinion. The fact is, we humans were created in the image of Elohim (the hebrew word for gods - plural - the word that was used in Genesis). The bible says in the image of Elohim created he him (hebrew word being "adam," meaning humankind), male and FEMALE created he them. The female is not a new creation. On earth, as it is in heaven. The invisible things of Elohim are clearly seen in the things that are made (Romans 1:20). Sorry to preach, but this belief that a lot of people hold that there are no female angels is actually unbiblical. :)

  3. I forgot to mention that another reason I know female angels exist is because when I was a child I saw one standing over my cousin when we had a sleepover. My cousin was asleep and he's probably forgotten by now but I will never forget. This was before anyone had told me what gender angels were supposed to be. I trust my experience as a child because I didn't have any preconceived notions about angels back then. I saw what I saw, and that's all there is to it. Jesus bless. :D


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...