Angels are important to many people, some of whom merely admire them as beautiful, some of whom depend on them for inspiration. To some, angels are as real as their neighbours or family. To others, angels are metaphors for unseen, marginally understood, perhaps psychological forces. And everything in between.
The name "Angel" probably is most associated with Christian traditions, though similar beings are common in mythologies of most cultures, maybe all. In general, they are not human and not completely divine either, inhabiting a sort of middle ground as something like "assistants" to the creator, the functionaries that carry out the everyday duties, so to speak, of the world beyond our own.
For those whose concept of Angels is less tangible, more spiritual or psychological, sometimes the Angel metaphor isn't there at all. For people like this, fate - or, in ancient times, The Fates - might be their idea, or even poltergeists or other paranormal activity. And some, of course, believe in none of this, preferring a basic, existential pragmatism.
For this short discussion, I'm going to try to travel down the middle of the road in such a way that people who believe in literal Angels can relate, as well as those who feel there are unseen, or subconscious forces at work in human lives but will not believe Angels are real until they see one. I have long believed that in discussions of religion, whether it's Angels or God herself (XXIst century concept!), all belief systems really are describing the same things just with different names and images attached. If there are aspects of life that are unknowable - and I am convinced there are - these different explanations are necessary and deserve respect in a multi-cultural world.
Angels come in several types, an Angel for every occasion, as it were. Doreen Virtue (2017) describes three types of Angels: Guardian Angels, Angels (the catchall category), and Archangels. Archangels are the supervisors of the rest, and Virtue notes that Guardian Angels are sometimes confused with "spirit guides", regular humans who receive special training in the afterlife about how to help the still-living. As for the generic Angels, these are the "beings of light who respond to our calls for guidance, assistance, protection, and comfort." Since her article has no references to other literature - not to mention the fact that the Web site where the article appears advertises Virtue's other books and spiritual counseling services - we have to take these descriptions of (quite literal) angels and "spirit guides" as the author's own philosophy, which somewhat dilutes the impact when we don't know Doreen Virtue's credentials; we do, however, get the picture that Angels (real or metaphorical) can serve a number of varied functions, including the theme of this essay: Guidance.
Traditionally, angels have no gender, as they are spiritual, not physical, beings, but are usually portrayed and thought of as having male or female characteristics, or occasionally both (androgynous). In my experience viewing art in museums and cemetery monuments, female angels become quite a bit more common in the XXth century, and are relatively rare, especially in funerary art, before then.
(I must make it clear here that I have no illusions about my limitations as an historian of art, or history in general for that matter. I speak and write as an amateur, and my observations and conclusions, especially in areas outside of my training [developmental psychology] are open and welcoming to question and correction from anyone who knows better.)
Apparently, there are no instances in the Judæo-Christian texts (The Bible) of female angels, though other religious and cultural traditions have a number of instances of female angels (Davidson, 1967). In the words of Jutta Wimmler (2015, p.59), "Of course much time has passed since the days of the Bible, and angels have since been feminized." Lord Clark (Kenneth Clark [1903-1983], the art historian and scholar) notes the beginnings of the humanising "female principle" in art of the Mediæval and Renaissance periods, and female Angels were seen then, and have been seen in art since those times. I mention this because it seems obvious to me that, as Angels represent unseen and unknowable life forces, the gender of any Angel probably corresponds with whether the life force is seen by a culture as feminine or masculine. For example, an Angel associated with the earth or the renewal of life logically would be female, while an Angel associated with announcing the wrath of God or the end of the world with a trumpet (e.g., Gabriel) probably would be male. These same sort of differences are found in the precursors of Angels, the characters that inhabit Greek, Roman and other mythologies.
The concept of the "Guardian Angel" is quite familiar, and has been a part of popular culture and religion for millennia. St Thomas Aquinas said that "The world of pure spirits stretches between the Divine Nature and the world of human beings . . . Angels execute the Divine plan for human salvation; they are our guardians" (Commentary on the Sentences, 2,11,1,1). The Qur'an teaches that "For every soul, there is a guardian watching it" (Surat at-Tariq, 86:4, English translation by N.J. Dawood). One writer, perhaps facetiously, says she believes "most at-home accidents happen in the bathroom because our Guardian Angels give us our privacy" (Cathy L. Poulin, quoted unsourced in Hopler, 2017).
Some who talk about Guardian Angels note that Guidance also is one of their functions. Connolly (1993, p.36) explains, "In their role as celestial servants to humans on earth, angels act variously as guardians, guides, teachers, strength-givers and comforters, protectors of the righteous, punishers of the wicked, and more."
The Guiding Angel as a "New" Idea
Finally I come to the point of this essay: I believe, and propose for the consideration of the reader, that the Guiding Angel can be considered as a type of Angel different in purpose and function to the Guardian Angel, indeed a "specialist" with no other important Angelic functions. (Franco Sborgi flirts with this idea, as part of a much larger and thoroughly expert view of trends in Italian cemetery art, as he briefly acknowledges the notion of an "accompanying angel".)
In 2014, I made the first of several visits to
the Monumental Cemeteries of Italy, Austria, Germany and
several other European countries, to see their magnificent sculptures and
other works of art for myself.
I might not have known of these open-air, virtual museums if it weren't
for a chance encounter with a tiny book of postcard images of the great
Cimitero di Staglieno in Genova (Camposanto di Genova - Piazzale del
cimitero di Staglieno. Genova: V. Lichino e Figlio, n.c. [c.1920]).
Indeed, the very picture that captured my interest was
the sculpture by Giovanni Scanzi (1840-1915)
on the Monument for Giacomo Carpaneto and his family (1886),
a work of art known as
The sculptor presents an image of
a Guiding Angel which, at least so far, is for me the most direct and
compelling evidence that the Guiding Angel, as a distinct idea, was
being portrayed in XIXth century art.
Guardian Angels in art and literature quite often are associated with the vulnerable, which probably explains why the humans seen in Angel imagery are often children.
This is particularly true in recent times. A Web image search using the term "Guardian Angel" returns hundreds of images, almost all of which are female angels tending to children and infants. (Caution: the term "Guardian Angel" is used in Anime, and some images there are decidedly male and, well, pretty explicit.) One gets a much more varied picture of the history of Angels, however, when the human involved is an adult or later adolescent. In such images, at least in recent times, my experience in Europe's Monumental cemeteries and museums indicates that when the human is a female, the Angel is a female, and when the human is a male, so is the Angel.
As for the images that almost certainly depict a Guiding Angel (as distinguished from a Guardian), the Angels and their human "charges" are virtually always male.
The choice of a sculptural monument for a tomb is not always made by the deceased who is buried with the image, but when it is, we can probably be confident that the image expresses a personal philosophy. In the case of the tomb on the left above, there can be no question that Signore Pongilione valued the notion of a Guiding Angel. He commissioned the sculpture himself, and had it completed in 1886, 14 years before his death! In both sculptures, the Angels appear ready to guide their deceased into Heaven. Said differently, at this point there is no further need for a Guardian, so the Guiding Angel seems the most logical interpretation of the image.
My own view of the Guardian v. Guiding Angel distinction is rooted in the concept of defensive v. constructive motivation (which I have written about in a separate essay on this Web page.) Most people likely are motivated by a combination of defensive and constructive impulses, defensive (obviously) for protection and survival, and constructive for the advancement that people can do throughout their lives. In simplest terms, it seems to me that those whose lives are concerned more with defensive feelings would look to the Guardian Angel for comfort, while those whose lives favor the constructive side would adopt the Guiding Angel for their primary inspiration.
There is a very popular image in XIXth century funerary sculpture, popularised in 1829 by a panel placed on the base of the monument to Wlodzimierz Potocki (1789-1812) in the Wawel-katedralen (Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill) in Krakow, by the famous Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844). The same sculptor also used the image in an 1814 monument to Johann Philipp Bethmann-Hollweg.
"Genius" here is a somewhat archaic word for Angel, or a person's inherent, inborn spirit or soul. In German cultures, this image is sometimes called Trauernder Engel (grieving Angel) or Traurige Engel (sad Angel). Angels of these types can be female or male, or even ambiguous children (cherubim or putti). The presence of the downturned torch, a symbol of the extinguished life, and often a wreath usually means that the angel will be male, and that this is probably a Guiding Angel whose job, like that of the Angelo Nocchiero above, is now finished. On my visits in 2014, 2016 and 2017 to some of the great cemeteries of Austria and Germany, as well as several other European cemeteries dating back to the XIXth century or earlier, I found many variations on this theme.
The Angel (Genius) of Death is an image probably related to the ancient minor Greek deity Thanatos [Θανατος] (See the Thanatos Wikipedia page for more information on this subject.) Originally, Thanatos was heartless and indiscriminate, but in later eras, as Elysium became a more desirable destination and death was viewed more as a transition and less as a fearful demise, he was portrayed in art as a beautiful ephebe (young man or adolescent), even appearing on some Roman coins as Cupid [Eros/Ερως], complete with the downturned torch.
So, I propose that we regard the Guiding Angel as a separate entity, either believing that he (or she) is a real being that we may someday meet face to face, or understanding that the mysterious guidance we receive from time to time is the synthesis of our early learning about behaviour and morality and the nature of the world which was submerged into subconscious when we gave in to adulthood, and bubbles to the surface - call it a "hunch" - just when its needed. Personally, I'm somewhere in between.
BBC Television documentary series, 1969 (Blu-ray BBCBD0147)
In Search of Angels: A Celestial Sourcebook for Beginning Your Journey.
New York: Perigee, 1993.
A Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels.
New York: The Free Press, 1967
"Famous quotes about Guardian Angels".
https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-quotes-about-guardian-angels-124310, retrieved 1 July 2017
Bessie Gordon Redfield.
Gods, A Dictionary of the Deities of all Lands: Including Supernatural Beings, Mythical Heroes, and Kings, Sacred Books of Principal Religions, &c.
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1931 / Gordon Press, 1981
The Ronettes featuring Veronica.
"My Guiding Angel" (1965), song lyrics.
https://www.flashlyrics.com/lyrics/the-ronettes/my-guiding-angel-07, retrieved 30 June 2017
"Companions on the final journey: Reflections on the image of the angel in funerary sculpture during the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries" (translated by Alison Packer).
In Sandra Berresford. Italian Memorial Sculpture 1820-1940: A Legacy of Love.
London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2004, p.207
"3 types of Angels are with you".
https://www.angeltherapy.com/blog/3-types-angels-are-you, retrieved 2 July 2017
Religious Science Fiction in Battlestar Galactica and Caprica: Women as Mediators of the Sacred and Profane.
Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015
"Female Angel Names".
www.angel-art-and-gifts.com/female-angel-names.html, retrieved 2 July 2017
NOTE: All photographs are mine, except where noted. The travels mentioned here, as well as many other trips and vacations over the years, are documented in photographs at velutluna.info/personal.shtml
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