The Walters brings heaven to Earth 'Angels from the Vatican' opens today, and given the current popularity of celestial spirits, the show should be a big draw.

November 08, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Everybody has an image of angels, those nice looking young people with wings who fly around in heaven and hobnob with the Holy Family and the saints in religious art.

But what are angels? Where do they come from? What do they do? And why are they so popular now, as everything from recent books to TV series attests?

Such questions are occasioned by "The Invisible Made Visible: Angels from the Vatican," the exhibit that opens at the Walters Art Gallery today. A traveling show selected to demonstrate the breadth of the Vatican collections, it contains 98 works of art dating from a ninth- century B.C. Assyrian stone carving to a 1977 painting by Salvador Dali.

It includes a multitude of forms and materials from Greek ceramic pots tosilver and gold chalices, from church vestments to the cover of an account book, all showing angels.

"We were looking for something appealing to a large number of people not necessarily interested in art history," says the Rev. Allen Duston of the Vatican, one of the two selectors of the show's works. "Angels are very popular in American religious and secular culture."

Interest in them isn't new here. "There are engravings of Washington surrounded by angels, and Benjamin Franklin surrounded by angels," says Leonard Primiano, who teaches religious studies at Cabrini College outside Philadelphia and is an expert on folk and popular religion. Angel manifestations in the United States range from Victorian statues in cemeteries to the folk legend that people's dimples come from being touched by an angel at birth.

But the interest has increased big-time in the last decade or two.

"There are more than a dozen encyclopedia or dictionary type books on angels, accumulations of traditional knowledge, from the last 10 years," Primiano says. "Beyond decorating one's home at Christmas, there is every imaginable sort of decorating with angel iconography.

Angels on butter dishes, angels in the kitchen chandelier, angels on towels." Other cultural manifestations, from the television show "Touched by an Angel" to the prize-winning play "Angels in America," reflect the trend.

The approaching millennium is one explanation for this trend, says Duston. "Angels are in some way helping us to face the possibility of what's to come, to face God, if this is the end of time as some might think it is."

Primiano offers the theory that the recent wave of immigration has brought in a variety of religions, not only Judeo-Christian but Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and others. Their theologies are widely different, but they have in common angels or similar spiritual figures. "In the religiously pluralistic environment of contemporary America, they don't cause any denominational conflict," Primiano says.

And in an era marked by psychological alienation and physical violence, the angel offers an image of peace, gentleness, comfort and love. "Americans in general are fairly religious, and angels are understood as an intermediary between us and God," says Duston. "Angels don't hand over the Ten Commandments, they're not confrontative or demanding."

So "Angels from the Vatican" comes along at the right time to show people what, exactly, angels are.

For one thing, they are not dead people who have gone to heaven, sprouted wings and acquired harps. In Christian terms, angels are a higher form of being, created by God in his image.

Artists depict them in human form, but they actually don't have bodies and are therefore invisible, although they can take visible form on occasion. The archangel Gabriel is visible to the Virgin Mary in "Annunciation" scenes - such as the show's examples by Giovanni di Paolo and others - in which the angel announces that Mary will bear the child of God.

Because angels have no bodies they are asexual, but they are more often depicted as male because they are referred to as male in Scriptures. The archangels Michael and Gabriel have male names.

Angels, or at least the concept of the winged human figure, is older than Christianity. There are angels in the Old Testament, but the references are all written so the visual sources for Christian angels come from elsewhere.

They appear in Middle Eastern cultures, as shown by the Assyrian carving of a winged figure. More common sources are Greco-Roman. They include winged gods such as the god of love Eros (Greek) or Cupid (Roman), shown by the "Eros of Tespia" (second century), a Roman marble copy after an original Greek bronze by Lysippus (fourth century B.C.). There's also Hermes, the Greek messenger god, whose Roman counterpart is Mercury.

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