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Instrument of the Angels

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Angels images in Art History: An Angelic Journey through time

Article written By editor Chester Comstock: Edited version appears in the Spring 2003 issue of "Sculptural Pursuit".

In the summer of 2002 I was invited by the Denver Sculpture Society to show my art at the "Joy of Sculpture" Exhibit, on Columbus Day weekend at the Colorado Historical Museum.

The event was a reminder of the richness of sculptural talent that is available to those of you who have an interest in classical art forms. As fate and the muses would have it my exhibit at the Museum was right next to Rik Sargent’s personal exhibit, which had a heavy focus on angel images. My personal background and early training in the arts was steeped in art history and the study of classical themes. The catch is when I lived in Sedona Arizona one of my collectors an author Don Pendleton and his wife Linda, who wrote the unforgettable book “To Dance with Angels”, had asked me to do an angel sculpture for their art collection.

Byzantine Image of the Angel Michael 1000 AD

For those of you who do not know me, I have a personality and mind that tends to be somewhat obsessive compulsive in its basic make up. The effect of Don and Linda asking me to create an angel image was I made a study of the history of angel images, which resulted in covering the Iconography of angel imagery from pre-dynastic Egypt to modern times and tracing the evolution of similar themes through the far eastern cultures.

Through the years I have done many exhibits and met thousands of people within the context of showing my art to the public. Working in the environment of these exhibits resulted in my coming to the conclusion and realization that a viewer’s reactions to any given artwork are often very subjective and depend entirely on their personal background and experience as it relates to the art on display. Within the context of major art exhibits, an artist’s work can be seen to be primarily a pneumonic devise or external stimulus which stimulates the viewer’s subjective experience while viewing the art. This concept and idea leads naturally to the truism that artists as creators can literally transform the experience people have within the environment in which their art is displayed.

At the Joy of Sculpture exhibit these two axiomatic truths were quickly to become a hard-core reality for my own personal experience at the exhibit. For example it soon became apparent I couldn't pass through or be in Rik Sargent’s exhibit space without a flood of angel imagery and ideas entering my mind from my subconscious. The net effect of Rik’s exhibit on me personally was to trigger an outpouring of ideas which seemed to come automatically without prompting, well at least the art seemed to be doing the prompting. From my personal point of view the result of Rick’s exhibit was that his sculptures brought back the memories of my study of angel Iconography and Christian Icons. The images and ideas flooding into my conscious mind were of concepts I had come across during my overview study of angel iconography. It was Rik's art that was stimulating this response from my memory.

This article is an attempt to share some of these memories with the readers of this article.

To put things in chronological order, the earliest image in art history which I could find that seems to relate strongly to our modern Iconography of an angel was created 6000 years ago during the Naquada period of pre-dynastic Egypt in approximately 4000 BC. The Dancing Goddess images can be found both in pottery and petroglyphs in the Egyptian Eastern desert next to long established trading routes between the Red sea and the settlement of Naquada in the Nile river valley near Luxor.

This theme, The Dancing Goddess, in pottery clearly shows a link to an animistic version of the dancing goddess which is a combination of a bird with a human female body.

Naqada Dancing Goddess
Pottery 4000 BCE

To Dance With Angels

The Dancing Goddess theme with hands over her head can also be found in the Cypro Minoan and Malta cultures of the same historic time frame suggesting possible seafaring trading links between the Nile River valley and the Mediterranean island cultures.

The time frame for these seafaring links dates to at least 2000 years before the immigration of Abraham from Ur and at least 2500 years before the Hebrew's Biblical Exodus. This earliest sculptural angel image is called The Dancing Goddess and is an animistic bird goddess with her wings held above her head. This most primal and basic imagery remained fixed within the Egyptian culture and has evolved into several different forms in present time.

The iconography of the Gods in Egyptian culture nearly all had animistic origins and held strong associations with the primal forces of nature. The female body with bird head and/or wings evolved over time into the lexicon of feminine goddesses in the pantheon of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses and eventually evolved into the goddess images of Isis, and her sister Goddesses by the middle Egyptian Culture dating to approximately 1800 BC.

The iconography of Isis and her sister goddesses remained the dominant goddess image in the Egyptian culture until early Christian times, that is until about 600 CE. This means that this imagery and its mythologies evolved over and lasted an amazing 5,000 years of the human experience.

In 1998 by chance I was ask to do an interpretation of what the "Ark of the Covenant" may have looked like by a pastor in Denver. My personal approach to this problem was to put the concept of the ark into its chronological and geographical context in art history in order to interpolate what it may have looked like.

This project was a genuine challenge and I felt it deserved its own thesis because of the interest level in the subject. You can read my thesis and conclusions by using the links in the image below and the red text links.

The likely appearance of the "Ark of the Covenant" Based on its Chronological and Geographical
placement in the evolution of Angel iconography.

Purchase this Image as print

See Chester Comstock's thesis and research.

VIsit: To Dance With Angels

By 875 BCE similar winged figures called “Apkallu” could be found in the city of Nimrud in Assyria in sculptural relief on the palace walls. The winged figures within the Egyptian culture had been primarily of the feminine gender however the Nimrud guardian angels were primarily male in gender.

Angel of Nimrud 875 BCE

cylinder seal from Babylonia 8th century BC
image from the Peidmont Morgan Library NY NY

The Greeks through their contacts with Egypt had adopted the Isis image and by the Classical period, approximately 500 BC, had transmuted the theme into the Goddess Nike. The Egyptian portrayal of the Bah (the spirit of a man) was also borrowed by the Greeks and became the representation of the classical literary theme of the Sirens.

Bronze Image of Nike from the 6th Century BCE
To Dance With Angels

The Greek Nike image is the basis for the winged sculpture of Victory on the prow of a ship which is on display in the Louvre in Paris France.


Nike, mother of the modern angel iconography
Victory, "Nike" Classical Greek Statue
550 BC

Hellenistic Greek (Angel) Nike
To Dance With Angels

Greek Winged Figure Earring 330-300 BC

The sculptural image of the Classical/Hellenistic Greek winged Goddess Nike and her son Eros remain the historic and classical basis for Christian angel iconography used from the 1st century AD until modern times, having changed little over the last 2600 years. These Christian Icons, angels and cherubim, had their Greek and Roman counterparts before the Christan Era. The Greek and Roman tradition in the portrayal and use of the Nike/Victory icon were at least 6oo years old by the time Nike/victory was adopted by the Byzantine Church as the standard depiction of an angel.

Greek Nike Image from Attic Pottery 550 BCE

Attic Pottery Angel 4-5th century BCE

It may be surprising that the Hebrew culture is not the primary source of the modern standard for angel imagery but that the modern concepts are primarily Greek in their origins and those concepts were derived from earlier Egyptian influences. The Hebrews emphasis on an iconoclastic approach to their worship seems to have preempted making sculptural and artistic representations of angels within their culture. The Greeks on the other hand had no such limitations placed on their artistic expression.

Angels of Death 515 BC Greek Krater


The Nike iconographic theme was repeated in the Roman Culture as the winged Goddess Victory and was prominent throughout the Roman Culture. My favorite example of this theme in Roman sculpture is the personal portrait of Augustus the absolute ruler of Rome from 3o BCE- 14 CE. Both the Roman version of Nike and Eros were prominantly used in the art depicting the divine rulership of Augustus Ceasar.

Example of the use of an angel
image in the Roman Culture

Victory holding a palm frond and laurel wreath
Octavian/Augustus- AR denarius, 29-27 B.C. But both the obverse and
reverse of this coin feature types celebrating Octavian's
victory over Antony and Cleopatra.

Augustus Gold Victory Coin

See: AUGUSTUS SAINT-GAUDENS Victory proceeding General Sherman 1903

Another example of the roman use of the classical greek image of Nike/Victory is the illustration of Tiberius Caesar with Victory depicted in the upper lefthand corner of the cameo. This celebration of triumph and crucifixion of his enemies is the closest image to the crucifixion of Christ that the romans made for themselves. Although the men being crucified and the families being humiliated are enemy soldiers the techniques and attitudes toward their enemies is uniquely Roman within the first century CE. The image of Victory is common in connection with triumphs and their commemoration and depictions in Roman art, a cannon and standard for the historic time frame.

Tiberius celebrating a Victory with his family Roman 1st century CE ,
An image of Victory can bee seen in the upper left hand corner to the rear.

The early Christian Church, particularly the Byzantine Church between 400 AD and 600 AD, was responsible for adapting and transmuting the Greek and Roman goddess imagery into the lexicon of Christian iconographies in angel art. It is my personal opinion that the development of Byzantine Angel Iconography was one of the most creative periods within the history of angel art bringing many new visual interpretations of angels to the forefront. For example the Iconographic development of the six winged angel image of the seraphim can be dated to the Byzantine period as well as many other imaginative adaptations.

This image of multiple winged human figures was not without precedent the idea was illustrated in Egypt as early as the 15th century BC and in Mesopotamia in the 9the century BC.

Byzantine Iconography of a Seraphim
Seraphim Mosaic from Greek Orthodox Church

Seraphim from the Anglican Church in England
Seraphim Sculpture Anglican
Church 18th Century England
Adapted from the Byzantine tradition

During the European middle ages of 1100-1500 AD angel imagery changed little from its Byzantine origins except for the individual artists style and talent. During the middle ages the literary context of the European culture became replete with angel lore in which stories about both Light and Dark Angels became the explanations for almost every natural phenomenon.

Christian Icons of Angels from the Russian Churchngel Icons
Russian Orthodox Church 16th Century

The Italian Renaissance saw the improvement of artistic techniques and the resurrection of lost art forms and classical themes particularly in sculpture but the basic angel images changed little from their Hellenistic Greek forms. Renaissance Italy was firmly implanted with the Greek and Roman influences in its preferences for its artistic imagery. This historic period was marked with a dramatic renewal in the arts and the application of the basic sciences and scientific procedures. The primary source for these influences were the Greek and Roman ancient world.

The die was cast for the conventions of Angel Iconography in the hellenistic Greek period and these remained consistent for hundreds of years and now for several millennia. The Baroque and Rococo periods of art found the heaven on earth theme taken to new levels of richness and complexity. This trend ended to a large degree with the humanistic French Revolution but continued to some degree until the early 20th century.


"Heaven on Earth" theme as developed
in 16th Century Toledo Spain, this theme was heightened
and further developed in the Baroque and Rococo traditions. A distinct departure from the Gothic style of medieval Europe

The ascension of the Prophet Muhammad
to heaven from 16th century Iran

In Islamic tradition from at least the 14th century, the Buraq myth, combines elements of ancient depictions of griffins, sphinxes, and centaurs, as well as angels and became a favorite subject of Persian miniature painting. The story is of the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad to heaven. The mythological creature called the Buraq was depicted as Muhammad's means of access into heaven.


Victory Medals celebrating the victories of Welington in the battles of Vitoria (1813) and Waterloo (1815)


Yoshitoshi Taiso, 1839-1892 ghost of Sasaki Kiyotaka
from the series "Tsuki Hyakushi"

Not to be ignored are the Japanese artists who illustrated both benevolent and evil spirits in their art. The Japanese had a wonderful and matter of fact relationship with the spiritual world and this is reflected in their mythology and literature. One of the most poignant of these images is from the series "Tsuki Hyakushi" (One Hundred Aspects of the Moon) the maiden Iga-no-Tsubone encounters the ghost of Sasaki Kiyotaka. Walking the world as a troubled spirit he complained to her that he had been accused of conducting an ill fated military campaign and was forced to commit suicide. Tsubone calmly appeased him and he never appeared to her again. This encounter is illustrated in a way that is both beautiful and dramatic, one of the best designs of the One Hundred Aspects of the Moon series.

The Sherman Monument was AUGUSTUS SAINT-GAUDENS
largest and most technically demanding project
installed 1903 in Central Park New York city

The romantic and Victorian Era created some of the most ostentatious contributions to the visions of angels with Queen Victoria's memorial, nothing has been done since that compares to her's and prince Albert's memorial.

The height of Romantic visions is represented by the Ascension of Mary Magdalene in the Church of the Magdalene in Paris France. Created by Carlos Marochetti who also did the facade on the Arc de Triumph and queen Victoria's Memorial all prominently featuring romanticized angel images.

Queen Victoria's Memorial erected 1911

The trend toward the ostentatious mostly ended with the humanistic French Revolution and the introduction of more scientific paradigms of thinking. However the Victorian era proved once again that you can flaunt it if you have it regardless of good taste and common sense.


Romanticized Image of the Greek Myth of Icarus

Romantic imagery from 19th century artist
Herbert James Draper "The Lament to Icarus"

Upon examination little changed in basic angel iconography during the period from Hellenistic Greek representations of Nike to the Romantic Era except for the wider application of the basic visual concepts to additional literary and religious themes. The basic concept was used in all subsequent periods of European Art. This trend continued and found the reconstituted classical image applied to interests in mythological, historic and Biblical themes. The imagery was nearly universally accepted and applied by different artists according to local tastes and individual style. However the accepted concept of what represents an angel had its roots with the Hellenistic Greeks and has had a run of popular acceptance for an amazing 2500 years.


Some of the World War I Victory Medals Issued by the Allied nations
WW I was called the war to save civilization

To Dance With Angels


Anselm Kiefer's Book with Wings (1994)
Collection of the Fort Worth Museum of Modern art

This image is to help you judge scale
To Dance With Angels

In conclusion: Although the basic angel image, a winged human figure, has undergone the transmutations and changes of culture, context, language, religion, literature and commercialization for the singular sake of selling feminine lingerie, through six millennia of human history the visual effect of this concep remains consistent through time. The winged human figure still has the power to create wonder, awe and inspiration, which is an extraordinary and valuable testament to the universal and timeless appeal and power of the visual arts.

Victoria's Secrets Commercial use of the Angel Image for the promotion
and sale of their lingerie is less than forgettable.

The earliest beginnings of winged human figures started even before the Osiris myth and with the Osiris Myth and the Egyptian book of the dead have lasted an incredible 6000 years of the human experience. The nike/victory/Christian Angel image is a relative newcomer and is firmly imbedded in the western cultures influenced by the Greek and the Romantic languages. . This imagery is approaching its 27ooth birthday a mere child compared to the Egyptian record.

As we enter the new Millennium, with an understanding of relativity and as science pushes back the edges of time and the known Cosmos with deep space telescopes it may be prudent to suggest a greater paradigm for the perception of an angel image. As our ancestors drew inspiration from nature and their know universe for the creation of goddess and angel images, with a little imagination it is easy connect the dots and to find the image of a "Goddess of the night sky" (Nut) , a "Nike", a "Winged Victory", an "Icarus" or an "Arch Angel" in the cosmic dust and stars of the Orion nebula M42_43 where universes and planetary systems, similar to that of our own sun, are currently being born.

Star Dust Angel in the Orion nebulas M43-M42

Comet Hale Bopp illustrates how comets may have
been a significant inspiration for the Egyptian winged goddesses
and the Greek concept of Nike. In the ancient world comets
were considered to be messengers and portents of important events.

To Dance With Angels

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