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On angels and myths

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 30 June 2014

One would think that the existence of angels would be the low hanging fruit for secularists with a scientific bent. I readily agree that such beings do not exist alongside other beings in the world. However, they do exist in the imagination; that is to say they do exist and have a distinct theological function in Scripture as messengers from God, messengers without remainder. We may go ahead with a discussion of angels without wondering where the musculature is housed that would move wings that would lift a body into the air. Such considerations are of absolutely no consequence for this essay.

Angels abound in Renaissance art and I have chosen a particular favourite; the Cortona Altar piece by Fra Angelico, appropriately! In the painting we see the angel Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation, according to Luke 1:26-37. Matthew tells the story differently; the annunciation is not to Mary but to Joseph. However, for some reason, paintings depicting the Annunciation rarely follow the Matthean text . We see the angel in side view with his wings neatly attached between his shoulder blades. He is dressed elegantly in pink and gold, his wings are magnificent and his halo is solid gold and appears attached to the side of his head. The representation of halos in Italian art change with time. They progress from the rather static and solid form we have in this painting to more transparent forms that are oriented according to the orientation of the head. The angel's right hand points to the Virgin and his left hand is held up in instruction and words actually appear in the air in three streams between him and Mary. They would be decipherable if we were standing in front of the painting. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovers over Mary immersed in its own little cloud of golden glory. The two figures lean towards each other and the loggia that shelters them, (so Florentine!) produces a feeling of intimacy.

Perched on the right thigh of the Virgin we find an open book, presumably the Scriptures, a common element in paintings of the Annunciation. Mary is usually caught reading the Scriptures when she is confronted by the angel. This is interesting because it adds another element in the symbology of the painting because it represents the latent Word borne witness to in the words of Scripture. We therefore have three signs in the picture that depict the one action of God. The angel is pure message. He does not cause the pregnancy of Mary, that function is reserved for the hovering Holy Spirit according to both Matthew and Luke. However, this would be incomplete without the book of Scripture. Without the narrative of Israel none of this would make any sense. History is present here, the history of barren women made fertile by the Lord and projecting life into the future. Also the angel Gabriel has a presence in Scripture, so we are dealing with a known character. Scripture provides the background by which the painting is interpreted.


If we look to the top left of the painting we see three persons. The one on the left is an angel bearing a sword and the other two are a couple, a man and a woman walking away in attitudes of sorrow. They are, of course Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Fra Angelico thus gives us the context for his Annunciation; the Fall. Thus the announcement by the angel to Mary that she will bear a son becomes a response to the fallen state of humanity. The old man, Adam, the one who brought death to the world, will be replaced with the new man Jesus who brings eternal life.

Paintings of this kind are obviously figurative and they mirror the figurative nature of the texts that inspire them. It is of the nature of figuration to use analogy. Thus we are told in Scripture at the baptism of Jesus that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove. Why a dove? We can only speculate that the analogy used here relies on doves having some of the characteristics of the Holy Spirit; they are peaceable, indeed the symbol of peace. The Holy Spirit descending like an eagle would give a quite different picture.

But why the figure of the angel? It would seem that the presence of Scripture with the Holy Spirit is a sufficient Trinitarian expression of what is going on here i.e. the Word, born witness to by the words of Scripture finds a place in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. This understanding would make the presence of the angel redundant. An explanation of this may be as simple as the writer of the gospel according to Luke, steeped as he was in what we call the Old Testament continued the tradition of the angelic messenger bearing good news of fertility to a woman. The difference, of course is that Mary is a virgin rather than a barren old woman. Thus the scene is connected to the past.

The sociologist Max Weber famously talked about the disenchantment of the world in the wake of Enlightenment reason. This is still the attitude of most sociologists in our universities. According to them there is no room in their studies of society for the myths that produced that society. According to them we are all on the way to a pure secularism dominated by autonomous reason. Such is the burden of the Enlightenment that still hangs around our educational institutions!

However, its seems that Weber and his successor sociologists have been proved wrong in our time. We are witnessing the renewal of the prominence of religion on the world stage and of mythology in popular books and films such as those produced by writers Tolkien and Rowling. Add to this the numerous vampire, superhero and zombie movies and television series and it is obvious that we are experiencing a deluge of myth. It seems we have rediscovered a thirst for the mythical in the face of dull scientism.

Weber has something in common with the German biblical scholar Rudolph Bultmann in that his program of demythologisation of scripture sought to look past the mythology to the kerymatic truths that lay within. This program was devised as an apology to the predicted disenchantment of the world. Once the mythological had been stripped away one could see the underlying meaning. Christianity is reduced to truths that compete for validity with the human sciences of psychology, anthropology and sociology. Certainly myth carries meaning; that is its function. But when we extract the meaning from the myth we lose something; the free play of the imagination and potentially the delight in such paintings as the above. We limit the myth; we render it univocal.


If religious paintings are to be understood apart from their obvious beauty and technical brilliance, then we must reclaim a mythological world view in which humanity may be brought down to death by an act of disobedience at the beginning of the world and a woman may conceive the Word in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit announced to her by an angel from God.

Many fear that such a return to myth will tip our civilization into a time of superstition in which the triumphs of natural science and technology will waste away. They imagine a return to witch burning, intellectual censorship and the plague. But that will not happen. Our culture is firmly rooted in our technical sophistication and I cannot imagine us letting that fade away. The re-enchantment of the world by way of the Christian story and the art that attends it exists in parallel with our physical understanding of how the world works. It provides a truthful framework in which our lives find a place in grace rather than as a species like any other over whom death reigns as the ultimate reality.

Perhaps Christian art is a way into a much-needed re-enchantment of the world in which we may find ourselves more fully human? It is now clear that the secular project of living life without God is a failure of imagination. The way back necessarily lies in the mythological since this is the only language that may speak of the unspeakable i.e. the transcendent.


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This article was inspired by reading Graham Ward's The Politics of Discipleship. The Mandorla Art Award is open in Perth at Linton and Kay Galleries Perth, 19th-27th July.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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