Art History Lab

A Journey Through Heavenly Art: Angels in History, Religion, and Culture+

Angels are celestial beings that have captured the imagination of humans for millennia. Throughout history, different cultures and belief systems have held varying beliefs about the origins and roles of angels.

Origins of Angels and Belief Systems

In many cultures, angels are believed to be messengers from God or other deities. In ancient Greece, winged deities such as Nike and Hermes were messengers and were often depicted with wings.

In Christianity, angels are believed to have been created by God and serve as messengers and protectors of humanity. The word ‘angel’ is derived from the Greek word ‘angelos,’ which means messenger.

Across different belief systems, angels have been represented in various forms. In Islamic tradition, angels are believed to have immense power, and their appearance is beyond human comprehension.

In Hinduism, angels are called ‘devas’ and are believed to be celestial inhabitants of a higher plane of existence. The Aztecs believed that their gods could appear in the form of animals, including eagles, snakes, and jaguars.

Sacred Symbols Associated with Angels

Different symbols have been associated with angels throughout history. The most common symbol is the winged figure with a halo, which has been used to portray angels in Christian art for centuries.

The halo around the head of an angel represents their divine nature and their close relationship with God. In addition to the halo, angels are often depicted with trumpets as symbols of their call to the faithful.

Angels are also associated with the sword, which represents their role as protectors of the faithful.

Angels in Different Religions

The concept of angels is not limited to Christianity, but can be found across various religions. In Judaism, angels are considered to be messengers of God and have played important roles in the history of the Jewish people.

Islam also acknowledges the existence of angels as beings of light created by Allah. In Zoroastrianism, angels are called ‘amesha spentas’ and are seen as being responsible for guarding the eternal flame.

In Buddhism, an angel is not seen as an individual being but is considered a state of consciousness that can be achieved through meditation.

Christian Hierarchy of Angels

In Christianity, angels are believed to be part of a hierarchical structure. The highest-ranking angels are archangels, including Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel.

The archangels are considered to be heavenly warriors who fight evil and protect the faithful. The rank below the archangels are the angels who carry out specific tasks as per divine instructions.

Early Representations of Angels and Biblical References

The early representations of angels can be found in the Bible, where they are described as beings with wings and extraordinary strength. They are often shown beseeching humanity to follow God’s commands.

In the Old Testament, the ‘Angel of the Lord’ appears to Abraham, Moses, and Daniel to deliver messages from God. In the New Testament, angels play a prominent role in the story of Christ’s birth.

They appear to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, announcing the good news about the birth of Christ. Angels in Byzantine, Medieval, and Renaissance Art

Byzantine, Medieval, and Renaissance art have depicted angels in various forms.

Byzantine art, which developed in the Eastern Roman Empire, often portrayed angels as beautiful human-like creatures with long robes and wings. In Medieval art, angels were depicted as fierce warriors, often with swords, ready to defend the faithful against evil.

In Renaissance art, angels were often depicted with a peaceful and serene appearance. Renaissance artists drew inspiration from classical art, portraying angels as idealized human figures with wings.

In conclusion, angels have been an integral part of human culture and belief systems throughout history. These celestial beings have been represented in various forms, symbols, and interpretations across cultures and belief systems.

They continue to fascinate and inspire generations of humans, reinforcing the belief in a higher power and larger purpose. 3) Role of

Angels in Different Religions and Cultural Development

Angels have played significant roles in different religions and impacted cultural development across time and geography.

In ancient Egypt, angels were called ‘Akhu’ which were believed to be the souls of the deceased kings, who were then associated with the gods. The Chinese had a strong belief in ancestor spirits who served as angels in their daily lives.

In Christianity, the primary role of angels is to act as messengers of God to his people. In Islam, angels are seen as the guardians of the seven levels of heaven and carry out specific tasks to fulfill God’s plan.

In Hinduism, angels are called ‘devas’ and serve to communicate the wishes of the gods to humans and protect individuals from negative influences. Angels have also strongly influenced cultural development.

They have been used in the creation of works of art, literature, and music by various cultures. Different cultures have also developed their own mythologies and traditions surrounding angels.

4) Representation of Angels in Different Mediums and Influential Art Movements

Artists have been inspired by the concept of angels since ancient times, and their representation in different media has evolved significantly over time. Angels are commonly depicted in various forms of art, including painting, drawing, and sculpture.

Neoclassicism was one of the major art movements that drew inspiration from the representation of angels. This movement was characterized by a return to classical aesthetics and a renewed appreciation for ancient art.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, which depicts angels, has been cited as one of the most significant works of the Neoclassical era. The Renaissance period, which followed the Middle Ages, was a significant period in the history of art.

During the Renaissance, artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were inspired by the depiction of angels in Christian art. These artists sought to depict the human form in a perfect, divine state, often using angels as a model for their works.

By the time of the Renaissance, angels had become an integral part of the iconography of Western art, and their representations continue to inspire artists to this day. In sculpture, angels have been depicted as winged and human-like figures, often with elaborate robes and intricate details.

In painting, angels have been portrayed in a range of styles, from realistic to ethereal and devotional. In literature, angels have served as symbols of hope, purity, and divine favor.


Angels have played significant roles in various religions and cultures throughout history. Their representation in art, literature, and music has inspired artists across all mediums and continues to be a powerful force in cultural development.

Their depiction in different art movements has contributed to a rich legacy of works that celebrate the divine. The cultural impact of angels is a testament to the lasting influence they have had on humanity’s imagination and belief system.

5) The Annunciation and Early Angel Representations

The Annunciation, the announcement of the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary by the Angel Gabriel, is a popular theme in Christian art. Early Christian art, such as that found in the Catacombs of Priscilla, often depicts the Annunciation scene with a youthful Mary and a youthful Gabriel.

In early angel representations, Gabriel was often portrayed without wings, in contrast to later depictions where he is usually depicted with wings. This can be seen in early Christian art, such as the Catacombs of Priscilla, which date back to the 2nd century.

Early Christian art also often depicted angels in the form of personifications of concepts such as “righteousness” or “mercy.” They were often depicted as young, wingless figures with human features and wearing simple robes.

6) Illuminated Manuscripts and Ottonian Angel Art

As Christianity spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, the Christian church employed illuminated manuscripts as a way of conveying religious stories and teachings to the largely illiterate population. Many of these manuscripts contained images of angels, which served both as illustrations of religious stories and as abstract symbols of divinity.

Ottonian angel art, which flourished in the late 10th and early 11th centuries in the Holy Roman Empire, marked a distinct departure from earlier Carolingian and Byzantine art. The Ottonians produced highly stylized and decorative works of art, characterized by their use of bright colors and detailed ornamentation.

The Liuthar Circle of illuminators, who were court artists of the Ottonian kings, were renowned for their intricate and innovative designs. The Ottonian angel art was influenced by earlier Carolingian and Byzantine art, but it also incorporated new ideas and techniques.

The Ottonians favored highly stylized and idealized images of angels, often portraying them with an exaggerated sense of movement and fluidity. The angels were also depicted with elongated, elegant features and richly ornamented robes.

The Ottonian manuscripts were decorated with intricate patterns and designs that were often interspersed with ornamental images of angels. These works of art often depicted scenes from the Bible, such as the creation of the world and the fall of Adam and Eve.

They also featured a wide range of angels, from portrayals of the archangels as warriors to more abstract depictions of angels as symbols of divine grace and mercy.


The representation of angels in art has evolved and transformed over centuries, adapting to new technologies and changing societal beliefs. From early Christian art to Ottonian manuscripts, angels have served as symbols of divinity and hope, bringing comfort to believers across all walks of life.

As art continues to evolve and deepen our understanding of the world around us, we can be sure that the role of angels in shaping our cultural understanding will continue to be an important aspect of our human experience.

7) Islamic Art and the Influence of Chinese Buddhism

Islamic art has a long and rich history, characterized by a unique artistic style that evolved over time. During the Timurid Period, which lasted from the 14th to the 16th centuries, Mi’raj paintings became popular themes in Islamic art.

These paintings depicted the Prophet Muhammad’s journey to the heavens on a winged horse and were often depicted in a syncretistic style, incorporating elements from different cultures. The Timurid Period saw the influence of Chinese Buddhism on Islamic art.

Chinese influences can be seen in the inclusion of Chinese motifs, such as phoenixes and dragons, in the artwork. Islamic artists also adopted the use of vibrant colors and delicate brushwork that were characteristic of Chinese art.

Early Islamic iconography was also influenced by other religions and cultures that were present in the region. The depiction of humans and animals in Islamic art was initially restricted, as the Quran forbids the representation of living beings.

However, artists began to incorporate elements of pre-Islamic art and mythology into their works, creating a unique fusion of different cultural traditions. 8) Italian Renaissance Art and the Influence of Dante’s Vision

The Italian Renaissance was a period of great artistic and cultural flourishing that saw the emergence of some of the most significant artists in history.

Giovanni di Paolo was an accomplished painter who produced some of the most remarkable works of art of the Renaissance era. His works, such as “The Creation of the World” and “Expulsion from Paradise,” reflect the intellectual and spiritual explorations of the Renaissance.

The cosmology of the Renaissance was heavily influenced by the beliefs and ideas of the time. The rediscovery of classical science, mathematics, and philosophy laid the groundwork for new ways of thinking about the universe.

The work of artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei contributed to the understanding of the natural world and the cosmos. The Divine Comedy, an epic poem by Dante Alighieri, was a significant influence on Italian Renaissance art.

Dante’s vision of the afterlife and the structure of the cosmos were characterized by a sense of order and hierarchy, which were important to Renaissance thinkers. Dante’s work helped to inspire new ways of thinking about the universe and the place of human beings within it.


Art has always served as a reflection of the time and place in which it was created, and the representation of angels in art is no different. From Islamic art to the Italian Renaissance, the representation of angels has been a source of inspiration and meaning, reflecting diverse cultural traditions and beliefs.

The influence of religion, cosmology, and philosophy has transformed the depiction of angels in art, conveying new ideas and challenging existing beliefs. As we continue to create and experience art, the representation of angels will continue to evolve, adapting to new technologies and new ways of thinking about the world around us.

9) Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Annunciation” and Renaissance Angel Art

Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most influential artists of the Italian Renaissance, depicted angels in his famous painting “The Annunciation.” This painting beautifully captures the moment when the Angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary to announce the coming of the Christ child. In “The Annunciation,” Leonardo employed his signature technique known as sfumato.

This technique involves the subtle blending of colors and tones to create a soft, smoky effect. It gives the figures a sense of depth and dimension.

Leonardo’s use of sfumato in the depiction of the angel adds a translucent quality to the figure, enhancing its ethereal and otherworldly presence. Another characteristic of Renaissance angel art is the use of atmospheric perspective.

This technique involves the gradual fading of colors and diminishing of details to create the illusion of depth and distance. In “The Annunciation,” Leonardo employed atmospheric perspective to depict the landscape in the background, giving it a sense of depth and creating a contrast with the more detailed foreground.

In Renaissance art, angels were often depicted with a sense of idealized beauty and grace. They were viewed as messengers of God and represented divine beings.

The figure of the angel Gabriel in “The Annunciation” exemplifies this idealized portrayal. The angel is shown in a graceful and elegant pose, with outstretched wings and a reverent demeanor.

10) Saturnino Gatti and the Translation of the Holy House of Loreto

Saturnino Gatti, an Italian artist of the 19th century, was known for his devotional paintings that depicted religious scenes. One of his notable works is the painting that depicts the Translation of the Holy House of Loreto, which is believed to be the house where Mary received the Annunciation.

In his painting, Gatti captured the intensity and emotion of the moment when the Holy House was transported by angels. The angels in this painting are depicted as powerful and majestic beings, radiating divine light.

Their presence is depicted through their outstretched arms, which are seen supporting and guiding the Holy House. One interesting aspect of angel iconography in Gatti’s painting is the ambiguous gender of the angels.

Traditionally, angels in Western art were depicted as male figures. However, in Gatti’s depiction, the angels are portrayed with soft and delicate features, blurring the boundaries of traditional gender norms.

This ambiguity adds an intriguing artistic element to the painting and challenges the viewer’s perception of angels. The iconography of the Madonna and Christ in Saturnino Gatti’s painting also adds to its spiritual significance.

The Madonna is depicted as a central figure, emanating a sense of serenity and grace. Her presence symbolizes purity and divine intervention.

The Christ child in her arms is depicted with a combination of vulnerability and strength, emphasizing his dual nature as both human and divine.


The representation of angels in art has been a consistent and evolving theme throughout history. From Leonardo da Vinci’s portrayal of the Angel Gabriel in “The Annunciation” to Saturnino Gatti’s depiction of powerful angels in the Translation of the Holy House, artists have explored various styles, techniques, and interpretations of these divine beings.

Through their art, they have conveyed the sense of awe, spirituality, and transcendence associated with angels. The representation of angels continues to captivate and inspire artists and viewers alike, inviting us to delve deeper into the mysteries of the divine.

11) Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” and Commissioned Artwork

Raphael, one of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance, created the iconic painting “Sistine Madonna.” This masterpiece showcases a harmonious and ethereal scene of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, surrounded by a group of cherubs. Raphael tastefully arranged the cherubs at the bottom of the painting, peering up at the Madonna and Child.

The cherubs, often associated with angelic beings, have captivating expressions that evoke a sense of innocence and wonder. Their presence adds a touch of enchantment and charm to the scene, creating a captivating contrast between the divine and the earthly.

The representation of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child in “Sistine Madonna” is particularly noteworthy. Raphael depicts Mary with a serene and gentle expression, embodying grace and purity.

The Christ Child, on the other hand, looks directly at the viewer with a mixture of innocence and wisdom, symbolizing his divine nature. Commissioned artwork, like Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” played a significant role during the Renaissance.

Wealthy patrons, such as Pope Julius II who commissioned the painting, sought to showcase their piety and enhance the prestige of their churches. The intricate details, vibrant colors, and harmonious composition of “Sistine Madonna” reflect the patron’s desire for a grand and awe-inspiring piece.

Additionally, the unity of Piacenza, an alliance of cities in Italy during the Renaissance, was symbolized in “Sistine Madonna” through the representation of various symbols. The circular composition, with the Madonna and Child at the center, symbolizes unity and wholeness.

The surrounding figures, including the cherubs and saints, represent different aspects of the community coming together in devotion. The presence of zodiac signs and celestial elements further reinforces the broader concept of cosmic harmony and unity.

12) Ignacio de Ries and the Powerful Archangel Michael

Ignacio de Ries, a Spanish painter of the Baroque period, is known for his powerful depiction of the Archangel Michael. In one of his notable paintings, the Archangel Michael is shown defeating Satan in a dramatic and dynamic composition.

The painting captures the intense struggle between good and evil, with Michael depicted as a strong and courageous figure, wielding a sword and looking triumphant. This depiction of Michael aligns with biblical narratives that portray him as a powerful angel who battles against demonic forces.

In Jewish and Islamic traditions, Michael is seen as a protector and a guardian figure. In Judaism, Michael is respected as the guardian of the Israelites and is often associated with divine justice.

In Islamic tradition, Michael is believed to have played a significant role in the battles of early Muslims and is revered as a defender of the faith. The depiction of Michael as a powerful and triumphant warrior reflects the importance of his role in these religious traditions.

His portrayal serves as a reminder of the strength and protection that angels can provide to believers.


The representation of angels in art has been a subject of fascination and inspiration for artists throughout history. From Raphael’s graceful cherubs in the “Sistine Madonna” to Ignacio de Ries’ powerful portrayal of the Archangel Michael, artists have sought to capture the divinity, symbolism, and awe associated with these celestial beings.

Their depictions reflect different religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and artistic styles, showcasing the diverse interpretations of angels across time and geography. The artistry and symbolism of these representations continue to captivate and inspire viewers, inviting us to contemplate the celestial realms and the spiritual significance of angels in our own lives.

13) douard Manet and “The Dead Christ with Angels”

douard Manet, a prominent 19th-century French artist, created a controversial painting known as “The Dead Christ with Angels.” This painting, characterized by Manet’s unique realism and bold brushwork, presents a haunting depiction of Christ’s death. In “The Dead Christ with Angels,” Manet deviates from traditional religious paintings by presenting a raw and unidealized representation of Christ.

The use of light and shadow emphasizes the lifelessness of Christ’s body, evoking a sense of solemnity and despair. The angels surrounding Christ express sadness, grief, and reverence through their solemn and mournful expressions.

Manet’s realistic depiction garnered controversy, challenging conventional artistic norms and religious ideals. The painting was criticized for its departure from traditional idealized representations of religious subjects.

Manet’s work served as a precursor to the movements of Realism and Impressionism, which sought to capture the realities of life, even in the realm of religious art. The symbolism of light and shadow in “The Dead Christ with Angels” adds depth and emotional impact to the painting.

The contrasting light and dark areas evoke a sense of spiritual struggle and the duality of life and death. The angels, depicted in softer and lighter tones, serve as a contrast to the darker tones of the dead Christ, symbolizing the hope and redemption that believers find in the face of death.

14) William-Adolphe Bouguereau and “Song of the Angels”

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a renowned French academic painter of the 19th century, depicted angels in his masterpiece “Song of the Angels.” This painting showcases delicate and feminine angels serenading Jesus. In “Song of the Angels,” Bouguereau captures the beauty, purity, and ethereality of angels.

The angels are depicted with flowing robes, gentle expressions, and soft features. Their graceful, sweeping movements symbolize harmony and serenity.

The symbolism of purity is prominent in Bouguereau’s depiction of angels. They represent the perfection and innocence often associated with heavenly beings.

The angels’ delicate features, radiant skin, and gentle gazes emphasize their divinity and spirituality. Bouguereau’s emphasis on the feminine qualities of angels aligns with traditional depictions from the Renaissance period, where angels were often depicted as tender and graceful figures.

The serenading angels in “Song of the Angels” add another layer of symbolism to the painting. Angels are often associated with music and harmony in religious iconography.

The musical instruments they hold, such as harps and lyres, convey a sense of celestial joy and worship, symbolizing the harmonious relationship between the earthly and heavenly realms. Bouguereau’s portrayal of angels in “Song of the Angels” echoes the reverence and adoration bestowed upon these divine beings throughout history.

His attention to detail and technical mastery showcase the angels as figures of beauty and purity, inviting viewers to contemplate the realms beyond our own mortal existence.


The representation of angels in art has encompassed a wide range of styles and interpretations throughout the centuries. From douard Manet’s controversial realism in “The Dead Christ with Angels” to William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s ethereal portrayal in “Song of the Angels,” artists have sought to capture the profound spiritual impact of these celestial beings.

Whether through symbolism, expressiveness, or technical mastery, these artists have given us glimpses into the divine realm, inviting us to contemplate the transcendent beauty and meaning of angels in our own lives.

15) Xie Zhiliu and the Flying Celestial

Xie Zhiliu, a prominent Chinese artist of the 20th century, created a mesmerizing painting known as the “Flying Celestial.” This artwork captures the beauty and grace of an apsara, a celestial being often depicted in both Buddhist and Hindu iconography. In Buddhist and Hindu traditions, apsaras are celestial dancers who reside in heavenly realms.

They are believed to possess supernatural beauty and grace, captivating the gods and bestowing blessings upon the faithful. Apsaras are often portrayed as elegant and youthful figures, exuding an otherworldly aura.

Xie Zhiliu’s “Flying Celestial” pays homage to the traditional depiction of apsaras, while infusing it with his own modern artistic style. The painting showcases a celestial figure gracefully gliding through the air, surrounded by delicate clouds and ethereal light.

The apsara is adorned in flowing garments, with her elegant pose and serene expression capturing the sense of divine beauty.

Chinese Modern Art and the Influences of Chen Hongshou and Zhang Daqian

Chinese modern art has been influenced by various artists who have made significant contributions to the art world. Two notable influences on Chinese modern art are Chen Hongshou and Zhang Daqian.

Chen Hongshou, a renowned painter of the Ming dynasty, had a profound impact on the development of modern art in China. His distinct style, characterized by vivid colors, expressive brushwork, and a focus on capturing the inner emotions of his subjects, inspired many contemporary Chinese artists.

Chen’s ability to infuse his paintings with a sense of vitality and dynamism set the stage for future artistic movements. Zhang Daqian, an influential 20th-century Chinese painter, expanded upon traditional Chinese ink painting techniques while incorporating elements of Western art.

Zhang’s skillful use of color and his experimentation with different media and styles revolutionized Chinese art. His ability to merge traditional Chinese principles with contemporary interpretations set new directions for Chinese artists, including those working in modern and contemporary styles.

In the context of the representation of angels and celestial beings, Chinese modern artists have drawn inspiration from the harmonious and graceful qualities found in the works of Chen and Zhang. Their innovative approaches to color, form, and composition have allowed artists to explore new ways of representing celestial realms and spiritual beings with the richness of the Chinese artistic tradition.


The representation of angels and celestial beings in art spans across different cultures and artistic styles. From Xie Zhiliu’s “Flying Celestial,” showcasing the grace and beauty of an apsara in traditional Chinese art, to the influences of Chen Hongshou and Zhang Daqian on Chinese modern art, artists have sought to capture the essence of celestial beings in their unique artistic expressions.

Through their distinctive approaches and techniques, these artists have shaped the understanding and appreciation of celestial realms, providing viewers with moments of transcendence and awe. The legacy of their contributions continues to inspire contemporary artists, as they explore the ever-evolving representations of angels and the spiritual world.

Throughout history, the representation of angels in art has been a source of fascination, inspiration, and spiritual contemplation. From early depictions in religious art to the innovative approaches of modern and contemporary artists, angels have been portrayed in diverse forms, each conveying their celestial beauty and significance.

Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and William-Adolphe Bouguereau have captured the ethereal qualities of angels, while others like douard Manet challenged traditional conventions through their realistic interpretations. The influence of different religions, cultures, and artistic movements has contributed to the rich tapestry of angelic representations.

The importance of these representations lies in their ability to evoke awe, celebrate divinity, and offer solace. Whether admired for their symbolism, adorned in vibrant colors, or depicted in serene poses, angels in art form a bridge between the earthly and the divine.

Through these visual interpretations, we are invited to contemplate the spiritual realms and find inspiration in the profound connection between humanity and the celestial realm.

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