According to an Associated Press poll taken in 2011, 77% of Americans believe in angels. While the majority of the believers identified themselves as active Christians, about 40% of those who said they believe in angels admitted they never attend religious services. The poll continues the findings of a 2006 poll which indicated that more than three out of four Americans believed in angels.
These statistics look even more shocking when you put them next to declining numbers of church goers. While Gallup polls put regular church attendance in the USA around 40%, studies by church leaders show the numbers are far lower. In 2004, actual counts of attendees in orthodox Christian churches (Catholic, mainline, and evangelical) indicate only 17.7% of church members attended services on any given weekend.
So angels seem to be thriving even though churches are not. While there are many reasons for the decline in church attendance, this post is more interested in why angels are doing so well.
The Many Breeds of Angels
If you lined up the various kinds of angels next to each other, you’d hardly recognize them as related. That’s probably because they were born of very different cultures and times.
The Christmas tree angel
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first Nativity scene in 1223, using a cave near Greccio, Italy and real people to re-create the story of the birth of Jesus and the visitation of the Magi. The display proved so popular that other cities soon copied the idea, sometimes using statues instead of people. Within a hundred years, every church in Italy featured a nativity scene. Wealthy individuals set up their own Nativity scenes, using rich fabrics for the statues and increasing the number of figures until the scene became a mini-city witnessing the birth of a new king rather than the arrival of a poor child whose mother was forced to give birth in a stable.
Since the artists did not have much of a physical description to go by in creating the angels, they used the same elaborate robes for the angels as they gave to the people in the scene. Italian aristocrats of the 1200s were fashion peacocks, combining the Greco-Roman flavor of the Renaissance with sumptuous fabrics, many layers, long trains, and gold thread. The angels were therefore dressed in very impressive robes. The only difference was the wings.
Today, Christmas angels are typically shown in the same flowing outfits they were given back in the 1200s. Since those now look more like dresses, the angels have gotten increasingly feminine-looking, often including swirling hair to go with their swirling robes.
The Guardian Angel
One of the most common and popular angel images is the guardian. While not featured prominently in the Bible, these are the angels most people believe in. According to a survey of 1700 people of various faiths by Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion, more than 50% of all adults surveyed, including 20% who say they are not religious, believe they have been protected by a guardian angel. In some cases, these are loved ones who have died but make their presence known to the living through subtle signs and warnings. Messages from guardian angels might be seen in a comment from a passer-by, a song, the appearance of a particular animal, a strange coincidence, a particular smell, even a natural phenomenon like a strange cloud or a rainstorm while the sun is shining. A guardian angel can take many forms, including a winged figure similar to the Christmas angel, a being of pure light, or a human figure.
Guardian spirits have a very long history in human culture. The being of pure light and the winged guardian figures appeared in ancient Sumer, Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Phoenicia, Hittite Empire, Cyprus, and other early Mediterranean civilizations. One interesting predecessor of the guardian angel is the ancient Roman guardian of the household, a protective spirit who was enshrined in the kitchen, atrium, or garden. The photo shows a sculpture of a household protective spirit from ancient Rome, though it wouldn’t look out of place in a garden alcove today.
In the early 20th century, the guardian angel often looked more like a mother (or sometimes father) figure. Sentimental cards published in the early 1900s featuring angelic, usually female figures protecting their young charges from dangers like a steep cliff or rickety bridge or thunderstorm became so popular they were copied endlessly. They’re now part of our cultural dictionary of images. The image shown on the left is typical.
Newer versions might update the image, but the function remains the same: protection from harm, guidance along the right path. In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Clarence, the male angel (shown in the photo, right) who saves George Bailey from killing himself, hopes he’ll get his wings by helping George turn his life around. This reinforces the concept that humans can become angels. “Teacher says, ‘Whenever a bell rings, an angel gets its wings,’” George Bailey’s daughter says, so the audience knows the meaning of the bell ringing at the end of the movie.
Guardian angels may be male or female, according to the media. In “Angels in America,” Emma Thompson plays an angel ministering to AIDS victims. In “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996) Denzel Washington plays an angel without wings giving advice to both the preacher and his wife. Still a guardian, though.
In the long-running TV series “Touched by an Angel” (1994 – 2003) the main figure was the angel Monica, who, like Clarence, was trying to work her way up the angel hierarchy by helping people who face great challenges or difficult choices.
In “Angels in the Outfield” (1994), a boy prays for a father and a winning season for the worst team in the league. An angel, played by Christopher Lloyd in a baseball cap (“Just call me Al”), grants his wish and converts a lot of unbelievers in the process. This is perhaps the most appealing version of the guardian angel: one who intervenes, using extraordinary power for the greater good. (Photo, left)
So guardian angels, no matter their form, are protectors, guides, helpers – powerful beings with people’s best interest at heart. Their popularity is not surprising.
The Valentine’s Day Angel
The most common angel we see around Valentine’s Day is a pudgy baby boy with tiny wings: Cupid. He’s mischievous but cute, corpulent in a luxurious and vaguely sensuous way. He’s armed with a bow and arrow, ready to strike the heart of an unsuspecting person, making that person fall in love. Even the expression “fall in love” reflects Cupid’s work. Imagine the poor victim explaining the change: “It was an accident. I was just walking along, minding my own business when suddenly I stumbled and fell in love.” Sort of like falling in a hole. The idea of Cupid striking with his little bow is a way to explain the sometimes random quality of sexual attraction. The cartoon by Elmer Parolini is a perfect example.
While Cupid is called a cherub, and thousands of his kind decorate walls and ceilings of castles, not to mention thousands of Valentine’s Day cards, in fact the cherubim, according to Christian church teachings, are terrifying enforcers. They were the ones wielding flaming swords and barring the gates of the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were thrown out. So how did they change? Once again, blame the Greeks and the Romans – and the Renaissance, when everything Greek and Roman came back into vogue in Europe. The Greek god Eros, from the Greek word for desire, was the son of Aphrodite (goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality). While Eros (Cupid to the Romans) was originally seen as a teenage boy, his image changed to a baby boy when he was transferred to Renaissance Europe. Cherubs by Raphael, shown.
Other baby angels
Cupid may be cute but he’s dangerous. Other baby angels are much more benign. Perhaps because of the widespread belief that a baby who dies very young becomes an angel, there are currently many examples of cute baby or toddler angels with little wings. Sometimes they hold a baby animal, like a deer or bunny or raccoon. Sweetness, youth, and innocence are the main qualities of these angels.
The angel of death
Many people believe an angel appears to take the spirit of the dying person to the next life. One example of this angel in modern media is Seth, the angel played by Nicholas Cage in the movie “City of Angels.” He and his cohorts, all wingless and wearing black trench coats, stand around Los Angeles, unseen by the humans passing by, waiting for the ones who are dying. At the moment of death, the angel becomes visible to the dying person, telling him or her not to be afraid, that the angel will be their guide to the afterlife. In this sense, he is a classic angel of death, Azrael in Islam, similar to the figure of the Grim Reaper in folklore. In ancient Greek myth, Charon ferried the dead across the river Styx to the Underworld. Angels of death act carry out their jobs as directed.
However, in City of Angels, Seth is impressed by the doctor’s efforts to save the dying man. When he sees how upset she is at losing the patient, he tries to comfort her, but she can’t see him, so he becomes visible. He subsequently falls in love with the doctor, played by Meg Ryan, so much so that he wants to give up being an angel and become human. Even though their time together is very short, he says after her death that the love he felt was worth giving up everything else. This of course brings up lots of very interesting but unanswered questions.
The Mismatched Twin Angels
You know them: the caricature good and bad angels that sit on opposite shoulders, whispering opposite advice on how to handle a difficult decision. The winged angel and the horned devil, right there, one trying to convince you to do the right thing and the other persuading you that the wrong thing would be a lot more fun. The little devil later takes the blame for mistakes. “The devil made me do it,” or “I didn’t really mean to do that.”
Some early Christian books, like the Shepherd of Hermas (140 AD) show angels competing for the heart of a man. Christopher Marlowe made the idea popular in his play Doctor Faustus (1592), when a good angel and a bad angel offer the main character opposite advice.
Now they make an easy graphic to show a person struggling with an ethical dilemma.
One of the most powerful stories, at least as told by John Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost, is the battle of the powerful angel Lucifer against God. He and his minions challenge God for ultimate power. When God crushes Lucifer and sends him to the lake of burning sulfur forever, Lucifer replies: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” Another of his famous lines is: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” What makes Lucifer, or Satan, so attractive is his ferocious belief in himself. Milton’s image of the beautiful but damned figure ruling from his throne in Hell became very popular. Even today, images of the Fallen Angel retain a sense of glory twisted by jealousy and lust for power. He is the Prince of Darkness.
In the drawing by Nagy Rebeka, Lucifer is shown after the fall. The script on his clothing is a quote from “Paradise Lost”: “So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, /Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost. / Evil be thou my good/….Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”
The Sword of Righteous Power
Lucifer’s nemesis is the warrior archangel, usually Michael, clothed like a Roman centurion and wielding a sword of flame. He is the spiritual warrior, leader of the Army of God, angel of righteous battle. In the sculpture shown on the left, Michael battles and apparently vanquishes Lucifer, shown as a dragon.
By far the most common function of angels in the Bible is relaying messages. Two famous examples are the angel appearing to Abraham, telling him not to kill Isaac, and the angel appearing to Mary, telling her she is to give birth to a son to be called Jesus, as appears in the Fra Angelico painting shown.
So we have a strange mix of images – cute, cuddly kids, fleshy baby boys, elegantly coiffed and robed women, stern, powerful men armed with formidable weapons. And the angels’ functions are just as varied – messenger, warrior, protector, transporter of the dead, advisor. Some are good, some bad, some male, some female, some non-gender specific.
Some, like Cupid, are clearly secular, not religious.
Some are not included in any religious dogma. A friend of mine said she went to a bingo game one night and was surprised to see two elderly ladies put out a series of old photos on the table in front of their seats. “I always bring them,” one answered when my friend asked. “They’re my angels. Plus I bring my good-luck charms.”
Why are angels important? Why is their popularity growing? Here are my thoughts:
They represent a spirit power in a secular world, a spiritual presence granted to all who want it, inside or outside the bounds of traditional religious faith. They connect people to a wider, unseen, more beautiful and more powerful world.
People want a guardian who will protect them from the dangers that threaten them.
They want the strength of a righteous army to fight the evil they know lives in the world.
They also want a way to understand that evil, to give it a form and a reason for being.
On a personal level, they want a metaphor for their own ethical struggles and failures.
They want something sweet, kind, and innocent when all they see is pain.
They need Cupid to understand the mystery of sexual attraction.
Angels answer all of these needs.
Angels are the antidote to a sad, lonely, spiritually-undernourished world.
No wonder they’re so popular.
Sources and interesting reading:
“Angel,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angel
“Angel on vaulted sacristy of St. Mark” painted by Melosso da Flori (1438-1494) http://www.sacristies-of-the-world.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Mellozzo-da-Flori/
“Angel with raccoon and bunny,” Antiques Navigator, http://www.antiquesnavigator.com/ebay/images/2011/320764497908.jpg
“Archangel Michael slaying Satan as a dragon,” (photo) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ed/Michael4.jpg
“Bronze genius depicted as pater familias (1st century CE), photo, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genius/
“Cupid,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupid (a very good article)
“Exhibition objects,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/christmas-tree
Foster, Jill and Sadie Nicholas, “Meet the women who talk to angels: Even felt that someone’s watching over you? A survey reveal 41 percent of us believe in heavenly guardians,” The Daily Mail (UK) 23 December 2012, http://www.dailymail.co.k/femail/article-2252593/
“Genius (mythology),” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genius/ (a very interesting article)
Harris, Dan, “Most American Believe in Guardian Angels,” ABC News, 18 September 2008, http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=5833399
“History of Angels,” Angels &Ghosts, http://www.angelsghosts.com/angel-history
Holy Bible, New International Version, 1973
“Inanna, the Burney Relief, Old Babylonian, c 1800 BCE,” Wikipedia, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/98/Lilith/
Kau, Stephen. “Does an Angel of Death Exist?” Christianity Malaysia, 22f March 2013, http://christianitymalaysia.com/wp/angel/
Joyner, James, “More Americans Believe in Angels than Global Warming,” Outside the Beltway, 8 December 2009, http://www.ousidethebeltway.com/more-americans-believe-angels-than-global-warming/
Martin, Therese, “The Development of Winged Angels in Early Christian Art,” SerieVII, Historia del Arte, 2001
“Poll: Nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in angels,” CBS News, 23 December 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/poll-nearly-8-in-10-american-believe-in-angels/
Metropolitan Museum of Art, angel from the Christmas crèche display (photo) http://www.artfixdaily.com/images/fl/dec8_Met/tree985x1500.jpg/
Nagy Rebeka, drawing of Lucifer after the fall, “I Sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,” The Midnite Lounge, http://the-midnite-lounge.blogspot.com/2012/12/12/
“Nativity Scene” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativiy_scene
“Neapolitan presepio at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania (photo) http://upload.wikimedia.org/Wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/19/Carnegie_Presepio.JPG/
Parolini, Elmer (cartoon) “Ready; aim…” http://lowres.jantoo.com/romance-dating-eros-cherubs-love-cupid’s-arrow-cupid-209000273/
“Shoulder angel,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoulder_angel
Stinekey, “Oh, My Pop Culture Supernatural Beings: Angels in Pop Culture,” 20 October 2013, Lady Geek Girl, https://ladygeekgirl.wordpress.com/2013/
“Touched by an Angel” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Touched-by-an-Angel/
“The Truth about angelic beings: What does the Bible really teach about angels?” Christian Answers, http://christiananswers.net/q-ach-acb-t005.html