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Don’t overlook the unlikely angels


All of a sudden everybody’s got a guardian angel but me. They wear its pin, they know its name, they’re convinced it’s looking out for them.

I have felt blessed. I have felt lucky. I have never felt guarded by a winged being. Just as this is beginning to worry me, I learn that the St. Louis Art Museum is hosting “Angels from the Vatican” all summer (courtesy of Chrysler, whose logo just happens to be winged). Surrounded by films and feasts, choral music and angelic gifts, this is billed as “a once-in-any-lifetime exhibition featuring nearly 2,500 years of angels in more than 100 works of art.”

Surely I will find mine among them.

I attach myself to the media tour, deftly led by Fr. Allen Duston, representative of the Pontifical Commission to the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums. Aah, I think delightedly, patrons. In the Renaissance, their money fed greatness. Today, we are informed, patrons here in the U.S. fund restorations for the Vatican collection. Duston’s task was to put together an exhibit at their request, comprised of pieces that could travel. Angels being so popular these days. ...

According to Chrysler’s “Angels Unveiled” survey (don’t these people have cars to make?) more than 75 percent of Americans believe in angels, a whopping 93.8 percent in the South-Central region. And yes, it’s the sweetly vigilant guardian angels they’re most familiar with. Only 2.9 percent know of the seraphim, so near to God’s glory that their wings blaze fiery red.

Standing beside Eddie Silva, a smart, droll arts editor from the newspaper where I work, I hear him mutter, “If anybody ever really saw an angel, they’d be terrified.” Eddie’s interested in angels, not wishfully, but archetypically; he wants to know why they’ve cropped up in nearly every religion since time began. The Greeks had lasas, graceful female household spirits; the Jews saw angels everywhere; the Muslims had their own version; and angels hovered over all the major events of Christianity.

After a full 24 years of Roman Catholic education, all I can tell Eddie is that angels come in handy, Fed-Ex intermediaries between the divine will and our not-always-receptive hearts. They inspire and assist, they dance on the heads of pins (a practice I’ve always found a bit showoffish) and they make the music of the celestial spheres. Why music? Because it is an intermediary in its own right, capable of turning passionate, inarticulate emotion into sound, connecting mind and body, gathering motley groups into harmony.

But back to the exhibit, which opens, of course, with angels. These two, their terra cotta glazed, valiantly hold up the coat of arms of Pope Innocent VIII so we can step through the entryway beneath the protection of their wings. Inside the first room, the first sight startles: a feathery-winged genius, partly human and partly divine, sent by the gods to guard the Tree of Life in an Assyrian temple 900 years before Christ. I like the inclusion, a generous act in a religion that could easily pretend it started everything. I like the etymology, too -- genius, now known as cool intellect, taking its first purpose from God, just as brilliance and illumination drew their first light from divine wisdom.

Catty-cornered to the genius (as is so often the case) stands Eros, his penis broken off. I’d blame the Vatican, except that the penis always seems to break off of ancient statues, perhaps reminding us how temporary and fragile its power can be.

In the next room, we see Nike, the winged goddess of victory sent to help people win the battle of life (or slam-dunk the winning basket). Duston reminds us that such figures later influenced Christian iconography -- although it would take four centuries’ distance from paganism before a Christian dared wing his angels. (The wings signal omnipotence. Which may be why I’ve never had one of those “I can fly!” dreams, either.)

So far, most of the images in this show are distinctly unterrifying. Angels wait in attendance; dimple with seductively innocent charm; float softly overhead; lend reassurance or inspire greatness. One grows, if one dares to admit it, bored with their beauty. When we reach the year 1435, we’re standing before a glowing tempera-on-wood painting by Fra Angelico. Duston tells us that he was called the angelic painter because he rendered these beings so exquisitely.

“Could there be an ugly angel?” I wonder abruptly. There are dark angels, of course, notable for the chiaroscuro of their fall from light. But even Lucifer, with his occasional bat wings and horned head, is perversely beautiful.

At first, this realization angers me. But as I walk past Salvador Dali’s refreshingly unsentimental canvas, I see that even his scribbled angels are dancing gracefully in the vast brown-gold space. If angels truly make the invisible visible, if they are here to represent the divine to us, how could we make them ugly? Or mean-spirited, or grubby? If angels are, by definition, not limited by flesh, how could they be awkward or homely, qualities that inevitably limit us?

After the Music-Makers come the Consoling Angels, and here Duston mentions the traditional belief that everyone is given a guardian angel at birth. By now, mine’s probably in the corner with his head in his hands.

I’m ready to join him when we tour the gift shop: angelic Post-its; magnets; lollipops; ornaments; key chains; cassettes; flashlights; pop-up books; puzzles; paper dolls; snow globes and Shrink-a-Doo. In grand finale, there are transparent pens in which Michelangelo’s Adam, when tilted, floats toward God’s outstretched finger.

About to groan in self-righteous art-snobbery, I suddenly remember a poem by Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”:

Outside the open window,
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed sheets, some in blouses,
Some are in smocks, but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing.

Messages from God are everywhere, even on the clothesline. Even in a translucent plastic pen, or a pretty little angel too sweet to terrify.

What’s really terrifying is the chance that, because they don’t look as sweet or as ugly, as mundane or as mysterious as we think they should, we won’t recognize them. We’ll expend our whole lives, entertaining angels unawares.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at the Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis, and a regular columnist in NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998