He shall give his angels charge over thee,
To keep thee in all thy ways.
They shall bear thee up in their hands,
Lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
To represent the perfect innocence and purity of an angel, a being whose native atmosphere is the very presence of God, a creature not subject to the limitations of physical laws, ever speeding on divine errands from heaven to earth and back again to heaven, nothing could be more natural than that art should use the face and form of innocent human childhood.
Child-angels were first seen in art during the Italian Renaissance, and formed a conspicuous feature in the religious paintings of the period. One of the most interesting and beautiful forms in which they appear is as a great host, or “glory,” filling the background of a composition.
From the announcement of the Saviour’s birth to the Galilean shepherds, to the vision of Saint John on the Isle of Patmos, we find various allusions in the New Testament to the presence of angel companies in the affairs of human life. It was therefore entirely legitimate and appropriate to introduce a visible embodiment of the heavenly hosts into the many sacred scenes portrayed in art, whether these were representations of the actual incidents of Bible history, or the imaginative embodiments of religious ideals.
The Sistine Madonna suggests itself at once as a most beautiful illustration. The entire canvas is studded with tiny child faces, delicately outlined,—a veritable cloud of witnesses, dissolving into the golden glory with which they are surrounded. What a contrast is the exquisite spirituality of this conception to Perugino’s angel glories, where baby faces, each with six many-hued wings are ranged at regular intervals throughout the composition!
A less notable example of Raphael’s unique treatment of the angel host is in his Vision of Ezekiel, a small painting of earlier date than the Sistine Madonna. Here the idea is manifestly drawn from the prophet’s description of his vision of the four living creatures in a great amber wheel, which was “full of eyes.”
Turning from Raphael’s clouds of dimly suggested cherub faces to those representations of the angel throngs in which the child forms are more distinctly delineated, we find that the great masters have made use of the myriad figures to express a corresponding variety in mood and character. Thus, when the emotions of the principal personage in a composition are too complex to be adequately expressed on a single countenance, the angel faces surrounding may each, in turn, convey some one of the many aspects of thought or feeling which go to make up the entire conception.
The Crucifixion is a striking instance of the mingling, of contrasted emotions,—bodily suffering and spiritual victory, worldly defeat and heavenly triumph,—all of which cannot be depicted on the face of the Christ, but which a throng of attendant cherubs may fully interpret. The same principle is illustrated in the many scenes of which the Madonna is the central figure, as the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and the Coronation.
Of such paintings, Titian’s Assumption is the most splendid example. The ascending, Virgin is surrounded by a wreath of child-angels, of surpassing grace and beauty. It is of these that Mrs. Jameson has written, in her incomparable way, that they are “mind and music and love, kneaded, as it were, into form and color.” From a compositional point of view they serve an important purpose in directing the attention of the spectator to the principal figure of the picture. All the gracefully intertwined limbs of the angelic host—outstretched arms and floating figures,—form the radii of a great semicircle centering in the beautiful Madonna.
If Titian’s child-angels stand for the highest attainment in the idealization of child beauty, those of Rubens, on the other hand, are the most human and lovable ever conceived in art. Their lovely baby forms cluster in countless numbers about the glorified Virgin, joyously bearing palm and wreath in token of her triumph.
The name of Murillo also occupies the first rank in the delineation of companies of child-angels. Called in turn the Titian and the Rubens of Spain, he is like his Venetian and Flemish prototypes in his intense sympathy for childhood. His angels have not that transcendent superiority to mortals which distinguishes Titian’s, nor are they the dimpled bits of pink-and-white babyhood characteristic of Rubens. They belong somewhere between the two extremes, and are remarkable for their innocence and purity of expression. As the Immaculate Conception was Murillo’s favorite subject, it is here that we see his child-angels at their best. He has also introduced them into the Holy Family of Seville, as well as into that most wonderful painting of the Christ-child Appearing to Saint Anthony of Padua.
A beautiful method of introducing child-angels into religious pictures, differing widely from the treatment of angel hosts, is to represent one or two, sometimes three, in attendance upon the Madonna and Babe, or the Christ. This is especially appropriate where the subject is treated devotionally, and the central figure is elevated on a throne or pedestal, with the angels at the foot.
Among the Florentine artists, the two friends Raphael and Bartolommeo, as well as their contemporary, Andrea del Sarto, furnish many examples of these angel attendants. With Andrea del Sarto, as was characteristic, they are bewitching winged boys; while with Bartolommeo and Raphael they partake of a more delicate spirituality, which marks them as truly celestial.
The Madonna of the Harpies, which is considered the masterpiece of Andrea del Sarto, contains two charming cherubs, which may be taken as excellent types of the artist’s rendering of these subjects. The Two Angels, from his great painting of the Four Saints, are somewhat above his average plane. These lovely and graceful figures originally stood in the centre of a large composition, but were at a later date removed from the canvas to make a separate picture. Their real significance is to show forth the beauty of a saintly life. Each carries a scroll, and one points upward.
In the work of Bartolommeo the finest cherubs are those of his Throne Madonna, the Madonna Enthroned, and the Risen Christ. All three show the same masterly hand, and express a similar conception of the office filled by the angels. In every case one is looking up with a rapt expression of joy, while the other is more contemplative, drooping the head as if in reflection. The contrast suggests the distinction of early theology between the seraphim and cherubim, the former being, according to etymological significance, the spirits who love and adore, and the latter, those who know and worship. This distinction was scrupulously adhered to in early art by representing the seraphim as red, and the cherubim as blue. Although later artists no longer observed any discrimination between two classes of celestial beings, it may be that the difference between Bartolommeo’s two angels is due to the influence of this idea. Be this as it may, the fact remains that the opposition between them in face and attitude is exactly appropriate to symbolize one as love and the other as reflection.
This is very marked in Raphael’s work, as may be seen in his Madonna del Baldacchino, a painting whose style of composition is strikingly like that of Bartolommeo. Of the two singing angels at the foot of the Madonna’s throne, one studies eagerly the meaning of his music, while the other sings with the happy unconsciousness of a bird. Comparing with this Raphael’s grandest achievement, the Sistine Madonna, we find the same motif carried to its highest realization. The two beautiful cherubs who lean upon the parapet at the bottom of the picture are perfect impersonations of the serene content and the thoughtful deliberation with which varying types of Christian believers have received the great fact of the Incarnation.
The Venetian painters delighted to put musical instruments into the hands of their child-angels, representing them as choristers, hymning the praises of the infant Saviour. Of these, many notable examples were produced in the botteghe of the two rival artist families, the Bellini and the Vivarini. Jacopo Bellini and his two sons, Gentile and Giovanni, were the real founders of the Venetian school, and the work of Giovanni became an ideal standard, which his contemporaries essayed to follow. Luigi Vivarini was so successful as his imitator that his paintings are often incorrectly assigned to the greater artist.
The Frari Madonna, however, is an undoubted Bellini, and here the Venetian conception of the child-angel is seen in its loveliest aspects. Two eager little choristers stand on the lower steps of the Madonna’s throne, “exquisite courtiers of the Infant King,” as Mrs. Oliphant gracefully calls them. One, myrtle-crowned, is blowing on a pipe, while the other bends gravely over a large lute.
The Madonna of the Church of the Redentore shows another pair of angel musicians, sitting on a low wall in the foreground, one at the head and the other at the feet of the sleeping Babe. Both are playing on lutes, and the serious, absorbed air with which they fulfil their task is delightful to see. With lifted face and faraway eyes, they seem to be listening to a heavenly chorus, of which their own melody is an echo.
Any mention of the Venetian type of angels would be incomplete without adding the names of Palma Vecchio and Carpaccio to the list of those who most delicately interpreted the subject. Examples of their work are scattered over Northern Italy, but none perhaps are more representative than Carpaccio’s Presentation, in the Academy at Venice, and Palma’s altar-piece at Zerman.
The child-angel as a playmate and companion of the Christ-child is a conception which has not infrequently been represented in art with great appropriateness. Both Van Dyck and Lucas Cranach have given us the Repose in Egypt, enlivened by the presence of a company of frolicsome cherubs sporting about the Divine Babe. Rubens painted a lovely group of the Infant Jesus and Saint John, seated on the ground, playing with their celestial little visitors. A Holy Family, by Ippolito Andreasi, represents angel children gathering and bringing grapes to the Saviour.
With a small circle of Florentine artists, led by Botticelli, and including Filippo Lippi and Filippino Lippi, a unique class of child-angels is in great favor. These are children of a larger growth and maturer appearance than the infantine cherubs of contemporary artists, and might properly be called angel-youths. In the best examples their expression is an admirable mingling of strength and purity. As attendants to the Christ-child, they serve in various capacities with loving and reverent grace.
In Botticelli’s famous “round Madonna” of the Uffizi, one holds the ink vessel into which the Virgin dips her pen as she writes the Magnificat, two others hold a starry crown over her head, and two more complete the group, as companions of the Saviour. In the Holy Family, by the same artist, only two angels are introduced, one of whom leans over a balustrade, with a beautiful lily-stalk in his hand, in token of the Virgin’s purity.
Filippo Lippi’s charming rendering of angel-youths is best seen in the picture which represents the Christ-child borne by two attendant cherubs in exemplification of the psalmist’s words, “They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.” The Madonna stands before the Divine Babe, with hands clasped in adoration, a lovely impersonation of the Madre Pia.
The Madre Pia is also the subject of one of Filippino Lippi’s most exquisite angel pictures. The Infant Saviour lies on the ground, in a garden, while his mother kneels to adore him. Angel-youths surround him, kneeling, and one stands showering rose-petals down upon him.
The masterpiece of Filippino Lippi is the Vision of Saint Bernard, in the Badia at Florence, and here again angel-youths are introduced with charming effect. Two are in the rear, with hands clasped in adoration; two are beside the Virgin, bearing the weight of her mantle, and raising their earnest young faces with sweet reverence. One of these faces is presented in profile, and has a delicately cut, pure outline, of rare gentleness and beauty.
The artist’s ideal is wonderfully helpful to the imagination, and the thought is full of comfort, that it is loving and tender presences like these which are “in charge over us, to keep us in all our ways.”