The Art of Angels

The earliest images
The very earliest Christian art struggled to find an appropriate iconography. The very earliest depiction of an angel is this early third century image of the Annunciation from the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. The angel wears a gown or toga, and does not have wings. Similarly, the angel shown on the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (c360) trying to talk Abraham out of Sacrificing Isaac has no wings.


The earliest known Christian depiction of a winged angel dates from the end of the fourth century and is carved on to what is known as the Prince's Sarcophagus, discovered in Istanbul in 1930. By the middle of the fifth century they were in full flight, as in the mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

So, why wings?
Biblical accounts of the arrival of angels, particularly the idea that they came from Heaven above, certainly suggests wings. Angels could fly, and flight requires wings. This iconography is also helpful to artists who needed an attribute to distinguish angels from other figures; saints would be identifiable by a nimbus, devils by horns and pitchforks, angels by wings.  Not all theologians were keen on the idea: John Chrysostum ( c347-407 ) said 'do not think wings and feet, and that they are winged, For these are invisible powers.' * Not very helpful to artists.
  For early artists, images of winged figures were easily available; they had appeared in pagan art for centuries. As with many other pagan images, they were adapted for Christian use.

* Patrologia  Graeca

Angels page 1 On to some flying pagans
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