The Art of Angels - The Old Testament


Angels are involved in a number of Old Testament narratives. Some of the most popular with artists come from the book of Genesis, and the earliest concerns the driving out of Adam and Eve. Most images show a militant angel chasing a cowering Adam and Eve out of Eden, but this does not exactly agree with the Bible narrative:

 
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Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.' (Genesis 3 v 23-24)

  In art, the angel (usually one) is far more involved in the expulsion.

   
 

Albrecht Durer: British Museum

Giusto de'Menabuoi: Baptistery, Padua

Genesis 18 tells the story of the visitation to Abraham by what is usually thought of as three angels, although the text does not make this clear. Certainly, Abraham doesn’t recognise them as such. They have come to tell Abraham’s wife, Sarah, that she is to bear a child – 99 year-old Sarah is most amused by this.
  Unusually for angels, these three are rather hungry, and tuck in to the excellent spread provided by Abraham.
  This beautiful mosaic in San Vitale, Ravenna, dates from the mid sixth century. There has been some debate about why the angels have no wings; as we have seen, these appeared much earlier. However, it does match the story; Abraham is unaware that they are angels. The painting by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout is rather less plausible; how could Abraham not realise what they were?






Hermitage, St Petersburg
One of the most familar Old Testament stories is the sacrifice of Isaac, popular beause it was seen as a prefiguring of the sacrifice of  Christ. Isaac is saved just in time by the intercession of the angel: the unfortunate ram takes his place.
  In 1401 a competition was launched to design and make bronze doors for the baptistery in Florence. Many big name artists entered. After much consideration, a shortlist of two was announced: Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti. Here are their designs for the scene showing the Sacrifice of Isaac; but who was the winner? Ghiberti! Did the judges get it right?
 

 Brunelleschi

Ghiberti
 
An incident in the book of Genesis that theologians have agonised over endlessly comes from chapter 28: Jacob's dream of the ladder reaching to heaven. The text suggests it refers to the difficulties facing the tribes of Israel, but some interpretations take a broader view and see it as referring to the struggle of mankind to seek salvation.

'And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
  And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.
   And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.' (v 10 -19)



Ladder of Divine Ascent; Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai.
 (12th century)

William Blake: British Museum
 
 

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