The Art of Angels - New Testament

Angels are a familiar element in art of the New Testament. Not all appear in the Bible, however. We see them rejoicing at the Nativity, weeping at the Crucifixion and Deposition, looking on at the Baptism of Christ, ascending with the Virgin to Heaven. The presence of these angels is not justified by biblical texts, or by what we learn of the function of angels from the bible. For the most part, New Testament angels are simply messengers, though they can be involved in the action too where needed.  However, from the artistic point of view, they do have a function: to increase the emotional power of the image. If artists strictly followed the biblical narrative, those angels would be sadly missed.

Giotto: Scrovegni Chapel Padua

Authentic biblical scenes involving an angel include the Annunciation to Mary, the Annunciation to the Shepherds,  Gethsemane, and the Resurrection. Follow the links to see what I have written about these elsewhere on this site. The Last Judgment has a section of its own. I will therefore focus here on two less familiar scenes involving angels. These scenes are interesting because they involve pro-active angels, rather than those simply bringing messages.  

The Pool of Bethesda.

  This narrative comes from the fifth chapter of John: 

   Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole? The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath. 

  It's an odd story in many ways: the idea that only the first person to get to the pool would be cured is puzzling; as the 'impotent man' suggests, the most infirm is the least likely to be ahead of the crowd.

  The story is problematic for artists as two separate events are described; the troubling of the pool by the angel - traditionally the archangel Raphael -  and  Christ's miracle.  The usual  solution was to include both events.   


Sebastiano Conca
Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala, Siena


Paolo Veronese: San Sebastiano, Venice


The Dutch Artist Joost Cornelius Droochsloot takes a more ironic, northern European approach. The characters have seen the angel, but we don't - presumably it has already gone, and Jesus is yet to arrive. So we see the mad dash for the pool, with the most infirm left behind.

Peter's deliverance from prison.

This is the account from Acts chapter 12: 'Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.) And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him. And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison. And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me. And he went out, and followed him; and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision. When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city; which opened to them of his own accord: and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him. And when Peter was come to himself, he said, Now I know of a surety, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews.' 

  This is not the first time that an angel had been involved in a jailbreak. All of the apostles were freed in Acts Chapter 5. Chapter 12 is the most dramatic, and the chapter concludes with another dramatic angelic intervention:  

And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost. (V 21 - 23) 

  This final scene has considerable artistic possibilities, but they have not been realised; I can find only one image of the End of Herod; he is not looking at all well.

Jacopo di Cione: Museum of Art, Philadelphia

The end of Herod. Italian, before1093

Benedictine Church, Lambach

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