We asked Art Historian Sandy McNamara (also, our priest’s wife) about art that can help shape our imagination concerning angels. So much of what we see of angels (in terms of art) can be very kitschy and can perhaps trivialize our conception of these powerful and glorious creatures. The following is her response, drawing our attention to the reality that angels surround us as we worship.
From the earliest days of the Christian faith the church building itself has had a much bigger role in expressing the symbolic meaning of the liturgy and belief than it has in modern times. According to a short little book entitled Liturgy and Architecture by a professor at Notre Dame both the plan of the Christian church building, as well as the furniture and paintings, derived directly from Jewish synagogue worship. In the synagogue a raised platform was situated in the middle of the rectangular room, which held an ark-like container storing the Torah and a seat for the rabbi who would remove the scriptures and read them in the service. This architectural feature is called the bema and can still be found in Jewish synagogues today.
The early Christians, many of them converted Jews, carried over the features of the synagogues in their development of early church architecture. Adding a dome over the central platform (the old bema) the conventional painting in the dome was of Christ Pantocrator – or Christ, Lord of all creation. Since a dome must have a support to rest on,
ancient engineers developed a system of 4 open arched walls, which joined at right angles from the floor up – something like an open arched box. Imagining the way in which these right-angled arches came together, one can imagine 4 skewed somewhat triangular areas at the tops of the arches. The architectural term used to define these triangles is “pendentive”. Visually they appear right underneath the dome on four sides. The conventional decoration for the pendentives very soon became the place for depicting angels. Almost all churches, whose floor plan forms a cross, are designed with domes over the “crossing”. This is where the altar is placed with a dome immediately above. Over time, even if the Pantocrater image was not always painted in the dome, angels still appeared in the pendentives (A good example can be found in St. Mary’s Church on Xenia Avenue here in Dayton).
In Anglican worship, during the part of the liturgy where the priest says the Sursum Corda, included are the words “THEREFORE with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of
heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Glory be to thee, O Lord most High.” Thus, depictions of angels in the worship space are and have always been understood to represent the real presence of these heavenly creatures joining us in this mystical experience, together participating in worship around the throne.