“Angel” by Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1887

People have suggested that angels would be a natural subject for my artwork, but I was hesitant because in the Bible, when angels are described it seems they look like men – large scary men who have to tell people not to be afraid. I guess I could draw big scary men if I wanted to, but I don’t really want to. My husband pointed out that feminine angels are a longstanding cultural tradition, even if they do not exist in the Bible or in the real world. True enough, but I wondered about the ethics of adding to the piles of false theology floating around in the culture — knowing that false theology about angels is especially abundant.

I absolutely love the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Every time I watch it I end up feeling….well,  like life is wonderful, at least for a few minutes. But the theology implied in the film has absolutely no substantiation in the Bible, and where else do we get the concept of angels – unless of course we have happened to run into one ourselves.

Clarence the angel is a guy who seems to have lived and died in the 19th century, or maybe he lived into the early 20th. There is some indication in the dialog that he was a contemporary of Mark Twain, and after he died he became an angel. He seems to answer to a voice he calls Joseph. Maybe the voice is that of a supervising angel or maybe it is Saint Joseph, foster father of Jesus. That would tie in with the Christmas theme. This Joseph is not positively identified – he presents as simply an authoritative voice in the sky. So Clarence is a former human being, but the real angels as described in the Bible, it seems, are not humans who have died,  but rather were all created at once sometime before humans or any life as we know it existed on earth. They are spiritual beings who, although it seems that can appear as human beings in order to communicate with people, but are not human and never have been.

Finale of "It's a Wonderful Life"

Also, angels in the Bible do not have to earn their wings or anything else. They have all they need and as long as they do not reject God and choose to go their own way, they have all that they need. The entire plot of “It’s a Wonderful Life” hangs on Clarence’s need to earn his wings. That provides his motivation for helping George Bailey discover how wonderful his life is. The one part of the whole idea that may be somewhat accurate is that angels do, it seems, help humans. Maybe the movie would have worked just as well if Clarence were an ordinary angel who God sent to help George Bailey just because He loved him. But the bumbling amateur nature of the angel and George’s skepticism about his ability to help do provide much of the movie’s charm.

If an awesome scary tall creature of light appeared to George Bailey on the bridge, George might have been overwhelmed by awe and believed anything the angel told him; he would not have needed to experience all the horrible things that would have happened if he had never been born. We might have had some movie, but it certainly would not have been the same movie. So long as we realize that this is a movie is based on a cultural myth and not Biblical truth, we can sit back with our popcorn, lighten up, and enjoy it. Which I plan to do in the near future.

Meanwhile, I had to make a choice about doing art that would add to the cultural mythology around angels. Pretty girls with soft faces and wings and flowing dresses would be fun to draw and fit my milieu. How would it be different from drawing fairies or any other person or creature that does not happen to exist in reality? Well, of course, said that prudish little dictator inside me, fairies are not a distortion of Biblical truth. When you refer to things in the sacred Bible you should be accurate and not deceive people. The prudish little dictator can be brutal.

Well I felt a strong desire to draw angels but resisted the idea for several days. Then Monday I found myself along with my art supplies in a hospital waiting room. They had just wheeled my husband away for heart surgery. I spread out my pens and pencils on the little table in front of the sofa, took out my pad, and began to draw. What came out came out. And this is what came out…..not quite in the league with Abbot Thayer and the other Pre-Raphaelites, but hey, you might say it is my masterpiece to date.

Angel Tree

It comes down to this. When we are doing art or writing, and we do it with honesty and genuineness, what is in us is what’s going to come out. Even if what is in us happens to be a clouds of fluffy cultural myths. And doing this picture kept me calm and occupied for four hours of surgery. There’s definitely something angelic about that.

10 Responses to Angels in art – The Bible vs cultural tradition

  1. Carol, I absolutely love your angel tree. It is so charming. This is one of very favorite styles in art. You are such a talented artist. Thank you for sharing this wonderful Christmas gift. And, BTW, great post.

    I wish your husband a very speedy recovery.

    • CJ Carol Apple says:

      Thank yo Nancy. My husband is recovering as well as anyone could expect. Heart surgery is still a big deal. Thank you for liking my angel tree. This is so far my favorite of all the pictures I have done. Part of it is that I loved my late mother-in-law and she collected angel ornaments and began a family tradition of putting up an angel tree. My husband's sister inherited the ornaments when she died in 1999 and continues the tradition, so we can still see the angel tree every year. So my picture is really in memory of someone I loved.

  2. This is a great post! Being a closet theologian myself of thirty years, most people don't realise that the cultural myths are a result of trying to show in art what things represent, the wings were added to represent that angels can literally go anywhere like the wind, also the halo of course to show the light of God shining on them as well as their purity and then later the women angels are a result of the love, care and concern they have for us and for us humans its hard to have all that in one package that looks like a guy on steroids! The musician Santana stopped believing in angels once he found out Santa wasn't real -until he had a real angelic encounter as an adult and thats always a concern for me in these kinds of things because the cutsie-pie images can backfire but as with Santana,God sets things right in the end so I see nothing wrong with them. I think your angel tree looks wonderful and Ill say a special prayer for your husbands recovery. God Bless!

    • CJ Carol Apple says:

      Excellent points Samantha! And fascinating too. There must be something in feminine angel images that people find deeply comforting and satisfying and I think you have touched on it. Interesting about Santana's experience. I think faith does not die out in the our culture because too many of us have had personal encounters with the spiritual, and when something happens to you, the only argument someone can make against it is that you are crazy or mentally deceived. If you know that's not the case, you have to believe what you felt or saw or experienced is true. Great that you are a closet theologian! It's one of my favorite areas of study.

  3. Brenda says:

    I think you nailed it, when it comes to the art within us, we have to follow our hearts regardless if it's true some other ideal or norm. I would buy you angels. I am so amazed at how you are blossoming in your word and art. It's a good thing when a person hits their stride.

    • CJ Carol Apple says:

      Thank you Brenda. I am feeling my way through it, trying to find my best creative path and the best way to spend my limited time. Thanks for reading and the always supportive words!

  4. Now I feel like I have to finally watch It's A Wonderful Life. I've only ever seen parts of it. I love your angel tree! I'm glad your art could help you through your husband's surgery.

    • CJ Carol Apple says:

      I recommend it highly Kelly! That and other films of that period are cultural icons and kind of show a coherent world that is much harder to find now. Thanks for liking the angel tree. I'm happy to say my husband is home from the hospital and on his way to recovery.

  5. Fi Phillips says:

    Great post. I love your angels. And you're right – art should be honest. Why try to be something we're not? My writing is the same. I hope your husband is on the road to recovery. All the best for the new year.

    • CJ Carol Apple says:

      Thank you Fi! About art being honest – what I found out from the angels is that in the end it really can't be anything else if it's going to worth anything at all.

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