Angels are devilishly difficult to draw, even though we all ‘know’ what they look like.
The Bible is notorious for its lack of description when it comes to celestial beings. The Archangel Michael appears to Daniel and all the prophet can say is that Michael looked like a man. The angelic form also differs depending on context. Mostly, though, angels are spirit beings. You, the artist, have a lot of latitude in drawing them.
Still, we all ‘know’ what angels look like: they are infinitely sweet, sing in choirs, have wings and ringlets and wear white robes.
The gap between the Biblical text and tradition has bedeviled artists through history. For example, who says that angels have to have bird wings? I’m not the first person to note this. Jan van Eyck gave the Archangel Gabriel fabulously iridescent wings in the Ghent Altarpiece, just like a bug. William Blake, that old curmudgeon, gave the angel of Revelation no wings at all.
Albrecht Dürer painted a dead European (blue) roller twice, meticulously observing its plumage and structure. His research paid off: his angels never suffer from static, limp wings.
Dead bluebird, watercolor on vellum, 1510-12, Albrecht /Dürer, courtesy of the Albertina, Vienna
If you try this at home, a turkey or chicken won’t do. The modern grocery store versions have had the flight bred out of them. A bird’s shoulders—or scapula—are actually part of its wings. In the wild, they’re strong and muscular. After all, most birdlife revolves around flight. If angels are to fly, their wings must be part of their structure, not just pinned on as in a Christmas play.
The Expulsion from Paradise, 1510, woodcut, Albrecht Dürer. He’d studied wings enough to know how the different coverts, or sets of feathers, move.
Human shoulders are adapted for operating our arms and hands. Winged angels must have two sets of scapula and the muscles to operate both. That’s hard to imply in a painting, but the best ones have the wings operating in parallel with the shoulders.
For most of art history, angels were depicted wearing the luxurious robes of the high princes of their day. The Renaissance artist often didn’t give a lot of consideration to tailoring wing-sleeves into these gowns. Sometimes they look as if the wings are sprouting from the drapery. Leonardo da Vinci (as usual) had an ingenious solution in his Annunciation. The archangel Gabriel wears feathers around the base of his wing that echo the poufs of his sleeve. Tres chic!
The Annunciation, 1474, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy the Uffizi Gallery
Angels were depicted in togas—the garb of ancient, pagan Rome—in the fifth century mosaic cycle of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. I particularly like the contrast with the hipsters in their modern dress at the bottom.
Angels in togas from the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
If you extend that to modern life, you’ll dress your angels in jeans and a t-shirt. These, however, can be unsatisfying to draw. Here is a quick lesson on drapery if you want to be traditional.
Halos were used in the iconography of many ancient people, including the Romans. Halos were adopted by early Christian artists to indicate that here was something worthy of veneration. The new naturalism of the Renaissance pretty much did away with them. If you want to add one to your angel, make sure you get your ellipse right by following the instructions here.
Song of the Angels, 1881, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, courtesy of the Getty Center.
By the time William-Adolphe Bouguereau painted Song of the Angels in 1881, angels had been sanitized and softened, undergoing a gender transition in the process.
Historically, angels were depicted as male and terrifying. However, the paucity of description in Scripture allowed artists wide latitude. With the Enlightenment, angels became less frightening. This is when they began to transition into females in popular culture. (A classic case of a profession letting women in after its power has diminished.)
Worse, they started showing up as infants, in the form of putti.
Eastern Orthodox icon of a tetramorph cherub, depicting four essences in one being. Is there anything cute about this?
Putti were originally meant to symbolize the profane passions of the pagan Romans. That’s why Cupid is frequently depicted as a winged boy. In the Baroque period, however, putti came to represent the omnipresence of God. Weirder, they became conflated with the Biblical cherubim. How cherubim—the fierce, serious beings that guarded the Garden of Eden—became fat little boys is one of the enduring mysteries of art.
This post first appeared last Christmas. I solemnly promise that my vacation ends after the new year, and I’ll be back with more art instruction, art history, and art criticism. Happy New Year, one and all!