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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Themes and Images

When we talk about "themes" in art today, we're met either by stifled yawns or curious looks.  Themes?  What do you mean, themes?  Okay, themes today might include "art for art's sake," peace, music, sex, love, violence, politics, race, technology, drugs, travel; I could fill a whole page. Some themes are new, some are old, some are so tiresome we find ourselves wishing they'd just go away to that great theme park in the sky.

Throughout the centuries of art, a number of themes have displayed a stubborn persistence.  Perhaps numbrer one, arguably the most persistent, has been religion.  And within that category, there are quite a number of persistent images.  Discounting the ancient pagan images, the most common are Jesus himself, followed by Mary.  Because these two are so central to religious art (Muslim art having no such images) there has not been much in terms of variation in the way they've been depicted that cannot be accounted for by the simple evolution of painting styles. 

However the third most common subject matter in religious art seems to have offered artist down through the ages a great deal of latitude both visually and thematically.  In terms of their sheer numbers in religious art, they are by far the most common figures depicted.  And, while the popularity of religious art in general has waned somewhat during the last century or two, we find now that these images seem to be enjoying renewed interest among the general public, if not necessarily among artists.  If you haven't guessed by now, I'm talking about the multitude of angels that have populated the panels, walls, and canvases of artist for over a thousand years.

Archangels Michael and Gabriel,
12th Century icons
 The earliest, existent, painted depictions of angels date back to the early third century.  They are figures from in the Cubicolo dell'Annunziazione in the Catacomb of Priscilla. Ambrogio Giotto painted some surprisingly realistic angels in his 1305 fresco, Lamentation of the Dead Christ (below right).  Fra Angelico gave them human proportions a century later in his The Annunciation (below left).  At the same time though, other artists used them as hardly more than decorations.  They began to assume whimsical, childlike qualities.  However, about the time of the Renaissance there seems to have developed a split in the way angels were depicted.  There were the putti (cute, chubby little male toddlers with wings) and the "serious" angels, the archangels, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Metraton, Uriel, and Satanel.  Each of these, partially from the Bible, and partially from secular writings, developed their own persona, tradition, and visual amenities.  In addition to these, there was the ubiquitous "Angel of Death" known as Azrael.

Lamentations of the Dead Christ, 1305,

Today, we most commonly link the painting of angels with the work of Raphael, Botticelli, Leonardo, and a host of other Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque masters.  But lest you think the visual tradition kind of stagnated with Rubens, El Greco, and Grunewald, you might be surprised to find that Rembrandt painted angels, as did the Rococo artists, and also Goya, Blake, Rosetti, Gauguin, and Chagall, to name just a few, more recent, painters to employ such heavenly beings in their work. 

The Annunciation, 1438, Fra Angelico
Perhaps the most interesting thing regarding angels and art is not who painted them, but how they have been painted, and how they have changed over the years.  Unlike Christ and Mary, angels have offered exciting creative opportunities and a wide range of activities in which artist have legitimately exploited them.  And, with renewed popular interest in angels today, a few artists have once more begun using them, usually in a decorative mode. Also television and movies have taken up the calling. Whether they come sans wings ala Michael Landon, or with John Travolta's heavy overcoat, their images continue to evolve to fit their earthly missions.

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