Vatican Angels Take Wing in Baltimore Show

Article excerpt

Angels trumpet their joy during this holiday season.

They're everywhere in the Washington-Baltimore area.

The best place to view angels this month is in the Walters Art Gallery exhibit "The Invisible Made Visible: Angels From the Vatican." The exhibition of some 100 paintings, sculpture, tapestries, gilded liturgical vessels and ornate vestments from the collections of the Vatican museums - produced from the ninth century B.C. to our times - tells the story of how artists transformed invisible beings into living forms.

Angels have long been regarded as the connecting link between humans and the divine, and the exhibit shows this belief in many forms. The heavenly creatures appear as positive, comforting beings transmitting gladness and optimism.

For example, Pope John Paul II writes in the catalog's preface, "Through the angels, the invisible world plays a vital - though hidden - role in the visible world of man's history. The good angels, our friends and allies in every suitable action done for God and neighbour, lead us on the path of holiness, justice and peace with every other being."

Giovanni Battista Gaulli, called Baciccia (circa 1639-1709), painted angels praising God by singing and playing musical instruments. His charming study, painted for the Paradise section of the great cupola fresco in Rome's church of the Gesu, is a rollicking, jubilant convocation of happy angels.

The archangels, by contrast, deliver important messages from God. The word "angel" derives from the Greek word "anhelos," meaning messenger, and the biblical Hebrew "mal'akh," which has the same meaning.

It was the winged archangel Gabriel who announced the coming of Christ to the Virgin Mary, as in Federico Fiori's (known as Barocci) "The Annunciation" (1582-1584).

Gabriel kneels before the Virgin Mary and holds a lily, the symbol of her purity. She raises her hand in surprise, but with calm acceptance. Gently holding out his right hand to her, Gabriel reverently announces the divine birth of Christ.

This is an unusually handsome Gabriel, celestial in appearance. His curly golden hair spills over his forehead and neck. His yellow robe, reddish cloak and iridescent sky-blue wings exude his spirituality.

The painting is suffused with such love that it almost brings us to our knees, as it did observers in earlier times.

While Gabriel is associated with new life, the archangel Michael connotes death. It is a sterner, more threatening angel we see in Giovanni di Paolo's "Saint Michael the Archangel" (circa 1440).

The saint faces us directly, with wings and a halo. His left hand rests on a shield bearing the emblem of the cross, while his right hand holds a spear.

The story of the panel comes from Revelation 12:1-9. Michael kills the serpent, symbolizing evil, with a spear. Revelation describes Michael fighting the dragon to protect a woman and child, who are about to be devoured. The woman symbolizes the Virgin Mary and the Church, threatened by Satan.

Michael is there on Judgment Day, too. He stands by God at the moment of judgment, when souls are weighed after death and are either saved or damned.

Angels continue to sing in paintings throughout the show. They hover over the Holy Family in Domenico Bigordi (Il Ghirlandaio) (1449-1494) and his workshop's "The Nativity" (circa 1492), flying across a background of gold and red.

Likewise, angels seem to shout out their songs in Bartolo di Fredi's "Nativity and the Adoration of the Shepherds" (circa 1383). The Sienese painter and his assistants placed the Holy Family in a rocky cave that almost tilts out of its tempera-and-gold-painted wood panel.

Angels also were important in the lives of the saints. In Guido Reni's "Saint Matthew and the Angel" (1635-1640), a rosy-cheeked young angel looks up to the tousled, white-haired old saint. …