Last week’s joint dedication of Vatican City by Popes Francis and Benedict to Michael the Archangel, our defender in endless battle, brought angels to mind. While they are an integral part of our cultural history—some would say mythology—they have little purchase on contemporary Christian life, theology or spirituality. Once liturgical prayer to St. Michael was made voluntary, it slipped altogether out of the prayers after Mass.
The same has happened to that sweet staple of children’s culture:
Angel of God
My guardian dear
To Whom God’s love
Commits me here
Ever this day
Be at my side
To light and guard
To rule and guide. Amen
I miss that old prayer; it accompanied me out of the cradle. I miss childhood’s trust in a hovering presence, one with a watchful eye on the safety of my limbs and my conscience. By now, my guardian angel has likely been reassigned to a more responsive soul and my case file marked Inactive. Is it possible, you think, to wheedle my GA into doubling back? Can I hondle for a second chance?
If we could hire our own angel from a lineup, I would pick Fetti’s in a heartbeat. Here, indeed, is an angel to lean on. Sturdy. Masculine. His presence overshadows the devil who fades, defeated, off stage. A robust arm points upward toward the Uncreated Light, recalling the boy to his true destiny. The angelic wings are solid as stone; they could bear aloft the boy’s corporeal weight. A substantial spirit, Fetti’s comes close to the angel beloved of my childhood: Arthur Szyk’s glorious pen and ink drawing for Hans Christian Andersen’s The Angel:
The story begins:
Whenever a good child dies, an angel of God comes down from heaven, takes the dead child in his arms, spreads out his great white wings, and flies with him over all the places which the child has loved during his life. Then he gathers a large handful of flowers which he carries to the Almighty, that they may bloom more brightly in heaven than they do on earth. And the Almighty presses the flowers to His heart, but He kisses the flower that pleases Him best, and it receives a voice and is able to join the song of the chorus of bliss.
The boy gathers up a rosebush together with a discarded field flower fallen from a broken pot. You can guess, of course, which bloom God loves best: “The Almighty pressed all the flowers to His heart. But He kissed the withered field flower and it received a voice.” Here is Matthew 20:16 phrased for a child’s understanding. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. (And note the opening proviso: a good child. Is that formulation still permissible?) What magic!
The grammar of angels has been with us a very long time. Winged guardians protected the palace of the Assyrian monarch Ashurnasirpal II nearly nine centuries before Christ. This one, below, has lion feet; others display the body of a bull. The ferocity of a lion; the strength of a bull, steadfast in service—what better qualities to patrol the borders between things sacred and profane. Cousin to the cherubim, these ancient works prefigure the warrior angels of Christian iconography, emblematized in the unflinching militancy of Michael the Archangel.
• • • • •
Christian devotion to guardian angels spread and intensified during the religious wars of the sixteenth century. Catholic affirmation of them increased in defiance of condemnation by Luther and Calvin. By the seventeenth century they were so universally cherished that Clement X raised what had been a congeries of local feasts in honor of guardian angels to the rank of an official one. October 2nd on the Roman became the Feast of the Guardian Angel, one day following the ancient Feast of St. Michael.
Émile Màle summarized Counter Reformation ardor for guardian angels as it suffused the Church Universal:
In Rome and in many other places, churches, chapels, and altars were raised in honor of the guardian angel, and confraternities were founded under his patronage. An angel . . . receives each of us into his charge when we are born and lovingly watches over us from our earliest childhood. He walks beside us, and a hundred times without our suspecting it saves us from death. . . . It is our guardian angel who offers our prayers to God, our poor prayers, which, as [Jacques] Bossuet said, “would fall of their own weight if left to themselves.” He defends us against temptations and never permits himself to be discouraged by our failings. From him come “the sudden flashes of enlightenment, the prompt resolutions, the unhoped for consolations” which are surprising even to ourselves. . . . Nor does the guardian angel abandon the Christian after death. He stays with him in purgatory to console him, awaiting the hour when he will be able to carry the purified soul up to heaven. He also watches over the ashes of the body and gathers them together piously for the day of resurrection.
At first the guardian angel was depicted as the Archangel Raphael accompanying Tobias. But that image, explained Màle, required some biblical sophistication. Hence, the development of lovely angels of kindly demeanor leading a child by the hand. After the Council of Trent, the genre took on more dramatic qualities; an occasional glimpse of the demon lent a whiff of sulphur to the scene. In Carlo Bonone’s rendering, below, the devil already has his hand on the youth. The angel’s customary gesture points the lad toward heaven but makes no other sheltering move. It is up to the devil’s prey to follow the angel’s lead.
Gradually, almost by stealth, the angel begins to appear more androgynous, if not feminine. By the early nineteenth century, we have an angel that looks suspiciously like the perfect au pair:
The slow leakage of vigor and initiative from depictions of angels met its counter in Èugene Delacroix ‘a Liberty Leading the People. Delacroix upends conventional depictions of the guardian angel, transforming recognizable tropes into a political poster. Liberty, embodiment of an abstract concept, raises her right arm as countless angelic predecessors have done. But she does not to point to the God-created light; rather, she holds up the tricolor of rebellion against Charles X and aristocracies in the Revolution of 1830. Instead of a vulnerable youngster to be sheltered, Delacroix presents an armed one, crazed for battle. Evil is vanquished again, dead or wounded in the foreground. This time, though, the demon slain is a very secular one: a class and a system of governance.
It was an intriguing, even artful, consecration, this papal effort designed to reawaken veneration of St. Michael. I do not know what to think of it. I just know that some lapsed and abandoned part of me leaps with delight at the sound of prayers unheard for too long.