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Why are there female angels in art?
I am a lecturer at the Institute of Tourism Studies in Malta, and I am responsible for the preparation of tourist guides. One recent question that I was asked was: "Why are there female angels on various funerary monuments, when angels are supposed to be only males?" Would it be possible to have an answer about this particular detail?
Angels are neither male nor female in a human sense, because they belong to a different order of beings. Still, when biblical writers try to describe angelic appearances, they consistently use masculine pronouns and male attributes:
1 Chronicles 21:16: David looked up and saw the angel of the Lord standing between heaven and earth, with a drawn sword in his hand extended over Jerusalem.
Luke 24:4 (at Jesus' tomb): While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.
Revelation 10:1: Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars.
The idea of female angels, then, must have come from outside Judaism and Christianity. And it could have come from just about anywhere.
Many pagan religions featured winged servants of the gods (such as Hermes, now the FTD mascot), and some of these were distinctly female. Some pagan goddesses had wings, too, and behaved somewhat like angels: making sudden appearances, delivering messages, fighting battles, wielding swords. Ancient images of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, look an awful lot like the winged women most Westerners think of when they picture angels. (See an example here)
Until about the fourth century, Christian artists avoided representations of angels, probably to emphasize the difference between Christianity and the other religions in and around the Roman Empire. After Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, angels appeared in art more often.
Ironically, as the church gained power in the empire, official confusion of Christianity with paganism grew less likely—but Christians themselves seem to have gotten more confused. Despite Paul's warning in Colossians 2:18 ("Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize"), angels loomed ever larger and more glorious in Christian art. Beginning in the fifth century, many churches were dedicated to angels, and archangels Michael and Gabriel were often named in liturgies after the Trinity and before the Virgin Mary. Such emphasis on holy beings wasn't quite like the worship of pagan gods on Mt. Olympus, but some modern observers might wonder if it wasn't quite the monotheism of the Bible, either.
For more information, see:
Early Christian Representations of Angels
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