Why we are so fascinated by angels

August 14, 2017

I have been thinking about humanity’s interest in angels recently. My interest was stirred by Bruno Wang Productions’ touring production of Moira Buffini’s play Gabriel; its plot hinges on whether an “angelic” character has been sent from a metaphorical heaven or hell.

The play is set in Nazi-occupied Guernsey in 1943. Jeanne, a widowed mother, will do whatever it takes to keep her adolescent daughter Estelle and daughter-in-law Lily safe on the island, including accepting the attentions of an SS officer, Major Von Pfunz, who has been billeted with her.

Tensions rise when a mysterious young man named Gabriel is washed ashore with no memory of who he is, although he speaks both German and English fluently. Is he an RAF pilot, an SS interrogator, a saviour sent from heaven or merely a local boy with amnesia? As he is nursed back to health in Jeanne’s household, each family member develops their own relationship with him. Gabriel’s character is that of a tabula rasa, in each case becoming the person they need him to be, rather than who he really is.

The idea that angels can be all things to all people is quite a comforting thought; one we grow up with.

As children, we learn that angels can be messengers of hope, but also of unflinching justice; they can be intrinsically good – like the Archangels – or fallen, like Satan.

But do they also represent all sides of what it means to be human, I wonder? The great American playwright Tennessee Williams said: “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.”

He is not alone among artists who have been attuned to the changing nature of angels, and who have sought to give them human form.

Different epochs have given us different angels. A stroll around our favourite room in an art gallery may bring us into contact with the white-robed angels of early Christian art, the military guardians of Byzantine paintings and their colourful wings, or the heavily romanticised Pre-Raphaelite angels of the Victorian era (often based on the look of artists’ muse Jane Burden Morris, with her thick auburn curls).

More recently, who could forget Ron Mueck’s all too human angel, sitting on an oversized stool, looking disconsolate and small?

Hollywood, too, has treated us to some memorable messengers: one of everybody’s favourites is surely Clarence Oddbody, “Angel Second Class” from It’s a Wonderful Life, who gains his wings by helping James Stewart understand the meaning of life. Or John Travolta’s kindly angel Michael (in the film of the same name), who loves women, wine and gambling – subverting the idea that virtuous ideals must be matched by virtuous deeds.

More curious, perhaps, are the winged angels in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, set in 1980s New York in the midst of the AIDS crisis. These messengers from heaven no longer bring succour or glad tidings, but are in direct conflict with humanity.

So is this, I wonder, the crux of our relationships with angels, fictional or spiritual: that the qualities we project on to them vary according to our needs. Whether we need guidance or protection, hope or admonishment, or even a companion on the road to perdition, we seem to summon our angels when the real world confounds us. Maybe that is what we should appreciate most.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation