Flying high

Peter Stanford grew up with a benevolent notion of angels. But the true picture is complicated: while some angels in the Bible are kindly, others are brutal

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"Five Dancing Angels" by Giovanni Paolo, 1436: Angels we

I’ve always had a fondness for angels. As a child, I created faux stained-glass windows of them. As an adult, when I’m down, I turn to Psalm 90:

Upon you no evil shall fall,
no plague approach where you dwell.
For you has he commanded his angels
to keep you in all your ways.

They shall bear you up on their hands
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
On the lion and the viper you will tread
and trample the young lion and the dragon.

Then, cheered by the thought of trampling young lions and dragons, I get on with life, feeling fortified.

Peter Stanford grew up with a benevolent notion of angels. And yet, as he explains in Angels: A Visible and Invisible History, the true picture is far more complicated.

While some angels in the Bible are kindly — like the one who brings hot scones and water to a famished Elijah — others are brutal, like those who smite Lot’s visitors with blindness, slaughter 185,000 Assyrians and wrestle Jacob so hard he dislocates his hip.

Then there’s the variety in their appearance. Who knew that the angels in Genesis have no wings? That angels only become specifically male in the Book of Daniel? And that female angels have no precedent in the Bible and only start to make an appearance in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites?

It’s fascinating to read about the cultural influences — the winged serpent gods of the Canaanites, the winged Egyptian deities encountered in the time of Moses and the winged spirits of Zoroastrianism, whose guardian-angel-like role inspired the Israelites during 48 years of exile in Babylon.

Amid such variety, one thing, however, remains the same: throughout history, men have turned to angels for assistance. From Daniel seeing ranks of angels, led by Michael, coming down to aid God’s people in the second century BC, to soldiers, in 1914, seeing ghostly “bowmen” coming to their aid in the Battle of Mons, and  Hillary Clinton, pinning on a brooch with angel wings “on the days when I need help”, angels have always been a human point of call.

It’s hardly surprising that they are sometimes seen as skirting dangerously close to deities. “Do not be taken in by people who like grovelling to angels and worshipping them,” St Paul warned the Colossians in c.50 AD, while during the Reformation, Protestant iconoclasts went through churches smashing angel statues to bits.

Today, though belief in God has waned, belief in angels is flying high. In a 2016 poll of 2,000 people, one in three Britons claimed to have a guardian angel and one in ten to have experienced an angel’s presence. Furthermore, though our established churches are reticent on the topic of angels, our bookshops have shelves devoted to them and the internet abounds with offers of angel therapy and retreats.

Why? Stanford raises this question repeatedly and tackles it from every possible angle. He himself appears to believe that it points to man’s innate yearning to “make a bridge, or ladder, between the divine realm and the earthly one”. But he also recognises that angels meet another fundamental human need — “our longing for beings who are more powerful than ourselves, and who care for us”. This is the reason that rings true for me. People may feel no need, today, for God but they haven’t stopped wanting to be looked after.

There is so much to be said about angels and Stanford does an admirable job of organising his material. Everything the average reader could possibly want to know is, I suspect, in this book. The first section covers angels in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The second runs through the different appearances, and uses, of angels in Western history — from Aquinas to Milton, Fra Angelico to Paul Klee and St Francis of Assisi to Swedenborg and Joseph Smith. Chapters are broken up with an A-to-Z of angel trivia and there are plenty of sub-titles, enabling the reader to dip in and out, and a good choice of black and white illustrations.

If there’s an argument to be made at the end of reading such a book, it is that (pace the thousands of slaughtered enemies) angels have done us little harm and may even do us some good. When, this century, British academic Emma Heathcote James asked 350 people to tell her about their experiences of celestial visitation, more than a quarter said they had felt comforted by the experience while 18 per cent had received a message that had “helped” them. When Peter Stanford sits under the canopy of angels on the ceiling of St Mary’s, South Creake, he feels he is among friends. When I read Psalm 90, I am emboldened to tread on vipers. Do angels exist? Stanford won’t say. Perhaps the right answer is: “Does it matter?”