Since being commissioned to create a window featuring an angel for a house in Tuscany, I have been on the look-out for angelic beings. Even without the Italian connection in this project, what first came to my mind was a memory of a small Italian Renaissance panel I loved in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, when I was a student of art history. We were very lucky, because the Fitzwilliam was 'our' collection, along with Kettle's Yard. In those days we could borrow a picture from Kettle's Yard to have in our room (and that is where I got my lifelong affection for Ben Nicholson's work).
The panel is a part of a predella, painted as the lower part of an altarpiece and it depicts the Annunciation. All is peace and order in this beautiful stage set and the Angel is Gabriel, bringing a momentous message to Mary. He holds lilies, a symbol of Mary and her purity as a young girl. His wings are dark, suggesting a bird of prey, or a black swan. For my project, this profile appeals, as does the finger pointing heavenwards. Mary is, understandably, overawed.
Once your mind is on angels, they are everywhere. Here is one I spotted in the first quad of Magdalen College, holding the very same lilies. Again, the lovely hair, splendid wings, but this angel's body is dressed in
leaf or feather shapes. This is possibly armour, which we will see more of later.
The angel maintains his dignity, averting his gaze from the gurning gargoyles on the opposite side of the quad.
We have just returned from a trip to Northern Italy and of course, angels were in evidence. Waiting for me in the Cathedral in Turin was this youthful angel, below, wearing beautifully described armour and a softly folded cloak. Perhaps he was originally holding a spear? He is slim and graceful - a little like Donatello's David in Florence, and standing with his weight more on his right leg - a position called 'contraposto' which creates a feeling of life. Again he has curly hair, and here, a little smile, despite his chipped nose. He might be the archangel Michael. There is a heirachy of angels and at the top are the archangels, chief of which is Michael, who is their protector, and so he tends to be depicted in armour.
Much further down the rankings come cherubim and seraphim of all kinds, which are also in evidence in churches and palaces. On the left are cherubic plump faces framed by two sets of wings, while on the right, the lavishly decorated Borromeo Palace on Isola Bella on Lago Maggiore is full of baroque 'putti', seen here supporting a golden unicorn.
Set in a stunning small garden on Lake Como is the Villa Melzi, which has a rich collection of antiquities - most of them Etruscan (and one or two fakes, apparently). Here I found a pair of intriguing golden earrings - see my drawing below left. Each earring is formed of a disc with a stylised flower and hanging from it, in what looks like solid gold, intriguing winged figures,. They have halos set with grains of gold and each figure holds what looks like a musical instrument. Their legs seemed to me to be covered in fish scales. If these earrings are Etruscan, then they predate Christian angels by centuries.
I knew I had seen similar scaly legs before on a figure closer to home, and here on the right is the window I remembered having seen in St Bartholemew's church in Yarnton. This sturdy-footed angelic being is covered in what I can see now must be feathers all the way down to his ankles, as the lower part of his body-covering looks like pheasant feathers.
All these angels will feed my imagination when I am designing the angel window for Tuscany, but I can reassure my client that I will probably set aside the idea of enormous sturdy feet and feathery legs.
I am a glass artist based in Charlbury, Oxfordshire. I work in stained and fused glass. I work to commission and teach stained glass in my studio. I open my studio to visitors during Oxfordshire Artweeks.
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