Wings, which are the most distinctive angelic symbol, are emblematic
of spirit, power, and swiftness. The portrayal of angels with wings was
common throughout the entire Middle Ages, a reflection of the
accepted Christian idea of angels as winged beings. (Scripture, however,
says nothing about angels having wings.) The earliest winged
angels in Christendom appear during the rule of Constantine, the first
Christian emperor of Rome. The first representations of winged angels
bear a striking resemblance to Nike, Greek goddess of victory, who
undoubtedly provided a model for Christian artists.
The figure of the winged angel evolved during the fourth century,
soon crystallizing into a formula and remaining common until the
sixth century, after which it came into its own again in Carolingian
art and the Romanesque art of Italy and southern France. It was foreign
to Gothic art, although it became common again in Italy during
the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries.
Seraphim and cherubim are usually represented as disembodied
heads with one, two, or three pairs of wings, symbolizing purity of spirit
informed by love and intelligence. The head is an emblem of the
soul, love, and knowledge, whereas the wings have the conventional
significance already mentioned. This is a very ancient way of representing
the two highest orders of angels, whose faces are very human,
thoughtful, and mature in the earliest instances, gradually becoming
more childlike in order to express innocence. They later degenerated
into small infant heads with little wings folded under the chin.
The bodies of the angels of Orcagna, in the Campo Santo at Pisa,
end in delicate wings instead of legs. Other depictions have wings fade
into a cloudy vapor, or burst into flames, as in one of Raphael’s frescoes
in the Vatican, where the hair, wings, and limbs of cherubs end in
glowing flames. Wings were used not only by Christian artists but also
by the artists of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Nineveh, and Etruria as symbols
of might, majesty, and divine beauty.
Why bird wings should have been taken to represent the spirit is
not difficult to understand. To the ancients, birds must have been
viewed as marvelous creatures—animals who could shake themselves
loose from the earth and float aloft in the invisible medium of the air,
an environment much like that of the spirit world. It is but a short
step from seeing winged animals as travelers of the air to imagining
winged angels as travelers of the spirit realm.