In every instance in the Bible where an angelic messenger is described in any way,
that description includes note that the angel was in a form like a human. Although
there are a few instances in which the being appeared in full supernatural “glory,”
shining or glowing, a number of times such angels looked so normal that the people
visited didn’t even realize that it was an angel until after the incident was over!
There is never any mention of such beings having wings or halos as a “giveaway” to
their identity. (See “On Wings of Angels” and “Heavenly Halos” for details on the
origin of the artistic representation of angels with wings and halos.)
But if one were to judge by the common pictures and statues of angels today in the
Angel Shops that fill shopping malls and the Internet, it would be logical to assume
most of the accounts in the Bible must have represented the beings as having the
form of a human female. For the vast majority of artwork of angels of the past century
and more … including even Christmas tree topper angels such as the two shown here
… have depicted creatures of graceful feminine beauty.
This assumption would be wrong. Angelic messengers are always described in the Bible
as having the form of human males. Why, then, the almost unrelenting modern representation
of angels being feminine?
Perhaps, once many religious circles accepted the erroneous notion that Bible angels
had wings, some early artists, looking for examples from which to draw inspiration,
were attracted to the feminine “winged Nike” figure of ancient Greek mythology and
art. This example is from around 550 B.C.
Greek art had already been influenced by Egyptian art, and the depiction of the Egpytian
winged goddess Isis may well have been of interest to Greek artists looking for motifs.
But what is even more likely is that what modern viewers and artists perceive as
“feminine” angels in many famous medieval European paintings were not intended by
the artists to be females at all. Particularly during the Medieval period, the overt
“sexuality” of much classic Greek and Roman art was almost totally repressed. Bodies
were totally covered, both male and female, in long robes. For instance, consider
this painting of the angel Gabriel (described clearly in the Bible as appearing as
a male figure) from about 1400:
Modern eyes see this as a woman with soft facial features in a pretty, colorful,
But artists of the time seldom painted overtly “chiseled,” square-jawed, masculine
features on the faces of men. So unless a male was bearded, and particularly if he
was represented as a young man, it wasn’t all that easy to sort out the vaguely uni-sex
heads in pictures by gender.
And as for that pretty “dress,” look at a painting of the coronation of Pope Boniface
IX, done during the same century. All of these are male figures, in typical religious
garb of the time. Bright colors and flowing garments were obviously not limited to
just the ladies of those days!
Even the more typical “white gown” of angels in some paintings is not intended at
all to look feminine, but reflects instead the typical garb of Roman Catholic priests.
Even to this day, the main piece of wardrobe of a Catholic priest is the white “alb,”
that is almost identical to the robe of the angel in this picture, high collar, wide
sleeves, belted waist, and all.
Although there has been one recent instance of a woman wearing the same outfit …
Outside their historical and cultural context, all of these features of paintings
can be very misleading. Even hairstyles which to us may look stereotypically feminine
because of length or curliness or the like may well have been just typical male hairstyles
of the time. The robes probably cause the most confusion, as they tend to totally
obscure any hints that we might pick up of male musculature in bodies. Here are some
Medieval paintings which, because of slight differences in costume, allow it to be
abundantly clear that these are depictions of “masculine” angels.
However, these are, in general, the exception rather than the rule in the most famous
classic paintings that have included angels. So by the 1800s, many artists who engaged
in creating “popular” pictures of angels had been brought up on seeing artwork which
may have seemed to them to feature many “female angels.” But even this is likely
not the primary cause of the shift to feminine angel representations.
Perhaps the most significant influence on the “feminization” of angels of the past
200 years or so is the severing of the topic of angels from a specific Biblical context.
Medieval and Renaissance angels show up in scenes from the Bible, or at least from
popular religious legends (such as the “Assumption of Mary”). They are depicted either
delivering important messages to significant personages from Bible stories, witnessing
important events (such as in nativity scenes in Bethlehem like the one below on the
right by Charles Poerson from the 1600s), or perhaps engaged in rapturous worship
around the throne of God. Even if the artist himself wasn’t a particularly “religious”
person, much if not most of the patronage of the arts at the time was from people
wanting Biblical art.
But the motif of angels has been appropriated by many modern artists and their patrons
who may well have no Biblical interests at all. In fact, their angels have been
removed from any particular connection to the God of the Bible, and are much more
akin to mythological creatures such as fairies and leprechauns … and perhaps even
pagan gods and goddesses. They may have a “spiritual aura” connected to them, which
makes them look otherworldly, but without any special link to a Heaven where God’s
throne is. They are viewed by many as being benevolent supernatural beings whose
primary interest is helping out people—not necessarily because they have been sent
by God to do so, but because it is just “their nature.”
And as this “new” kind of angel has taken shape in the past century or two, the emphasis
has shifted more and more to a sort of gentle, nurturing, “motherly” (or “big sisterly”)
role for angels—hence the trend toward almost entirely representing them as female.
Even younger versions, of adolescent and preadolescent angels, seem aimed almost
entirely at just the sentimentality of the “prettiness” of little girls and young
ladies with wings. (There is a small subset of angels who are viewed as being “supernatural
warriors,” and believed by some to do battle with malicious supernatural beings,
and these are still depicted as male.) The Internet is full of websites and online
shops specializing in angels—angel posters, figurines, artwork, collectibles—and
only a minority have any biblically religious emphasis at all. Most emphasize a very
“New Age” sort of pseudo-spirituality.
This trend started in the 1800s, as can be seen by angelic art works such as this
1899 painting by Thayer (the model was his young daughter) and the photographic card
Greeting Card 1911
Greeting Card circa 1900
And the trend continues to this day, removing angels farther and farther in the public
mind from the reality of the powerful heavenly messengers of the Bible, and essentially
implying that they are an army of Fairy Godmothers!