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 Angelsand Heavenly Halosfor 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, feminine dress.

 

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.

 

             15th Century

 

                                                                           12th Century

                                                                   

                        

 

                                                                 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                

              

 

 

                          

 

  12th Century                                                                             
 

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 below.

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For an overview of what real angels are really like, see Biblical Angelology: What the Bible has to say about angels.  

 

Feminine Angels?