Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 7, 2016
Meredith J. Gill Angels and the Order of Heaven in Medieval and Renaissance Italy New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 372 pp.; 32 color ills.; 66 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (9781107027954)
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Meredith Gill’s Angels and the Order of Heaven in Medieval and Renaissance Italy sets ambitious goals. She states that “in studying angels we are . . . always studying the big questions, whether these may be about the nature of existence; about humankind’s relation to the supernal; about the identity of language, or the definitions of ‘place,’ ‘hierarchy,’ ‘metaphor,’ or ‘love.’ Studying angels . . . makes available to us the imaginations of artists as they grapple with the marvelous problem of representing the invisible” (14). As Gill explains in her introduction, in their theological essence angels were incorporeal and without gender, but in certain biblical stories, such as Abraham and the three angels (Genesis 18:1–22), or in the book of Tobit, angels take on human form and are mistaken for men. In other passages, such as the vision of Isaiah (6:1–3; also Ezekiel, 1:5–6; Revelation, 4:7–8, 14:6) or the description of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus, 25:20) angels, especially seraphim and cherubim, appear with wings. In art, the ubiquitous winged angels developed from textual sources, as well as from their function as instantaneous messengers between the heavens and the earth. The recognizable type also had its origins in alate, draped figures from antiquity, such as the Nike, or Winged Victory.

Gill’s book treats select topics in a roughly chronological fashion, with five chapters covering the Middle Ages to the later sixteenth century. She defines three aims that she intends to meet in the book: first, considering the character of Renaissance angelology as distinct from medieval theological traditions; second, tracing the iconography of angels “in text and in visual form with a view to making available a precise key to their representation, whether through wing color, attribute, or action” (2); and third, uncovering the philosophical underpinnings in definitions of angelic nature “as a way to understanding the fabric of Renaissance philosophy itself” (2). The book is most successful in addressing her first and third goals. Her discussions of theology and philosophy are dense, subtle, and detailed. As in her earlier book, Augustine in the Italian Renaissance: Art and Philosophy from Petrarch to Michelangelo (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), the writings of St. Augustine form a crucial and appropriate foundation for her examination of medieval religious thought, but she covers a wide range of later theologians, philosophers, and poets including Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, Matteo Palmieri, and Pico della Mirandola. While the book contains numerous illustrations, and connects certain doctrinal or philosophical arguments with the works of visual artists, there are shortfalls in meeting her second goal. The book is not a survey of angel iconography, but of theological ideas, especially concepts of heaven and the afterlife as reflected in metaphysical concepts of angels, and it can be seen primarily as a contribution to the field of angelology as a branch of theology.

In her first chapter, “Pure Act: Medieval Angelology and Dante’s Angels,” Gill traces ideas about angels to the beginnings of Christian exegesis; she focuses on the nine orders of the angelic hierarchy (from highest to lowest: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Powers, Virtues, Principalities, Archangels, Angels) articulated in the writings of the sixth-century Pseudo-Dionysius and developed further through the Middle Ages. Gill cogently defines differences in the metaphysical view of angels and the soul between Aquinas and Dante; the latter, unlike Aquinas, saw the soul as devoid of matter and subject to divine illumination, like an angel. She also discusses Dante’s emphasis on sight and light, and his comparison of human reason and angelic nature. She demonstrates some of these ideas about Dante’s metaphysics with later illustrations of the Divine Comedy, including Giovanni di Paolo’s manuscript for Alfonso of Aragon and Sandro Botticelli’s exquisite drawings for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici.

Her second chapter, “Wings: Celestial Visions in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance,” focuses on paintings that illustrate the angelic hierarchy, with works including Guariento di Arpo’s mid-fourteenth-century frescoes and panels in the Reggia of Padua, the funerary chapel of Cardinal Bessarion in SS. Apostoli in Rome from a century later, and Botticini’s Assumption of the Virgin (ca. 1475–77) made for Palmieri. Gill’s discussion of Palmieri’s somewhat heretical ideas about angels and the afterlife are skillfully explained and linked closely with the painting that he commissioned.

In the third chapter, “Bodies and Voices: Annunciation and Heavenly Harmonies,” Gill considers angelic communication as epitomized in a subject dear to Renaissance artists, the Annunciation. She also discusses examples of angelic musicians, including those so commonly seen in later medieval Coronation of the Virgin paintings. An extensive digression at the end of the chapter focuses on the philosophy of Pico della Mirandola, especially his debt to Kabbalistic sources about angels.

Her fourth chapter, “Contemplation: Angelic Witness and Empathy,” deals with certain aspects of Catholic reform in the sixteenth century, and includes a review of works by Rosso Fiorentino, Andrea del Sarto, and Raphael. She also focuses on the book of Tobit, with references to the often lively renderings of the young Tobias and the archangel Raphael, his traveling companion.

Her final chapter, “Clouds and the Fall: Rebellion, Salvation, and Reform,” addresses the further impact of the Counter-Reformation. She concentrates on the story of the Fall of the Rebel Angels, especially as it was depicted in two paintings by the Sienese artist Domenico Beccafumi.

While Gill’s deep knowledge of theological and philosophical sources allows her to go far in meeting her ambitious goals, such as explaining the role of angels in conceptions of heaven, her analyses of art, at least to this reader, are at times less convincing. Her initially stated aim to define a “precise key to . . . representation” is only rarely articulated in the book. A more troubling tendency is that despite several sensitive descriptions of paintings, Gill sometimes defines a development in theology that she uses as a rather rigid framework for viewing works of art, which are relegated to mere illustrations. Moreover, she seems little interested in the precise visual form or style in these works (aside from where an artist’s manner is perfectly consonant with its subject, as in Botticelli’s graceful Divine Comedy drawings), and this lack of attention to salient formal characteristics makes some of her conclusions unpersuasive. For example, in the beginning of her fourth chapter she presents the early sixteenth century as a period of skepticism in theology, and she suggests the art of the period corresponds by following a more naturalistic approach. Thus she states that “angels in the Cinquecento begin to assume bodies that are often more like those of their human companions, and their identifying angelic features can be less conspicuous” (151).

While this statement is undeniably true for an artist such as Michelangelo (although, oddly, Gill does not stress the more unusual aspects of his angels, especially their characterization as adult, nude, male, wingless figures in the Last Judgment [1535–41]), it is puzzling why she finds sixteenth-century angels to be demonstrably more worldly or corporeal than those in earlier centuries. Quattrocento and even trecento painting and sculpture provide countless examples of conventionalized angels who, aside from having wings, possessing youthful beauty, and wearing classicizing garb, are indistinguishable in their solidity or actions from human counterparts, and like angels in the sixteenth century sometimes function as little more than decorative elements. The lively, winsome angels of Filippo Lippi or Antonio Rossellino are hardly less engaging than those of Andrea del Sarto. However, in a work by Sarto, his Tobias Altarpiece of 1512, which Gill illustrates as representing “the naturalistic aesthetic tenets of the age” (170), the sublime idealization of all of the figures, including the angel Raphael, distinguishes them in appearance from the straightforward verisimilitude of many quattrocento precedents, and makes them seem less, not more, earthbound. Giorgio Vasari was perceptive in tracing the new “grace” of his third-style artists—grace in both its theological and physical meanings—to Leonardo’s idealized angel in Andrea del Verrocchio’s Baptism (1472–75). Gill recognizes the otherworldly beauty of this figure (9), but because she tends to downplay art-historical issues, such as stylistic developments, she sometimes presents a distorted view of art, and this detracts from the book’s real strengths.

A final observation is that the book begins with thirty-two color plates, each occupying a single page, but the illustrations themselves are often puny in size (partly due to the unusually wide outer margins in the book) and mediocre in quality; the muddy colors are especially detrimental to works by artists such as Fra Angelico. Many of the black-and-white illustrations in the text are even worse, and Botticelli’s Dante drawings are virtually illegible. Considering the price of the book, and the doubtless high fees the author paid to acquire first-rate commercial images, it is unfortunate that Cambridge University Press provided reproductions of substandard quality, which detract from the valid points that Gill makes.

Julia I. Miller
Professor, School of Art, California State University, Long Beach

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