The Epistle to the Hebrews famously reminds its readers that some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2; cf. Genesis 18:1–8). Angels in the biblical tradition, like the gods of Greece and Rome, frequently appear on earth in human form. Yet not all angels assume such a disguise. The rich panoply of angels in John’s apocalyptic vision make no attempt to hide their heavenly origin. They fly (e.g. Revelation 14:6); they minister in the heavenly sanctuary (e.g. 8:3–5); they descend, like the mighty angel John describes in this passage (10:1). Nonetheless, the artist still faces a challenge when depicting them visually. What do angels look like? How does the heavenly realm manifest itself to the terrestrial, in the chaotic, topsy-turvy, apocalyptic world unveiled in Revelation? In particular, how can the kaleidoscope of details attributed to this particular angel be effectively portrayed?
In the tradition of Anglo-Norman illuminated apocalypses, the Cloisters Apocalypse chooses artistic convention over slavishly-literal depiction of the biblical text. His Christ-like features notwithstanding, this angel is typically Gothic. He is youthful, a nod in the direction of angelic immortality, and has androgynous features. He has prominent, colourful wings, their size not only proportionate to his body, but hinting at the speed of his flight from heaven. Rather than him being ‘wrapped in a cloud’, the latter functions as a backdrop, marking the boundary between earth and heaven. There is just a mere hint of the ‘legs like pillars of fire’ in the fiery-red feet visible below the angel’s tunic.
But perhaps most striking is the direction of the angel’s gaze. He looks, not at John, but out from the page at the viewer. His divine message—that there should be ‘no more delay’, that the end is already breaking into the present—is addressed to the wealthy, probably aristocratic owner of the manuscript. With John as surrogate, the viewer is to enter, page-by-page, into this visual world where humans and angels interact, and be transformed as a consequence.
The angel of the wood engraving also gazes out at the viewer, but with an expression which is more terrifying than serene. Angels are not to be trifled with. His raised right hand, fingers apart, suggests less oath-taking than a posture of warning. Moreover, his superiority over humans is evident in his immense height, dwarfing even the rocky outcrop on Patmos in the foreground. This mighty angel, like the Christ he represents, is truly awesome. Yet he is also less substantial than the robust, colourful angel of Cloisters. He emerges out of the clouds, the light emanating from his head indistinguishable from the sun’s rays bursting through rain clouds, promising the appearance of a rainbow. This engraving presents a much more modern take on the problem of divine communication: what does one really see? An angel, or a rather dramatic cloud formation?
Hans Feibusch, standing in the tradition of Albrecht Dürer (1498) and Jean Duvet (1555), treats this character differently from his other heavenly beings, whom he portrays as more conventionally angelic, albeit wingless. For Feibusch, the composite character of this figure dominates. Yet his is much more successful than the stilted, overly-literal image produced by Dürer. The angel is on the move, as energetic as the flames of fire which form his legs, or the billowing clouds covering his torso. The whole image is suffused in the light emanating from his sun-like face. Moreover, in sharp contrast to the stern angel in the Victorian engraving, the face of Feibusch’s angel exudes an almost maternal tenderness. The youthful John is a child who needs to be nurtured as he prepares for his prophetic future.
Inviting in Cloisters; terrifying in the nineteenth-century engraving; maternal in Feibusch: this mighty angel has many faces. But, alone of the three, the Cloisters Apocalypse makes a further point about angelic communication. The mighty angel is not the only heavenly messenger visible in the image. To the left, an angel interrupts John’s writing down the message of the seven thunders. In the top right corner, another angel appears, holding a scroll containing the Latin words Vade accipe li[brum] (‘Go, take the book’). Yet in both cases in the biblical text, John sees nothing (10:4, 8). He merely hears a voice from heaven, conveying the divine message. These two lesser angels in Cloisters remind us that heaven often communicates in less overt and dramatic ways. Hearing as well as seeing. Listening to that still, small voice. And, in listening, perhaps entertaining angels unawares.
Boxall, Ian. 2015. ‘The Mighty Angel with the Little Scroll: British Perspectives on the Reception History of Revelation 10’, in The Book of Revelation: Currents in British Research on the Apocalypse, ed. by Garrick V. Allen et al (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck), pp. 245–63
Coke, David (ed.). 1995. Hans Feibusch: The Heat of Vision (London: Lund Humphries)
Deuchler, Florens et al. 1971. The Cloisters Apocalypse: An Early Fourteenth-Century Manuscript in Facsimile, 2 vols (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Feibusch, Hans. 1946. Mural Painting (London: Adam and Charles Black)
O’Hear, Natasha F.H. 2001. Contrasting Images of the Book of Revelation in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
10 Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. 2He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, 3and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring; when he called out, the seven thunders sounded. 4And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” 5And the angel whom I saw standing on sea and land lifted up his right hand to heaven 6and swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there should be no more delay, 7but that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God, as he announced to his servants the prophets, should be fulfilled.
8 Then the voice which I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll which is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” 9So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” 10And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. 11And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and tongues and kings.”