Mobile phones were yet to become ‘smart’ in 2003 when the British artist Rose Finn-Kelcey was commissioned to make a work of art for the church of St Paul’s Bow Common, East London. But messaging had evolved enough to mean that there was a received abbreviation for many commonly used words in our lexicon, and the use of symbols and punctuation to create expressive icons (what were to become emojis) had established itself and spread quickly. One of these, which uses the image of a haloed angel’s face on its side 0:-) as if to say ‘You’re an angel’, became the central motif of the vast panel of shimmer discs with which Finn-Kelcey graced the exterior of this post-war church. It remained there for six months.
In the Bible, angels take many forms and inhabit many guises. When the angel appears for the first time before ‘the woman’, wife of Manoah and mother-to-be of Samson (Judges 13:3), with news that she will conceive, the woman has no doubt of the angel’s veracity, although she does remark afterwards that ‘he didn’t tell me his name’ (v.6). This compulsion to name and identify the angel is more strongly expressed by Manoah himself when the angel appears a second time (v.9), but the angel evades answering, giving the reassurance that it is a name that is ‘wonderful’ (v.18).
Finn-Kelcey’s Angel was a deliberate and contemporary manifestation of the ambiguity between sign (what is being shown) and identity (what—or who—is being communicated in the showing). As Manoah and his wife found themselves wondering about the full implications of their angel's message, so the audience to Finn-Kelcey's work were encouraged to speculate on the meaning of hers.
In doing so, she turned the secluded experience of the biblical couple into something very public. Her sideways digital characterization was a departure from traditional visualizations of angels, but suggested an openness to those beyond the Church. Enlarging its central motif to the scale of an advertising hoarding, it was widely visible. Using the para-linguistic code of texting, it was legible to many for whom the Church may perhaps have seemed anachronistic. And harnessing human beings’ magpie-like attraction to shiny materials it appealed beyond the boundaries of any one culture or belief.
Rather than conveying her message from within the privacy of one-to-one messaging Finn-Kelcey declared it at full visual volume to anyone who would listen.
13 And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years.
2 And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoʹah; and his wife was barren and had no children. 3And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son. 4Therefore beware, and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, 5for lo, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” 6Then the woman came and told her husband, “A man of God came to me, and his countenance was like the countenance of the angel of God, very terrible; I did not ask him whence he was, and he did not tell me his name; 7but he said to me, ‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son; so then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.’ ”
8 Then Manoʹah entreated the Lord, and said, “O, Lord, I pray thee, let the man of God whom thou didst send come again to us, and teach us what we are to do with the boy that will be born.” 9And God listened to the voice of Manoʹah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field; but Manoʹah her husband was not with her. 10And the woman ran in haste and told her husband, “Behold, the man who came to me the other day has appeared to me.” 11And Manoʹah arose and went after his wife, and came to the man and said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to this woman?” And he said, “I am.” 12And Manoʹah said, “Now when your words come true, what is to be the boy’s manner of life, and what is he to do?” 13And the angel of the Lord said to Manoʹah, “Of all that I said to the woman let her beware. 14She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine, neither let her drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing; all that I commanded her let her observe.”
15 Manoʹah said to the angel of the Lord, “Pray, let us detain you, and prepare a kid for you.” 16And the angel of the Lord said to Manoʹah, “If you detain me, I will not eat of your food; but if you make ready a burnt offering, then offer it to the Lord.” (For Manoʹah did not know that he was the angel of the Lord.) 17And Manoʹah said to the angel of the Lord, “What is your name, so that, when your words come true, we may honor you?” 18And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” 19So Manoʹah took the kid with the cereal offering, and offered it upon the rock to the Lord, to him who works wonders. 20And when the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar while Manoʹah and his wife looked on; and they fell on their faces to the ground.
21 The angel of the Lord appeared no more to Manoʹah and to his wife. Then Manoʹah knew that he was the angel of the Lord. 22And Manoʹah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” 23But his wife said to him, “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and a cereal offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these.” 24And the woman bore a son, and called his name Samson; and the boy grew, and the Lord blessed him. 25And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him in Maʹhaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshʹta-ol.