The word angel comes from the Latin for messenger, and angels are, in several religions, deemed to be the messengers of God.

Angels in the Bible

Different references to angels throughout the Bible suggest different kinds and ranks of angels, such as seraphs or cherubs. This resulted in medieval theologians outlining a hierarchy of such divine messengers, including not only cherubs or cherubim (the Hebrew plural) and seraphim, but also archangels, powers, principalities, dominions and thrones.

Appearances of angels on earth are recorded throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament. The writer of Genesis describes how, when Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, (see Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, 'Second Adam') God placed cherubim with a flaming sword to guard the entrance.

Angel Gabriel visits MaryIn the New Testament, perhaps the most well-known appearance of an angel is that of the Archangel Gabriel who announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to the Messiah. Angels also appeared in the skies above the town of Bethlehem to tell a group of shepherds that Christ had been born. When Jesus came back to life after his crucifixion (see Big ideas: Cross, crucifixion; Death and resurrection), John records how Mary Magdalene ‘saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been' (John 20:11-12), and the writer of the book of Revelation describes how he ‘heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand' (Revelation 5:11).

Accounts of angels

As well as biblical references to angels appearing to humans, there have been more recent accounts where people claim to have seen such ‘messengers of God'. During the First World War battle of Mons, so many British servicemen became convinced that they had been assisted by an army of angels that the story of ‘the Angel of Mons' has been well-known and discussed ever since.

Angels in art

In Christian art, angels are usually depicted as having wings, following biblical descriptions such as that found 1 Kings 8:7 where ‘the cherubim spread their wings over the place' or in Isaiah 6:2 of ‘seraphs, each with six wings'.

Angels in literature

Angels are generally held to be holy and virtuous, hence the term is used loosely to apply to anyone particularly good or kind, or having a good influence. In his novel Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy chooses the name of an angel, Gabriel, for his kind and helpful hero. On the other hand, in his play Measure for Measure, Shakespeare's use of the name Angelo is ironic, since Angelo is a character who likes to see himself as virtuous, but who is concealing evil aspects of his nature. Fallen angels, who are no longer holy or virtuous, are also known as devils (see Big ideas: Devils).

However, since angels are held to be spirits (that is, non-material beings), medieval theologians were faced with the problem of how humans could see a non-physical creature. Eventually a theory was put forward that angels must make themselves a body out of the nearest thing to the non-physical, i.e. from air. Hence in his famous poem Aire and Angels, the seventeenth century metaphysical poet John Donne uses this idea to write a cynical comment on women, whose love, he says, is like an angel's body of air, while men's love is like the real thing, the angel itself.

The popular idea of a 'guardian angel'

From the era of the Romantics onwards there has developed the widely held belief that everyone has an angel assigned to guard them. This concept is probably based on Jesus' comment in Matthew 18:10 regarding children, though it is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.

Related topics and other cultural references

Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, 'Second Adam'; Cross, crucifixion; Death and resurrection

Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd
Shakespeare's Measure for Measure
Donne Aire and Angels
Vickers' Miss Garnet's Angel

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