Gregory’s template for an angel – a Pre-Raphaelite, pale, youthful, heavenly emissary – may fit with our own, but throughout history, angels have constantly shifted in appearance, purpose and place in creation. One thing that Peter Stanford’s admirably wide-ranging study makes clear is their tendency to pop up in the unlikeliest places, from the battlefields of 14th-century France to the fireplace at Cliveden, where one appeared to Bronwen Astor while her husband was out shooting: “tiny… going up and down as if on a ladder… in brilliant colours… and smiling”... Stanford deserves praise for some wonderful art historical writing, ascribing, quite rightly, a theological authority to artists that writers can only dream of: the anguished faces of Giotto’s cherubs in the Scrovegni Chapel Lamentation move us in a way no treatise on the hierarchies of heaven ever could.
Stanford’s account is riveting, but inevitably when one is seeking to cram several millennia’s worth of religion, art history, folklore and pop culture into 300 pages, there are errors. I was a little surprised to hear that the Church of England banned the Book of Tobit; I spent the last chunk of November reading from it at morning prayer. I was more surprised to learn that Oliver Cromwell died in 1568, a full 31 years before he was born. These are minor errors. Stanford’s sweep — taking in history, art and theology — is impressive, as well as readable.
Angels are a tricky subject to tackle, being so nebulous and fleetingly glimpsed. I take my hat off to Stanford for having a go. The book has changed my life, as I now think about angels all the time and keep spotting them in paintings, on book jackets and in the verses of hymns. I’ve never read a book with so many winged figures, sudden encounters between humans and strange visions, angel-adorned gates, haloes, gowns, bare feet and moments on mountains when someone sees something dazzling in a dream. If you concentrate, you’ll be taken on a thrilling journey through theological discussion, with a generous helping of art history thrown in... Stanford is a brilliant art-history teacher, and I now long to go to Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome to see the earliest depictions of angels in its mosaics, and to the Uffizi to see Leonardo’s angels that ‘show his obsession with how to build a flying machine’.