In today’s post we’ll examine the iconography of Gabriel, archangel and heavenly messenger, in the art of Chartres and Cologne Cathedrals in Europe (photos 1 & 2), and two museums and two churches in the United States. We’ll focus on the traditional attributes, or emblems, that identify Gabriel in scenes of the Annunciation, and then widen our field of vision to consider some less conventional representations of him that may point to a cross-cultural connection with the celestial messengers of ancient Greece.
Gabriel is known to many Christians as the angel who, in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, announces to Mary that she will bear a son whose name will be Jesus. The Bible also names Gabriel as the one who interprets two of Daniel’s dreams (Dan. 8:15, 9:21), and who informs elderly Zechariah, “Thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John” (Luke 1:13). Neither the Hebrew Bible nor Christian New Testament, however, identifies Gabriel as an archangel. He became known as one of four chief angels (along with Michael, Raphael, and Uriel or Phanuel) on the basis of passages in non-canonical writings like the Book of Enoch, written around 175 B.C.E. His name means “God is my strength” in Hebrew, and it might surprise some Christians to learn that the Quran also mentions Gabriel (or Jibril). It relates the story of his appearance to Mary in which the archangel declares, “I am only the messenger of your Lord to give you [news of] a pure boy.”
Gabriel and the Annunciation According to Maurice Hassett, who wrote an article about angels for the Catholic Encyclopedia, the oldest known image of Mary’s encounter with Gabriel appears in a second century fresco in the Cemetery (or Catacomb?) of St. Priscilla in Rome. He appears there without wings presumably to avoid any associations with Rome’s “idolatrous” winged gods. It was only after Constantine’s reign in the fourth century that angels began to wear wings in Christian art. By the time medieval artists adorned the great Gothic cathedrals with stained glass scenes depicting Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, certain artistic conventions were well established. All angels had wings. But Gabriel alone carries a scepter that helps identify him while reminding us that a divine ruler sent him forth to deliver messages to certain mortals. A lily, symbolizing Mary’s purity, is another of Gabriel’s attributes. In some cases, Gabriel also wears a sash or carries a scroll inscribed in Latin with his memorable salutation: “Hail, thou that art highly favored….”
Two 13th century stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral display two of Gabriel’s emblems. An Annunciation panel (photo 3) in the lower left corner of the large “Life of Christ” window (photo 4) above the cathedral’s main portal, seems to capture the exact moment that Gabriel appeared to Mary. He offers a benevolent greeting by extending two fingers on his right hand in blessing. Mary was evidently seated on the chair behind her when the angel entered the room. Her raised palm gives the sense that she stood up quickly in surprise. The lily is barely visible on the tip of Gabriel’s golden scepter.
Likewise, the Annunciation scene in a lancet at the opposite end of the cathedral (photo 5) shows Gabriel holding a scepter with a gold fleur-de-lis at its tip. The gestures in this image appear to move the dialog forward to the point at which Mary wonders, “How can I conceive when I have not known a man?” Gabriel raises his index finger to stress the words that follow: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee….” (Luke 1: 34-35). Significantly, a white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit appears directly above Mary’s head to indicate that the moment of conception is imminent.
Medieval sculptors also worked hard to incorporate Gabriel’s attributes into their Annunciation scenes. Working with alabaster, artists in Nottingham, England carved many altarpieces that contained detailed scenes from accounts of Christ’s Passion and the Life of Mary. The Walters Museum in Baltimore has a few surviving panels from an altarpiece that probably graced a medieval Mary chapel. The Annunciation panel (photo 6), dating to the late 1400’s, shows Gabriel and Mary standing on either side of a large potted lily. Mary turns to face Gabriel from a prie-dieu, or prayer kneeler. A long scroll that was originally painted with Gabriel’s salutation encircles the flower. Above and to the left, God the Father exhales a dove that glides toward Mary. This detail creates a clever visual pun in that spiritus means both breath and spirit in Latin.
Modern sculptors carried this medieval tradition into the 20th century. An excellent example of a relatively new sculpted altarpiece stands in the Mary Chapel at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Roland Wanamaker, son of John Wanamaker and heir to the Wanamaker Department Store fortune, commissioned the English firm of Barkentin & Krall to fashion an altarpiece made of silver in memory of his wife, Fernanda, after she died in 1900. The “Wanamaker Altar” contains twelve panels which illustrate events in Mary’s life (photo 7). Its Annunciation panel shows Gabriel presenting a stemmed lily to Mary as she turns from her prie-dieu to receive the gift in humility. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends on Mary (photo 8).
Modern stained glass artists as well have extended Gabriel’s enduring iconography into our own times. The early 20th century Annunciation window at Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a case in point (photos 9 & 10). In it, Gabriel holds a golden scepter tipped with a fleur-de-lis in his left hand. He raises his right hand in the same gesture we saw in the Life of Christ window at Chartres. A scroll dangles from his scepter with the words “Ave Maria” painted on it. A potted lily stands to the left of Mary’s prie-dieu as she turns from her prayer book to face the angel. A dove hovers overhead. Even though this window was designed by a German studio in a romantic style that has little in common with medieval France’s approach to art, it incorporates all the traditional attributes that we saw in the older stained glass and sculpture above. The connection between past and present is clear when seen in light of the symbols.
Ambiguous Angels When it comes to angels, scripture is sometimes short on key details. Take, for example, the disturbing story in the book of Genesis about Abraham as he prepared to sacrifice Isaac. After Abraham has built an altar for a burnt offering and bound Isaac’s hands and feet, an angel suddenly appears at the very moment that Abraham is drawing a knife to kill his son. Abraham hears a voice. It’s an angel. But who was that angel? Nowhere in the Book of Genesis do we learn the angel’s name.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, a tradition developed among rabbis that God sent Gabriel to intercede on Isaac’s behalf. It makes sense, since Gabriel has long been known as a messenger or herald. Sculptors at Chartres created an exquisite rendering of the drama on the Cathedral’s north porch (photos 11 & 12). Abraham with knife in hand (the blade is missing) holds young Isaac’s head. The boy’s hands and feet are bound with rope. They look up. There, above and to their right, an angel peeks his head out of the heavenly city and commands, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him….”
Gabriel and the Rainbow As you visit churches and art museums you might occasionally come across an angel whose wings are painted in the colors of the rainbow. Jan Van Eyck portrayed Gabriel with rainbow-colored wings in a renowned early 15th century painting of the Annunciation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (photo 13). What motivated Van Eyck to give Gabriel rainbow wings?
There are at least two possible explanations. First, he might have been making a reference to Iris, the goddess of the rainbow. She, along with Hermes (whom the Romans called Mercury) carried messages from the gods on Mt. Olympus to humans below. Iris is mentioned often in Homer’s Iliad, and it’s worth noting that the Spanish word for rainbow is arco iris, the “arc of Iris.”
But who knows if Van Eyck read the Iliad? It’s more likely that Gabriel’s rainbow wings were meant to spread a Christian message. In an article published in the March 1999 Art Bulletin, Dr. Carol Purtle wrote that many details in the painting “parallel elements of the narrative history of the Lord’s covenant promises to his people.” Through its allusion to the rainbow, Van Eyck’s Annunciation communicates the idea that God has made good on his promise to Noah by sending a Messiah (who is about to be conceived by the Holy Spirit descending on Mary) to redeem humankind. Gabriel’s wings recall the rainbow that appeared for Noah as a sign of God’s “everlasting covenant with every living creature that is upon the earth” (Genesis 9: 16).
The connection between the rainbow and covenant is also expressed at Chartres Cathedral. A window high above the apse, installed about a century before Van Eyck lived, displays a magnificent “angel of the covenant”(photo 14). The angel is a six-winged cherub whose feathers, collar, and halo cross the light spectrum in shades of purple, blue, green, yellow, reddish-orange, and red. In addition to these colors that symbolize the rainbow and its reminder of God’s promise to humanity, the artist conveys the idea that God’s promise never dies by placing purple peacock feathers on the cherub’s breast (note the “eyes” in the feathers). In olden times, people thought that peacock flesh does not decay, and so the elegant bird became a symbol of immortality.
But perhaps, as with many windows at Chartres, there is even more to this one than meets the eye. Bulfinch reports in his Mythology that the peacock is the Greek goddess Hera’s emblem. She was the wife of Zeus and patroness of mothers and marriage. Her personal messenger was none other than Iris. Did the artist intend to give a subtle nod to the gods of Greek antiquity? The question is open to debate because an abridged Latin translation of the Iliad called the Ilias Latina was, in the words of one source, “widely studied and read” in medieval schools. At that time, Chartres was home to one of the finest schools in Europe.
Since I first saw Chartres’ Angel of the Covenant in 2010, I’ve been looking for images that employ the rainbow as an attribute for Gabriel. I found one two years ago in a modern Annunciation panel in the “Life of Christ” window at Cologne Cathedral (photo 15). Gabriel’s robe is purple and his wings contain the rainbow’s other colors. What was the artist’s intent? Does Gabriel’s rainbow mean messenger, covenant, or both? As we close this post, I think it’s worth noting that the rainbow has signified “divine presence” and cosmic benevolence for eons. The ancient Greeks, Hebrews, Romans, and Celts all sensed it, and the rainbow’s symbolism continues to evolve. If you are aware of any other examples of Gabriel with a rainbow attribute, please let me know. My email address is below. Thank you!
Michael Klug, firstname.lastname@example.org, 10/25/14