Harrison: Happenings: Angels didn’t always have wings

Looks, and roles, have changed through the ages, explains Observer columnist Ruth Altendorf

As long as we can remember, we were treated to stories and pictures of angels. These beings, looking much like us, are nevertheless quite different. Except for very rare cases they are good through and through and do not have an evil threat in their bodies. They devote their entire time to praise the heavens and they always look happy. But, are they real?

I asked Klaus, who is an infinite source of knowledge in our family and he sent me the manuscript of a lecture he recently gave to other seniors on this subject. At the same time, a friend passed on a collection of remarks children made on the same matter. I always like to know what children have to say. Still uninhibited by learned facts, they often grasp the truth with surprising clarity.

But, back to the angels!  One fact is clear — over time, their looks have changed thanks to our imaging. Not always, for instance, did they have wings, Klaus explained and, as the story goes, at one time they needed a sky-bridge to walk back and forth between heaven and earth. Even as recent as the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, we can find angels without wings on paintings such as the altar painting by Jan Van Eyck, dated 1432. But, though they were “wingless”, they made up for it by singing without pause.  Over time, however, they all grew wings. First the wings were feathered, later more solid — aero-dynamic, if you will.  Closer to our time, often the wings were part of the dress such as the European “Rauschgift Angels”.  And then a new generation of angels was added, “Putten Angels”, that were looking more like beautiful toddlers.

Nowadays, especially at Christmas time, we can find depictions of angels on almost everything, be it greeting cards, wrapping paper, serviettes or as decorations on Christmas trees and garlands. And, as with everything that’s overdone, less would be more.

Do I believe in angels? Yes, I do! But my angels look much more humble. In fact one of them, who has helped me a lot throughout my life, looks suspiciously like my grandmother and I do consider her my head guardian angel!  That brings me to what the children have to say. One, nine-year-old Ashley, could have said it for me “my angel is my grandma, who died last year. She got a big headstart on helping me while she was still on earth”.

And Olive, age nine, also said something I can relate to:  “Everybody got it all wrong. Angels do not wear halos anymore. I forget why, but scientists are working on it!”

Boys, ever so logical, wonder about the lack of boy angels.

“All angels are girls because they got to wear dresses and boys don’t go for it!”

Matthew is of the same opinion.  “It is not easy to become an angel” he explains. “First you have to go to  heaven, then there is the flight training to go through and then you have to agree to wear those angel clothes”.

And Gregory, age five, sustained from answering because, he said, “I only know two angels: Hark and Harold”.

Are we wiser now? I don’t think so. If we would be, our quest would be over and it is the quest that counts!

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