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TASTE OF THE PAST > Angels fly on high multicolored wings

NIKI GAMM ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News

Angels got their wings only slowly in monotheistic religious art. While depictions of the heavenly creatures were more ornate in Christian iconography than in Islamic miniatures, depictions of angels by Muslims never failed to include spectacular, technicolor wings

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Among Muslims, the belief in angels in one of the six traditional articles of faith. Angels are often mentioned in the Quran and in the hadith (traditions of the Prophet) but scholars rarely discuss them since Allah created them and they have to do whatever he commands.

Among Muslims, the belief in angels in one of the six traditional articles of faith. Angels are often mentioned in the Quran and in the hadith (traditions of the Prophet) but scholars rarely discuss them since Allah created them and they have to do whatever he commands.

The Night of Power (Kadir Gecesi in Turkish, Laylat al-Qadr in Arabic) is the most important night of the year in the Muslim calendar. Although there is some debate as to which night it is exactly, the Turks have settled on the 27th day of Ramadan, which this year falls on Tuesday, Aug. 14.

The night’s importance stems from two sources: it is the night that the angel Michael began reciting the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad and it is the night that Allah sent angels down to earth to determine the destiny of every living soul. What is rather extraordinary when one looks at the miniatures that depict these events and others in which the angels of Islam occur is their technicolor wings.

Among Muslims, the belief in angels in one of the six traditional articles of faith. Angels are often mentioned in the Quran and in the hadith (traditions of the Prophet) but scholars rarely discuss them since Allah created them and they have to do whatever he commands. There is nothing controversial about them. They first appear in Chapter 2 of the Quran (al-Bakara) where Allah tells the angels that he is going to place a ruler on earth, that is, Adam, the first human. Later in the chapter, he stresses that the angels were to be submissive to man who possesses superior knowledge. The root meaning of the Arabic word for angel, mala’ikh, comes from either controlling or sending. So angels control the forces of nature in the physical sense or act as intermediaries between Allah and man in the spiritual sense. They are frequently described as messengers.

Angels in Judaism and Christianity

Angels exist in the three other monotheistic religions – Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity. While they serve to praise God, they also act as intermediaries between God and man and are there to ensure what man does is good. The reward for being good can occur in a man’s lifetime or be salvation in the next. So angels intervene in human affairs in carrying out God’s will.

In Judaism and Christianity, spiritual beings are divided into two: those who are with God (angels) and those who aren’t (devils) but in Islam, spiritual beings are divided into three – angels, demons and djinns. The demons, of course, are bad while the latter, created out of fire, may be good or harmful. They can be visible if they wish or take on a human or animal shape.

The Angel Gabriel (Jibra’il) appeared to the Prophet when Muhammad had gone to pray in a cave on Mt. Hira near Mecca, and he brought the first of the revelations that would eventually form the Quran. On this first occasion, he appeared as an angel to the Prophet and he did so on one other occasion. When the Prophet later described him, he said the angel filled the entire sky from east to west with his head touching the heavens and his feet resting on the ground. The colors of his wings are described as “of a blinding brightness.” Gabriel also accompanied the Prophet when he ascended to heaven on Buraq, the mythical, winged horse.

If angels were spiritual beings, then how could an artist depict them? In the beginning, there was disagreement because some thought they actually had physical bodies while others thought they only appeared to have physical form. Yet others thought of them as entirely spiritual beings that could become material if they so chose.

Representing spirits

The idea of representing spirits as winged figures dates back several thousand years. The ancient Egyptians portrayed the sun god Horus as a winged disk. Although Islam contains elements of Judaism, the latter does not emphasize the existence of angels; there are, however, references to them in the Old Testament. Angels are mentioned much more frequently in Christianity. In fact, the word angel comes from a Greek word meaning messenger. In ancient Greek art, the god Hermes who served as the messenger of the gods was depicted with wings on his hat or in his hair and wings on his shoes.

There is also the Winged Nike of Samothrace who symbolized victory in the ancient Greek world. Although Greek statuary was painted, representations on pottery were almost always black on red or vice versa with white – no polychrome there.

 At first, artists struggled with the problem of how to represent angels. Written descriptions were not very helpful as some referred more to the effect their presence created than their actual appearance. Depictions tended to be vague or bizarre or did not draw a clear distinction between angels and human beings.

Christian artists tried various approaches before arriving at the image of a young male figure and only later did they add two feathery wings to the figure. The wings suggested that angels were spiritual beings elevated above humans and associated with heaven. Besides wings, angels were sometimes shown with halos, long hair and flowing white robes.

Over time, artists came to depict the different orders of angels in distinct ways and in particular in the Greek Orthodox Church, they were shown as young men but without wings. One of the earlier Church fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, opined that the young men “denote the perpetual bloom and vigor of life.” In fact, they are never described as having wings during the earliest depictions of angels in the first centuries of Christianity.

That came later. No women were portrayed as angels; that also came later and never in Islam. The wings of the angel symbolized swiftness and made it clear that the angel had nothing to do with the earth. The wings also indicated the relationship the angels had with other beings that belonged in heaven. It is possible that the coloring of the wings was also an attempt at identifying what rank a particular angel held within the heavenly hierarchy although it is more likely the number of wings showed an angel’s rank.

Art of icon writing

The art of icon writing stems from the earliest days of Christianity and seems to have originated in Lebanon and Syria so one could assume, probably correctly, that Arab miniature painters and later Persian and Turkish miniaturists had seen the icons in the Greek Orthodox (Byzantine) churches and other Christian churches in the Middle East. What we see in Islamic miniature paintings are young, beardless, expressionless men who look practically identical. One has to presume that this is the result of the prohibition against portraying human figures unless they are smaller in size and two-dimensional. Many of the miniatures we have today that depict angels are connected with the Prophet Muhammad and occasionally with one of the earlier prophets who appear in the Quran such as Ibrahim (Abraham) and a special person like Miriam (Mary, the mother of Christ). In all cases, the angels have technicolor wings and that was probably left up entirely to the imaginations of the artists.

August/11/2012

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