Monday, September 29, 2014

Meredith J. Gill's "Angels and the Order of Heaven in Medieval and Renaissance Italy"

Meredith J. Gill is Professor of Italian Renaissance Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Augustine in the Italian Renaissance: Art and Philosophy from Petrarch to Michelangelo (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and co-editor, with Karla Pollmann, of Augustine Beyond the Book: Intermediality, Transmediality and Reception. Among her other publications are articles in Renaissance Quarterly, Storia dell'Arte, and Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, and essays in Rethinking the High Renaissance: The Culture of the Visual Arts in Early Sixteenth-Century Rome; The Possessions of a Cardinal: Politics, Piety, and Art, 1450–1700; The Renaissance World; and Rome (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Gill applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Angels and the Order of Heaven in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, and reported the following:
Why is it that angels, as the most insubstantial of beings, are worthy of our attention? My answer has something to do with the fact that they hide in plain sight. Persons of faith share their world with the spirits, and they furnish that world with myriad images of them: on vaults and walls, in paintings, books, sculptures, and on stage; in colorful, light-filled compositions of miraculous visitations, shimmering hierarchies, and even musical ensembles. Angels can be earthly companions or fearsome, celestial agents of retribution. In thinking about angels, however, we are also thinking about the big questions: about the nature of existence, and the constituents of language; about the character of the senses, of metaphors, and of love. How, ultimately, do we represent this supernal and invisible reality? I’m fascinated by the imaginative answers of writers, artists, and patrons in medieval and Renaissance Italy.

Page 99 holds just a few lines at the end of a chapter, so I tried the test with page 199.

On page 199, I discuss Raphael’s famous fresco in the Vatican of the Disputa (Theology), by way of thinking about how this artist re-invented angels. Angelology had been taught as part of the curriculum of the medieval university. Students at the University of Paris might have debated, for example, whether angels were nothing but a condensation of air, as Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor,” had taught. The existence of angels remains an article of the Catholic faith today. Through the early sixteenth century, when Raphael was in the employ of the pope, theologians and artists continued to be drawn to early Christian teachings about the nine orders of angels, beginning with the two highest orders: the Seraphim (often red) and the Cherubim (often blue). In my book, I trace the iconography of the nine orders -- their colors, symbols, and attributes -- as well as its transformations. Raphael follows these traditions more in the spirit than the letter, for his angels above all engage the very stuff of his materials, his plaster and paint, seeming to emit light just as they are a part of it:
In the Disputa, at the lowest level of the celestial superstructure, the heads and wings of cherubs, who are related here to the elevated Cherubim, are embedded in the ledge of cloud, behind four, full-bodied putti who hold the books of the Gospels. Above these, at the level of the feet and heads of Christ, the Virgin, and St. John, are their cloud-formed brothers, and these include gold-cloud putti behind God the Father. Raphael is only one among many artists to intermingle his angelic types, bringing about a juxtaposition of the putto, as a classical or classical-style cousin of the angel, with a diverse range of angels. While we see the head and wings of the Cherubim and Seraphim fixed in their mandorla, we also see similar cherubic heads and wings within the architecture of the lowest cloud, as well as winged and full-bodied putti or spiritelli performing other actions. These are the bearers of the Gospels, and they also populate the two banks of the upper clouds. Above the lower, blue-grey bank, at the highest reaches of the fresco, the golden putti appear in front of gold stippling that resembles myriad falling stars. These putti form behind ray-like lines, ranked around the incised plaster. All of this gives an impression of depth and height beyond the picture surface.
Learn more about Angels and the Order of Heaven in Medieval and Renaissance Italy at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue