How many wings do they have?
Are they solid?
Do they eat?
Do they have free will?
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have debated these and other burning questions about the mysterious celestial beings known as angels.
As beings that mediate between heaven and earth, angels have been the focus of both fascination and fear for centuries.
They’ve been described as fireballs, forms without substance, a set of interlocking golden wheels, and beings that take up so much space that it would take a bird seven hundred years to fly across their bodies.
They’ve been shown collecting blood, sprouting out of the tails of heavenly steeds, and trumpeting the end of time.
But for many of us, the enduring image of an angel is a winged, benevolent baby or adult - possibly bathed in golden light, sporting a halo, and wielding a musical instrument.
So where did this archetype come from, and why did we get rid of all the scary (aka awesome) stuff?
In Abrahamic religions and/or cosmology, angels are heavenly creatures who act as messengers between heaven and earth.
As the mouthpieces of God, they act in accordance with His will – most of the time, but we’ll get to that later.
They also– tend to show up at spiritually significant events.
There’s little consensus on the appearance, substance, or character of angels across Abrahamic scripture.
In Jewish, Christian, and Islamic writings, angels take numerous forms and play many different roles: from acting as envoys and soldiers to providing transport and making the clouds move.
But one story that’s common to all three religions is the appearance of angels to the prophet Abraham.
First surfacing in ancient Hebrew texts, the story tells of three angels who visited the old man.
They told him to leave his home and found a new nation and spiritual community, thus laying the foundation for Abrahamic religions.
From this common story, angels appear throughout Abrahamic writings in a variety of roles.
Metatron, who appears in the Talmud and throughout Judaic traditions, is seen as the angelic scribe who keeps track of human deeds.
Other named angels like Michael and Gabriel appear throughout the Old Testament as messengers, while smaller angels called cherubim are said to guard the Garden of Eden.
In Islamic tradition, the angel Jibril reveals the word of Allah and inspiration for the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, a descendent of Abraham.
The Quran names several more angels like Munkar and Nakir, who question the dead about their deeds.
These are only a few of many angelic characters who rear their brilliant heads throughout Abrahamic cosmology.
But again, there’s little agreement on their appearance.
Some sources focus on their great size, describing their bodies stretching across the horizon, reaching from heaven to earth, or proportionate to one third of the globe.
Others describe them as having human aspects, being constructed from light – or having no physical body at all.
As awesome, possibly intangible beings who may or may not be seen with a naked human eye, angels posed quite the dilemma for artists.
Rather than attempting to represent abstract spiritual entities, artists came to use different symbols to denote an angel – some of which remain familiar today.
Pop culture might have you thinking that angels earn their wings through good deeds and other escapades– or in the case of the dogs in All Dogs Go To Heaven, because they are inherently all very good boys and girls.
But the image of a winged guardian predates Hollywood.
While Abraham’s visitors aren’t winged, there are numerous references to angels’ swift flight and vast wings throughout scripture – in the Quran, they appear with up to four pairs.
Scholars have linked the trope of the divine flying guardian to giant winged protector deities found in Mesopotamian art and architecture, or ancient defender goddesses like Isis of Egypt and Nike of Greece.
In art and architecture, wings were a useful way to distinguish divine beings from mortals.
They acted as a visual shorthand for swiftness, ethereality, and supernatural power.
In Islamic illustrations, angels often appear with multicolored wings and robes, and are thought to have been influenced by ancient East Asian symbolism.
From the first to the third centuries, angels in Christian and Jewish art were as likely to be bearded or balding men rather than flying beings.
But the popularity of winged angels in art truly began to take off with the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century.
Angels were typically coded male to distinguish them from ancient, winged goddesses, and can be seen across sarcophagi, mosaics, paintings, and sculptures.
Even more so than wings, a golden or burning discus was used to denote divinity since ancient times.
Images of sacred and royal figures crowned with a band of light are common across Persian, Buddhist and Hindu art, and sun deities like the Zoroastrian Mithra and Egyptian Ra were crowned with golden discs.
Centuries later, the Roman sun God Helios was often depicted with a band of gold around his head – along with the Roman Emperor, who held divine status.
This tradition continued with the conversion of the emperors to Christianity.
Over time, what became known as the halo – from the Greek halos, “disk of the sun or moon” – was used to represent the superhuman holiness of God, saints, and angels alone.
While Medieval angels sported fat, opulent halos, as realist art became more popular from the Renaissance on, halos began to shrink .
In addition to their feathery wings and shining heads, angels are often depicted with some sort of musical proclivity.
Early scripture doesn’t note their musical talent – but in later texts including the New Testament and the Quran, angels ring in Judgment Day with their trumpets.
The angel Gabriel might be the most famous trumpeter, often depicted alerting mortals of God’s return to earth.
Singing and making music was associated with praising God, leading to countless depictions of angels with harps, lyres, horns, and trumpets.
Some of the most famous examples include medieval musicians praising the mother and child.
Alongside these visual attempts, writers and philosophers were also clamoring to classify the nature of angels.
In his treatise on angels, the Egyptian polymath al-Suyūṭī argued that the angels were made of fire or light.
In contrast, the Persian physician Ibn Sīna viewed angels as intellectual forces without bodies.
Other thinkers created hierarchies of angels, separating flurries of celestial forms into specific groups and roles.
Angelic hierarchies and taxonomies were intended to nail down the purpose of these mind-bending beings – but also to discern the mysterious ways in which God works.
By assigning specific roles to heavenly beings, theologians were attempting to lend order to the cosmic universe.
A famous example is a fifth century text by the Christian monk Dionysus, who divided “Heavenly Beings” into nine ranks.
Subdivided into three groups of three, the angels were classified in terms of physical proximity to the Lord.
In the first hierarchy, we have the Cherubim, Seraphim, and the thrones orbiting around the lord.
Described as “many eyed and many winged”, these angels are in perpetual motion.
The Thrones are the most ambiguous.
They’ve been understood as guardians of the Lord’s throne, but also as burning rings that form the wheels of His chariot.
In the middle group of angels, we have Dominations, Powers, and Authorities.
They rarely appeared to humans, but were thought to take care of matters like miracles and fighting evil.
Finally, we have Principalities, Archangels, and – simply – angels.
They often have specific names and roles, like Michael as guardian of the Jewish people and Gabriel as an angel that enlightens chosen humans.
In the twelfth century, Medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides’ classified angels into ten groups, ranked in accordance with their understanding of God including man-like messengers, scribes, and angels of motion.
The appeal of a cosmic – if rather bureaucratic - order also infused culture throughout the Middle Ages, with many writers and artists attempting to map the spiritual world.
Written in the fourteenth century, Dante’s Divine Comedy is a trio of epic poems that lead the reader through the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.
His vision of angels reinforced Dionysus’ hierarchy for a popular audience and was another important cultural attempt to decode heavenly realms.
But there’s one class of angel that’s decidedly not celestial.
The time has come to talk about fallen angels.
Fallen angels are those who have been expelled from heaven due to sin or plotting against God.
Going all the way back to 200-100 BCE, the Jewish book of Enoch described a group of angels who descended to earth to mate with women and teach them divination.
Their offspring were giant cannibals who unleashed war and want among humankind.
Thus angels who stray from the status quo often breed further chaos on earth.
The Enoch story has been compared to Islamic accounts of Harut and Marut, two angels who taught humanity about witchcraft.
The Quran also tells the story of a high-ranking angel who was ejected from heaven when he refused to bow to Adam.
Banished to the underworld, Iblis retains an ability to influence humankind for the worse, whispering evil deeds to tempt us into sin.
The idea of a spiritual war between the forces of good and evil comes to one spectacular head in the Christian Book of Revelation, where evil angels were cast out of heaven alongside the most evil angel of all – a great black dragon, known as Satan.
Medieval artists were inspired by this particular fallen angel, often depicting him as a grotesquely inverted angel with scaley wings, curled toenails and horns.
Through the Renaissance, fallen angels signaled the dangers of succumbing to temptation and vice in Christian art.
But, to some, these were figures who questioned authority and embodied free will.
In his 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton portrays Lucifer as a freethinking angel who rages against an authoritarian God.
This idea of the fallen angel as a tragic antihero resonated with many artists of the Romantic period, who portrayed him as a (surprisingly hunky) victim of his own idealism.
In their many iterations, fallen angels straddle the fragile line between the profane and divine – and remind us that even the “purest” beings can be corrupted.
As dignified messengers, cheeky babies, and subterranean rebels, angels continue to blaze across our cultural imaginary.
The fluffy-winged guardian bathed in shining light is a hybrid of Abrahamic tropes.
But it’s also a vehicle for exploring the joys and sorrows of life.
In pop culture, angels often appear to humans at moments when we’re questioning the world – acting as advisors, sidekicks, or guardians in trying times.
As the mediators between known and unknown worlds, angels are powerful symbols of our search for meaning.
Since ancient times, they have appeared to clarify people’s purpose in the world.
But they’ve also been seen to question authority – reminding us that the search for meaning is never over.