Winter has suddenly descended upon us and snow is visible on the peaks of the Appenines. Temperatures have dropped to about 6C during the day and just above freezing at night. A good time to visit museums and galleries.
We went to the Palazzo Barberini a magnificent residence now housing a fine art collection. One of the paintings which amused me was one by Domenichino showing Mary Magdalene ascending into heaven surrounded by a host of chubby little angels sometimes referred to as putti (singular ‘putto’ meaning boy or child). These putti are always male, always chubby and usually winged. A few days later, at another exhibition, I came across a funerary urn made in the 1st cent BC which also featured putti. I was surprised as I thought that angels had originated with Christian iconography. Wrong! Its actually the other way around. Putti originally represented Aphrodite’s son Cupid, who mischievously shot arrows of love at unwitting mortals.
During the Renaissance, there was a revival of Greek and Roman art and putti came to represent cherubs who are angels. So if you see these winged babies in Christian art, they’re cherubs but if you see them in ancient Greek or Roman art, they’re putti. Rome’s Renaissance churches are filled with cherubs and I have to say that they really are cute with chubby, dimpled hands and knees.
In the course of reading about putti and cherubs, I found out that angels who are supposed to be spiritual beings closest to God, are not all equal. Who would have thought that there are nine hierarchies of angels each with a further set of orders? The highest order are the seraphim who fly above God’s throne and have six wings, two to cover their faces, two to cover their feet (more likely their genitals!) and two to fly with. Then there are the cherubim (not to be confused with cherubs), often with four wings who guard Gods throne and the gates of Eden. The orders below, too many to describe, include archangels, guardian angels and cherubs. So far, all these classes of angels are male so what about the female angels? I couldn’t find any specific mention of female angels among the orders of angels but felt that I had seen them in sculptures and paintings. Fully dressed, I should add so who knows? All I can say is that all the angels are beautiful and many are rather feminine looking but one can’t say for sure that they are female. What gender do you think this one is?