A substantial number of people believe that butterflies are signs of guardian angels. I have my doubts. But moments after I successfully escaped a mugging on the New York City subway a few years ago, with body and wallet intact, a butterfly landed on my shoulder. So…who’s to say? Even if you aren’t visited by one of these silent creatures, you can still see plenty of angels all around you, and I don’t mean the tireless nurse tending to an ill hospital patient or a thoughtful neighbor shoveling the snow from your sidewalk. I mean the stained-glass, painted, and sculpted kinds, complete with robes and wings. These are my favorites.
#1 The Wounded Angel (Ateneum, Helsinki, Finland)
After exploring Helsinki’s Central Railway Station, one of the world’s top five train stations, I crossed the street and entered one of the city’s best art museums, the Ateneum, housed in a gorgeous building from 1887. Among the museum’s more than 4,300 paintings (the largest and oldest collection in Finland), I found The Wounded Angel. Finnish artist Hugo Simberg created this gripping work in 1903. More than a century later, in a vote conducted by the museum, it was named “Finland’s National Painting.” It was also Simberg’s favorite, and its highly unusual treatment of an angel made it mine, too. In this atrabilious painting, two boys walk through Eläintarha park in Helsinki, with Töölönlahti Bay in the background. They carry a stretcher, on which sits an injured, blindfolded angel with long blond hair. While the boy on the left stares straight ahead of himself, focused on his path, the boy on the right looks directly at the viewer. Is he glaring at you with hostility, or is he just saddened by the burden he is carrying? It’s ambiguous, as are so many facets of this work. A few are easier to decipher. At the time Simberg painted this, Eläintarha park was popular among the working classes, and that’s reflected in the boys’ funereal clothing. It also was the site of many charitable institutions, including the Blind Girls’ School and the Home for Cripples, where the boys must certainly be headed with their charge. But why is the angel injured (two smears of blood on her upper left wing) and bandaged to begin with? That’s open to interpretation, and one of the most cited ones is that it’s a symbolic depiction of Simberg’s own meningitis. The blindfold could be a sign of relief, as meningitis causes light sensitivity. It also causes abrasions to the upper lungs, which Simberg may have indicated in the slashes of blood on her wings, and lethargy and neck stiffness, alluded to by the angel’s posture. On her way to receive aid, the angel grips a fascicle of snowdrops, which are symbolic of healing and rebirth. That all makes sense, but I’d like to add a different interpretation: In 1903, nearly two years after Czar Nicholas II incorporated the Finnish army into the Russian imperial army and forced the Finns to serve in Russian units, he granted the governor-general dictatorial powers over the Finns, which enabled him to, at will, close hotels, bookstores, and any commercial and industrial establishments; forbid public and private gatherings; dissolve private associations and their branches; and forbid anyone he considered a threat to political order and public tranquility from residing in Finland. If the angel is seen as Finland, she’s been badly blinded and injured by Russia’s suffocating dictates and needs some medical attention. But we’ll never know for sure, as Simberg died in 1917 at the early age of 44 and had never offered a deconstruction of this painting (although he did express joy in a nearly giddy letter to his sister about this painting being selected by the Ateneum for its autumn exhibition in 1903). It remains an equivocal work open to your own interpretation.
#2 Murals (St. Joseph Co-Cathedral, Brooklyn, New York)
One of the most beautiful churches in Brooklyn, St. Joseph Co-Cathedral can hold up to 1,500 people inside its gorgeous confines. After two years of construction to the plans of a Brooklyn architect, it opened in 1912 in its full majesty to a largely Irish immigrant congregation. Today, visitors are awed by a recent and spectacular renovation and renewal of its columns and arches, stained-glass windows, medallions on the barrel-vaulted ceiling displaying the seven sacraments, and a new series of 22 Marian murals depicting the Virgin Mary in ways relatable to newer immigrants, such as Our Lady of China and the Queen of Nigeria — part of the co-cathedral’s more than 125 figurative and decorative murals. One of these murals is the spectacular series of 20 angels that curves its way around the apse wall behind the altar. Standing in arched recesses in groups of four against a gold background and underneath a symbol of Christianity — the Lamb of God, for instance, or the fishes and loaves, or the pelican feeding its young — each haloed angel is clad in a vibrant robe. A white banner concatenates them, with each angel allotted a single Latin word. Their wings stand at attention behind them, almost as tall as their figures. It’s a striking display, strategically placed at the focus of the church’s liturgical services.
#3 Green-Wood Cemetery (Brooklyn, New York)
My affinity for cemeteries began here, decades ago. One of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world, Green-Wood is famed for its history, natural beauty, long list of famous people from all fields who are buried here (including ASPCA founder Henry Bergh, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, printmakers Nathaniel Currier and James Ives, actor Frank Morgan [the Wizard of Oz], architect James Renwick Jr., stained-glass artists Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge, piano manufacturer Henry Engelhard Steinway, Martha and Alice Roosevelt [Teddy’s mother and wife, respectively], and blatantly corrupt New York Senator William “Boss” Tweed), and noteworthy funerary art, from elaborate mausoleums to superior sculptures. Throughout the cemetery’s 478 acres, dozens and dozens of angels appear in stone and bronze. These male and female figures stand in silent respect of those interned here. They hold crosses, books, chalices, wreath, or swords, or press their hands together in a noiseless orison. And they run a gamut of emotions. Some look upward, entreating a higher power to watch over the souls of the deceased in a hopeful promise of an everlasting life. Others stand or sit in quiet contemplation, wings open or folded. A few exhibit profound and heartbreaking grief, with their kneeling bodies thrown atop the grave, heads buried in their folded arms. And then there’s the positively creepy angel of death Azrael, associated with Judaism, Sikhism, and Islam, at the grave of former New York City Mayor Charles Adolph Schieren and his wife. The Schierens both died of pneumonia within a few hours of each other in 1915 and were buried in a double funeral. The bronze sculpture of Azrael, created by Solon Borglum (brother of Gutzon, famous for Mount Rushmore), covers the entire granite plinth marking the gravesite and has turned a verdigris green. His face is deeply hidden in the hooded cloak he wears, his arms outstretched and his fingertips touching large closed books, a symbol of the full lives of the Schierens. Although it looks like a cacodemon from a chilling Halloween nightmare, it’s actually a source of comfort: Azrael is believed to be a benevolent angel who escorts the souls of the deceased to the afterlife to receive their just deserts.
#4 Angel With a Hammer and Nails (National Museum, Wrocław, Poland)
A wonderful gabled building across from a lovely park on the bank of the Oder River houses one of Poland’s greatest art collections in the National Museum. Spanning the centuries from the 12th to the 20th, these works of art range from paintings to furniture. The museum’s permanent exhibitions of Silesian art rely heavily on religious themes, and it was here that I found a devastatingly sad angel. The Polyptych of the Virgin With St. Peter and St. Paul, a painted altarpiece from 1473 with multiple panels, presents a crucifixion scene, specifically the Deposition of Christ, where the dead Jesus is being removed from his cross. The three titular characters are present, along with Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and others, including a man atop a ladder and a young boy tugging out the nail in Christ’s bloodied feet with pliers. Off to the side, an angel with red wings captured my attention. With flowing curly, golden locks and wearing a white robe, this epicene angel holds a hammer and three long spikes — one for Christ’s feet, the other two for His hands. The unfolding action militates against the angel’s countenance. A furrowed brow, downturned mouth, and lachrymose eyes about to unleash a torrent of tears exemplify restrained grief. Kudos to the unknown artist who perfectly captured such angelic sorrow.
#5 Angel of Sorrow (Albany Rural Cemetery, Menands, New York)
In the village of Menands, just north of Albany, David Bates Douglass struck gold for the second time with the design of this impressive cemetery. The first was Green-Wood Cemetery farther downstate, in Brooklyn — one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. He repeated his theme of a rural cemetery here, with water features, winding paths, hilly terrain, plenty of trees, and a host of fantastic funerary art. Since its first burial in 1845, Albany Rural Cemetery has been the final resting place of local and not-so-local notable families. Among the 135,000 people buried here, you’ll find the graves of a Constitution signer, the founder of the New York Central Railroad, two Secretaries of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law, President Martin Van Buren’s son, architect Marcus T. Reynolds (who designed gorgeous buildings in Albany as well as mausoleums in this cemetery), and more than 1,000 Civil War casualties. The most famous, of course, is Chester A. Arthur, 21st president of the United States, who died in 1886. And it’s only natural that his grave reflect his importance. Look for the abundance of American flags that will draw your attention to the site, marked most prominently by the Angel of Sorrow. (If you happen to be visiting Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, you’ll find a nearly identical angel standing beside the sarcophagus of Sidney Rowland Francis, one of the most successful traders of grain and produce in St. Louis, who died at the young age of 36). The bronze angel, oxidized to a verdigris green, stands next to the Arthurs’ sarcophagus. With enormous wings, she wears a sleeveless, high-waisted, off-the-shoulder chiton favored by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Her facial expression seems neutral, not overly distraught, and she gently places a palm leaf on the top of the sarcophagus in silent recognition of the Arthurs’ life and, perhaps, the promise that she will be their guide in the afterlife.
- Façade of Bath Abbey (Bath, England)
- Stained-glass windows, St. Joseph Cathedral (Buffalo, New York)
- Mausoleums, Recoleta Cemetery (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
- Façade of Blessed Trinity Church (Buffalo, New York)
- St. Angelo Bridge (Rome, Italy)
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