There’s more to angels than you might think!
The word “angel” derives from the ancient Greek word ángelos which means messenger or envoy.
Angels are often depicted in human form with feathered wings and they feature in many of the world religions and can be seen as guiding spirits and intermediaries between Heaven and Earth.
In Christian theology, there is a hierarchy of angels from those that intercede and communicate with humans to those next to God. There are subtle differences in exactly how many different angels exist and their relative status, and this has changed over time and between denominations. The most common structure has nine types of angels (the nine choirs) divided into three main levels of importance. The painting from Greece below, possibly painted in the 18th century, shows the nine orders of angels with an illuminated triangle, a symbol of the Trinity, above.
(Image from Wiki Commons – Source=http://www.vvv.ru/forum_gallery/original_view.php?id=8570&tid=1)
The angels are ranked according to their perfection, innocence and piety. Whilst all angels are far more perfect and innocent than any human, those in the top layer nearest to God, the seraphim, cherubim, and thrones, burn with religious passion. The angels in the bottom tier nearest to humans are the principalities, archangels, and angels, and as the least perfect and innocent, they interact with humans as messengers and protectors. In the middle tier are the dominions, virtues, and powers: The dominions are like God’s civil servants, making sure that God’s commands are carried out, through the virtues, God keeps an eye on the seasons and visible heavens, and the powers fight and defeat evil spirits.
For people to relate to angels they are usually depicted in a human or human-like form, especially the angels on the lower tier such as the Archangel Gabriel who is seen in the Annunciation scenes bringing the news to Mary of her forthcoming pregnancy. The Boppard Annuciation panel from the Jesse Tree window shows a classic Angel Gabriel as seen in the detail below.
The Agony in the Garden panel shows another, unnamed, messenger angel. In both these depictions, the angels look like normal adult humans except for their splendid wings.
The Burrell Collection has some beautiful depictions of angels in little panels made by the EnglishNorwichSchool of stained glass who created most of their work between the mid-14th to the early 16th century. They had a characteristic style to their depictions of angels which is believed to stem from the way angels were portrayed in the Mystery Plays of the time, where actors would wear feather costumes. Mystery plays are among the earliest formally developed plays in medieval Europe. Medieval mystery plays were mainly based on stories from the Bible. They were at their most popular in the 15th century, and included a musical style called antiphonal song, which involved two or more choirs or singers taking alternating parts. The two little Norwich school angels, shown below, are on display in the Burrell Collection.