Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

The Making of Angels in Late Antiquity: Theology and Aesthetics

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ALATA (The Making of Angels in Late Antiquity: Theology and Aesthetics)

Periodo di rendicontazione: 2018-09-01 al 2020-08-31

I. Angels as key to Late Antiquity
A new way to look at religion is to focus on the origin of angels in the ancient Mediterranean. The concept of intermediary beings, which act as a link between mankind and the divine level, is common to most cultures, past and present. Our primary objective is to provide a comprehensive view of angels in Late Antiquity in order to detect, analyse and interpret the making of Christian angels, as an insight into the change of civilization which took place during that period. We study specifically the Eastern regions of the Roman Empire, i.e. Ancient Egypt, Ancient Palestine, and Ancient Syria, during the Byzantine era (fifth-sixth centuries). Greek, Coptic and Syriac are the main languages with which we are working.

II. Social and cultural dynamics
The world of Late Antiquity looks strikingly similar to ours. A global structure regulates an infinity of internal interactions, due to the extraordinary variety of its societies. The metaphor of a mosaic of people, languages, and ideas suitably applies. We confront and contrast the different angelologies of that time in order to show that angels are a red thread to assess contacts and reciprocal influences. We investigate the relation between an intellectual type of reflection on angels (philosophy and theology) with the way religious practices are at work among the various populations. Our study’s goal is to uncover and explain the mechanisms that play a part in the making of the notion of angels.

III. The image issue
Angels stand at the core of the problematic regarding the essence of divine images and their very existence. In the Old Testament, one of the Commandments forbids any type of representation (Ex 20:4-5; Deut 5:8-9). The only exception concerns the two Cherubim who were figured on the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:18-20). Therefore, we explore how the invisible idea of angels is visually transcribed in terms of image, in the period which precedes the Byzantine quarrel of Iconoclasm. The issue of representing angels helps thinking the entire question of aesthetics in Late Antiquity, a fascinating process of exchange, conflict and ultimately (re)appropriation by the period of its own identity.

The project demonstrated that angels are much more than just pretty, floating figures dressed in white, with wings. It provided the necessary source material (ancient texts and images) and the relevant methodological frame to reach innovative, important research results in the fields of history, philosophy, theology, religion, and arts. A broader reflection in terms of impact on society accompanied the scientific development of the action.
Research data
We investigated systematically both domains of Literature and Fine Arts of the period considered and followed an interdisciplinary method combined with crossed viewpoints. Textual, archaeological, and iconographical documents were selected according to their high degree of relevance. This initial step produced the ground data necessary to develop the project further. According to the Data Management Plan, the sets of data deriving from this preliminary phase of the research comply with the FAIR principles of open scientific area.

Based on the initial data collecting and organizing process, several lines of research were defined and conducted in order to tackle the main issues previously identified. i) Transformation – We demonstrated how the legacy of Pagan angels inherited from classical times merged with various religions and schools of thought throughout the Roman Empire (angels of Judaism, Gnosticism, Manicheism, Neo-Platonism etc.) to build the definitions, functions and images of Christian angels which will in turn pass onto Byzantium, and further. ii) Aesthetics – Images of Christian angels oscillate between various possibilities, from animal symbols to what became the most common, anthropomorphic type. We linked the choice of a human appearance to represent angels with the fundamental theological debate about the Incarnation, in particular in the ecumenical councils of the fifth century. iii) Gender – We investigated gender-related questions. Angels do not have a sex, but they are gendered. Christian angels, like God, were masculine, although not virile. Let us not forget that eunuchs – the third gender – were also a regular component of Late Antique society.

Exploitation and dissemination
I. Targeting an academic audience. A. Organisation of events. i) ALATA Project workshop. ii) ALATA Project international conference. B. Publications. i) single-author of a scholarly book on the aesthetics of angels in Late Antiquity. ii) single-author of 6 scientific articles or parts of a book. iii) scientific editor of a volume of proceedings from the ALATA conference. iv) 3 posters in international conferences. C. Communications. i) 5 scientific talks in international conferences. ii) 3 presentations of the ALATA Project. iii) 3 participations in research seminars as invited speaker. II. Targeting a broader audience. i) an essay in the field of gender studies. ii) 2 articles publicising the ALATA project on a large-scale diffusion. iii) a YouTube channel dedicated to the project.
Beyond the state of the art
The ALATA project gave coherence to many lines of research which were so far scattered into separate, specialized views. This unified, empowered perspective resulted from the choice to focus on the making of the notion. By combining intrinsically a theological with an artistic approach, we pushed forward a new domain of research on the aesthetics of Late Antiquity. Overall, this action helped to build bridges between different cultures and religions by underlining a feature they had in common: angels.

Societal implications
i) Relevant concepts – This project elaborates on notions fully relevant to our society. For instance, the word ‘hierarchy’ which everybody uses without questioning its provenience, was coined by a sixth century author who called himself Dionysius the Areopagite, theologian of the Orthodox Church, to refer to the organisation of the celestial host in various, hierarchically arranged levels. ii) Covid-related issues – As the European countries, like the rest of the world, are fighting against the pandemic of Covid-19, various lockdowns have been set up, in different places and times. Restriction of social contacts going to the extent of the most extreme isolation are echoing the way of life that Late antique hermits, anchorites, and monks living in communities cut off from the rest of society chose to embrace. One can reflect on the fact that their ideal was indeed to live ‘the life of angels’, that is to say detached from all contingencies or concerns of this world. iii) A necessary Contextualization – One last example, to try and think of the relation between Europe and the Middle East in an alternative way. In the sixth century, a poet called John of Gaza performed in Greek a rhetorical description of a work of art exposed to the public. The subject was the world, depicted through personifications. Seven angels were also represented. To think that Gaza was once a Byzantine city makes us aware of the historic depth and of the necessity to transmit the respect of culture to the next generations.
Logo of the ALATA project
Ravenna, S. Vitale (picture by D. Lauritzen)