Why do angels have wings? In early Christian times god’s messengers walked as men. But after the sweeping conversions of the pagan world Christian artists found inspiration in the flying deities of ancient faiths. After we emerged from the cave, we looked up to the sky. Ever since then we have been trying to reach it.
Of course, the transition meant that God’s voice was no loner a growl- god growls?- in the jungle but the roar in the sky. God moved no longer in the galloping pack leading the herd and in the terrible prowler, but in the thunderheads which held the furious lightning and in the mountains which jetted flame and shook the earth. God’s messengers, god’s companions, god himself now dwelt in the heavens, and when they visited mankind, they flew down from great heights and soared back again.
The jews cling to the idea that god cannot be seen even if Harold Bloom and the gnostic tradition claims a mutual antagonism between the individual and Yahweh with occasional exchange of insults; he is a spirit, indescribable and unnamable,though his trademark voice was often heard. God’s messengers are not winged either, more like distinguished foreign guests, although Jacob had a rough tussle with the wrestler of god whom Jacob said was god himself, though that fish story was later truncated to be interpreted as a scuffle with an angel, a tenacious fighter who appeared to Jacob simply as a man.
In the New Testament, Gabriel foretells to the Jewish priest Zacharias the birth of his son John the Baptist, and to Mary the birth of her son Jesus. But, the words of the scripture are clear: god’s emissaries speak the language of humans and utter a plain, powerful message. They have the shape natural for human beings, or else they are left undescribed.
How is it then that whenever we hear the word angel, we see a being with large wings? An androgynous graceful shape, kindly gaze and general depiction as a gentle visitor, like a maid of honor sent to pay homage to a princess. This is because Christian art is a blend of jewish mysticism and Greek imagery. The Greeks could not think of the divine as formless like Rabbi Akiba’s normative Judaism with no resemblance to humanity, preferring instead a depiction of perfection with superhuman powers transported by swift and graceful flight. This is why Christian artists gave their angels the Wings of Victory and Eros and The Genius. But this did not happen all at once. Before the change was made, there was a long period of doubt and resistance. When the change did come, it was part of the great conversion of the pagan world.
It was from the Assyrians that the Greeks learned how to portray a spirit as a man or woman with wings. The earliest of a Greek poems and works of art show some mysterious sacred birds, and some gods and goddesses who change into birds for a moment after an epiphany. Of course, the great Greek gods have no wings which would degrade them. Apollo, Zeus and Athena were exceptional, but other deities are winged. Hermes has wings as an inessential appendage on his heels, and Eros, that fast flying spirit of passionate love, is depicted by the Greeks as a capricious boy of twelve or thirteen, handsome, cruel, enchanting, naked and confident, with a powerful span of rapid wings on bare shoulders. Not to mention the Winged Victory: flying from conquest to conquest bringing glory to the panting conquerors.