Appeared in Winter 2001, Vol. XXVI, No. 4 1 Download PDF here

Here is a famous saying of the twelfth-century theologian, Hugh of St. Victor:

When we cannot have complete certainty in a given matter, it is better not to push our inquiry too far. If ignorance is not a fault, presumption is.2

When it comes to understanding the angels by reason, and by pondering the Catholic Faith (as found in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition), we are trying to understand a world beyond our comprehension, because angels live outside of time and space. Therefore, both the theologian and the artist are in constant tension: while the former tries to explain something of these immaterial beings by stripping away material contexts of human knowing, the artist makes them very material-looking, in part because angels normally assume human forms of a masculine nature in the Old and New Testaments.3

The scope of this introductory essay will be to understand something of the angels in the Roman Catholic  Tradition without considering the teaching on angels in the Jewish tradition or in other christian and non-christian religions. I will attempt to illustrate and explain, where possible, the traditional Catholic understanding of angelic beings by examining the canonical works of the Sacred Bible as well as by citing official Catholic teaching on the angels, especially as interpreted by the angelic doctor of the church, St. Thomas Aquinas, who teaches us that angels are loving both by nature and by choice.4 The intention of this introductory theology of the angels is to aid the reader in appreciating their importance in both liturgical celebrations and in the visual arts.


The Bible is, from many points of view, a history book. It tells us something of the world’s origins, of the history of the Jewish people, and Jesus Christ and his church. It includes few details about his mother Mary and even fewer about the man chosen to take the earthly place of His Father in heaven, Joseph. It is also about God’s search for the hearts of human persons and mankind’s feeble response to His merciful love. But interspersed throughout this discussion of the relationship between god and ourselves are the angels. Their ministry to human beings becomes known first to Agar (or Hagar in some translations) when she is informed that she will have a son.5 Chronologically, however, the first two angels in the Bible are found in the book of Genesis,6 where Eve encounters first the serpent asymbol for a fallen angel and later a member of the Cherubim7 (a particular rank among the hierarchy of the angels, as we shall see), who holds a flaming sword, keeping both Adam and Eve out of paradise after their fall from friendship with Yahweh.

In general, the angels do not explain themselves except occasionally to speak or act in such a manner as to convey that they are merely messengers or servants of God.8 When anyone does converse with them in an ordinary or extraordinary manner, the angels seemingly look and sound like humans.9 If, however, a prophet sees them in his trances, they may look very unusual, having many eyes or wings.10 If someone wants to worship them (which occasionally happens because of their powerful reflection of the goodness of God), they adamantly tell the onlooker that it is only God who should be worshipped.11 In fact, St. Paul has to curb a kind of false veneration of the angels in some of his assemblies12 while at the same time never denying their existence or role. From the teaching about guardian angels, we know that they are numerous, but it is not clear why there are so many, over and above the numbers of guardian angels.13 In the scriptures, they present themselves neither as babies, nor as women, and outside of prophetic visions, they are never presented with wings. But there would be nothing contradictory to revelation or to their nature if they were to appear as women or children in private apparitions. The custom of portraying them with wings began around the time of the Roman Empire, because many of the Roman demi-gods were sculpted with wings in their heads.14 The only Jews who denied their existence during the time of Christ were the Sadducees.15

Angels seem capable of performing unusual actions,16 but they are also part of the world’s ordinary life, being conveyors of the Providence of God. They also act as sentries, watching out for any dangers that may threaten human beings.17 A few of them act as instruments of God’s punishment.18 Others, however, seem to have no function at all except to pray and to adore God,19 though some act as mediators for mankind’s prayers, enhancing them.20 More importantly, they are involved in the central acts of the incarnation,21 as well as in Christ’s agony in the garden,22 and are present both at the resurrection and ascension: one rolls back the stone from the tomb,23 another communicates the event to Mary Magdalene,24 while others scold the Apostles for standing around after Jesus ascends into heaven.25

In the life of the early Church, one finds angels helping the Apostles to escape from Jail26 and generally consoling Paul (and others through him) when his sufferings seem unbearable.27

One of the many interesting observations about the angels in scripture is that they rarely give their names. In the canonical books of the Old Testament, “angel of the lord” is the phrase attributed to a particular angel,28 a designation which St. Thomas Aquinas interprets to mean that each angel of the lord was simply a direct representative of God.29 In the book of Tobit, an angel gives his name as Raphael,30 meaning “God heals,” and in Luke, another angel calls himself Gabriel,31 meaning “the strength of God.” Finally, in one of the last books of the Old Testament, Daniel, and in the very last book of the New Testament, the apocalypse, one discovers the angel who is called Michael, meaning “God is powerful.” Michael is locked in conflict with Satan, defeating his evil influences upon the Church.32

In addition to these names, the apocryphal work, The Book of Enoch, which was somewhat influential in the early church, also lists four other names of archangels: Uriel, Simiel, Orifiel, and Zachariel. The Celestial Hierarchy, the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, provides over one hundred and fifty names of angels. Nevertheless, the official Church documents neither mention nor confirm the existence of these “additional” angels since She does not accept these writings as officially canonical.

The angels usually play a role for the good of mankind, though it is suggested in Genesis that there is a tempter who will be called by tradition a fallen or bad angel, namely the serpent, a symbol of the the Devil.33 Interestingly, when Jesus begins his public ministry, he does not speak precisely about the problem of moral, social, political, economic, or physical evils facing mankind; rather, he speaks of a personal being who has evil designs-the Prince of darkness,34 also known in scripture as the Liar35 and the Murderer.36 In Matthew 9:34 we discover that the name of the chief of the fallen angels is Satan. It is only in the writings of St. Paul that one begins to understand that the passion and death of Jesus was intended to defeat this fallen angel37 though we also learn something about the meaning of Christ’s victory in John38 and Jude.39

The scriptures neither reveal exactly when the angels were created nor tell us clearly and distinctly what their nature is. It was to take centuries of theological discussion by the Fathers of the Church and the various local Councils of Bishops to understand these questions and the corresponding answers about their nature.40 But the teaching that the angels have some kind of influence, either for good or bad, both upon those who lived in Biblical times and upon individuals of future centuries, is clearly confirmed by the authors of Scripture. That theangels form a hierarchy is unclear from Biblical texts, but it is clear that there are different names given to groups of angels. Before examining some of the teaching of theologians on angels-especially those of St. Thomas Aquinas, who is called the “angelic doctor” because of his illuminating treatment of them it is important to see what the Catholic Church officially teaches regarding the good and bad angels: their existence, definition and nature, and their mission in the life of individuals and the church.


The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated in 1992 and called by His Holiness Pope John Paul II a “sure norm for teaching the faith,”41 tells us the following about the very existence of angels:

327 The profession of faith of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) affirms that God “from thebeginning of time made at once (simul) out of nothing both orders of creatures, the spiritual and the corporeal, that is, the angelic and the earthly, and then (deinde) the human creature, who as it were shares in both orders, being composed of spirit and body.42

St. Augustine, among others, was not sure whether the angels were created simultaneously with material beings and men, or whether the angels came first, since it was not absolutely clear in Scripture, nor in the official teaching of the Church of his time. In our time, the Church herself leaves the question open for discussion among theologians.

The Catechism then continues in the same vein:

328 The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that sacred scripture usually calls “angels” is a truth of faith. The witness of scripture is as clear as is the unanimity of Tradition.

While it is clear from the Tradition of the Church that angels are spirits, some theologians up until the middle ages, following St. Justin the Martyr and a very small minority of the Fathers of the Church, taught that they possessed a kind of body that was ethereal in nature, like fire, since they usually appeared in bodily form to both Old and New Testament figures as young men dressed in white garments.43 They are never seen with wings, but in their white garments a certain brightness emanates from them.44 They neither show themselves as little children, nor as female creatures, depictions which were first introduced in Renaissance painting. The first Christian depiction of a figure with wings in a Church painting can be found in the Roman Church of St. Pudenziana; Here, however, it is St. Matthew, rather than an angel, who is portrayed with wings.45 Part of the problem in these early centuries was that until the fourth century, very famous demi-gods and genies of the Roman peoples were portrayed with wings, and the early church pastors did not want to give the false impression that angels were gods. After the baptism of Constantine, however, churches slowly began to be dedicated to angels, and St. Michael was a particularly popular dedicatee in the East. In this period, winged angels are portrayed with spears, like the “Victories” of classical art. If one ventures into the famous church of St. Apollinaris in Classe (Ravenna), he will discover Sts. Michael and Gabriel dressed in military “chalngs” of the times on stands signed with the word “agios,” meaning holy.

The new Catechism is even more reticent than past documents about how angels should be illustrated pictorially; yet, following the teaching of Augustine, it is clearer about their nature and functions:

329 St. Augustine says: “‘Angel’ is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is ‘spirit’; if you seek the name of their office, it is ‘angel’: from what they are, ‘spirit’, from what they do, ‘angel.”46 With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God. Because they “always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” they are the “mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word.”47

330 As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness.48

It took many centuries for the majority of theologians to come to grips with the notion of “spiritual,” namely, that it implied no materiality. The idea of immortality would follow from the concept of spirit, because nothing can intrinsically corrupt or destroy it, though the creative power of God could withdraw the gift of existence from any spirit, if he so willed.

From these ideas, St. Thomas Aquinas would derive several other important ideas about the angelic nature, including the idea that each angel is a species or a universe of reality unto himself.49


Angels cannot die since they are not subject to the laws of materiality and to the aging process. They have only two faculties: intellect and will. Whether angels are good or fallen, they cannot err about natural things of their own order and of those under it (the material world),50 and their wills are always turned irreparably toward or against God’s will.51 The power of both good and bad angels over material things is exerted through their will,52 with bad angels now possessing some but not much influence over the world as a result of its redemption by Christ.54 All angels may influence the human mind by persuasion but cannot directly move the human will54 they do not know the future, nor the secrets of the heart, nor the mysteries of grace, unless God reveals these things to them. Even then, these things are only communicated to the good angels.55

Scripture scholars teach us that the very word “angel” comes from the Hebrew word mal’ak, meaning “messenger from God.” The word angel will also become part of the words evangelization and evangelist, implying the role of bringing “good news.” The Catechism, following this line of thought, teaches:

332 Angels have been present since creation and throughout the history of salvation, announcing this salvation from afar or near and serving the accomplishment of the divine plan: they closed the earthly paradise; protected lot; saved Hagar and her child; stayed Abraham’s hand; communicated the law by their ministry; led the People of God; announced births and callings; and assisted the prophets, just to cite a few examples.56 Finally, the angel Gabriel announced the birth of the Precursor and that of Jesus himself.57

333 From the Incarnation to the Ascension, the life of the word incarnate is surrounded by the adoration and service of angels. When God “brings the first-born into the world, He says: ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.”58 Their song of praise at the birth of Christ has not ceased resounding in the Church’s praise: “Glory to god in the highest!”59 They protect Jesus in his infancy, serve him in the desert, strengthened him in his agony in the garden, when he could have been saved by them from the hands of his enemies as Israel had been.60 Again, it is, the angels who “evangelize” by proclaiming the good News of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection.61 They will  be present at Christ’s return, which they will announce, to serve at His judgment.62

The Catechism even suggests that the coming of Christ to the world was longed for by the angels:

719 In John’s sight, the Spirit thus brings to completion the careful search of the prophets and fulfills the longing of the angels.

“He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God…. Behold, the Lamb of God.”63


The scriptures provide nine distinct names for angels, and these have traditionally been placed in a hierarchy of three ranks:

Seraphim,64 Cherubim65 and Thrones66 (the first order)

Dominations,67 Virtues68 and Powers,6  (the second order)

Principalities,70 archangels71 and angels72  (the third order).

Although it is not a matter of Catholic belief that there exists a hierarchy of lower angels who are influenced by higher ones, St. Gregory the great does mention such “lower” angels and notes their functions. It is likewise necessary to see their various roles as explained by St. Thomas Aquinas.

In this nine-fold division, the upper-level angels are those who simply assist God in the court of heaven, adoring and praising him, while the lowest rank are considered to be his messengers to earth. According to St. Thomas, the nine choirs of angels are divided into three groups based upon their knowledge of divine things as they come closest to God, the source of knowledge.73 All things are held in common by the angels but some things are held more excellently by some than by others.74 Within each order of angels, there is a further order of who is first, middle and last.75 Ultimately, their rank is determined by both their natural gifts of knowledge and love and their supernatural gifts of grace, all of which can be said to be a participation in what belongs to God to a super-eminent degree.76
Pseudo-Dionysius and, for the most part, Pope St. Gregory distinguish the degrees of hierarchy among the angels in the following fashion, as cited and explained by Thomas.77 Simple angels are so called because they announce to mankind messages that pertain to our advantage.78 The Virtues possess a “certain virile and immovable strength … of mind.”79 Dominations possess a certain liberty that comes with inflexible strength and supremacy; they appoint things to be done by other angels.80 Powers give orders to other angels about what is to be done.81 Archangels preside over angels, while Principalities preside over the Virtues, who fulfill divine commands.82 The Seraphim, whose very name means fire, possess an excess of charity; they rouse other angels with their fervor and so are the rank most united to God.83 The cherubim, on the other hand, possess a certain fullness of knowledge or science of things through their ultimate and proximate causes and thus know the divine secrets in a super-eminent manner.84 Finally, the thrones know the exemplars of the things of God in a supreme way but are beneath the Cherubim and Seraphim.85

But more importantly than any particular ministry the orders may possess, what distinguishes the angels from each other is above all their adherence and subjection to God, because they are created by him.86 All of the reasons cited by Aquinas and others to help us understand the distinctive ranks of angels are merely probable, and these reasons are ultimately super-ceded by the degree of their union and intimacy with god.


The Church teaches that each person has an angel present to him or her at all times. While a few Fathers of the Church thought that each person was dogged by an habitual bad angel, called a tempter, this is taught neither by Sacred Scripture nor the official teaching of the Church. But the existence of guardian angels is so clearly taught in the New Testament that no General Council of the Church ever had to speak about them. Moreover, this teaching is re-affirmed in the new Catechism:

336 From infancy to death human life is surround- ed by their watchful care and intercession.87 ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.”88 Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.

We thus see that if the human race presently includes over four billion people, then there must be at least the same number of guardian angels. We do not know if the present guardian angels also guarded others before us or not. Such a gift from God, however, teaches us how important the dignity of the human person must be in God’s sight to deserve such unique care and concern. While the guardian angels watch over us on an individual basis, they still see God face to face and are able to integrate their own personal fulfillment in God with their ministry to us.

It seems more probable that guardian angels were given to us by God after the fall rather than before, since our needs are now greater as a result of original sin. St. Thomas is of the opinion that Jesus Christ did not have a guardian angel because he was God.89 While the new catechism reminds us of our inherent weaknesses, we see, at the same time, the wisdom of putting human beings under the headship of guardian angels to watch over us without taking away our freedom to reject their help:

405 Although it is inherent in everyone, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. Although original sin entails the deprivation of original holiness and justice, human nature is not totally depraved. Our nature is wounded in its proper natural power, subject to ignorance, suffering and the empire of death, and inclined to sin-an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence.” Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns the baptized back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in humanity and involve us in a life-long spiritual struggle.

1426 But the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished human nature’s frailty and weakness, nor the inclination traditionally called concupiscence, which remains in the baptized so that, aided by Christ’s grace, they may prove themselves in the struggle of Christian life.

407 [T]he Devil has acquired a certain domination over humanity, though we remain free….Ignoring the fact that humanity has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action and morals.

Even though the human person is weak, and God in his omnipotence can help us in a multitude of ways, he was not bound to give us a guardian angel and could have chosen to aid us in other ways. But theologians tell us that He created angels, gave them the power of causality, and so chose to let them exercise their causality upon mankind in obedience to his guidance and decrees. However, this raises the question: where do the fallen angels fit into the picture?


Due in part to a misinterpretation of Genesis 6:1-4, it was thought by some early Fathers of the Church that the sin of the angels was lust. While this opinion did not last very long among the great theologians, it influenced many during the middle ages, prompting some to call any devil who appeared as a male seducer an incubus and female sexual sins as directly diabolic ages tended to over-emphasize rather than as sins of weakness.90

The official teaching of the Church is silent on the matter of what precisely was the trial that the angels had to endure in order to attain happiness, leaving that to the speculations of theologians. But the Church is quite clear that they did have a trial, and that some deliberately and irrevocably failed. As the Catechism puts it:

392 Scripture speaks of the sin of these angels.91 This “fall” consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign. We find a reflection of that rebellion in the tempter’s words to our first parents: “You will be like God.”92 The devil has “sinned from the beginning”; he is “a liar and a father of lies.”93

393 It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels’ sin unforgivable. “There is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for men after death.”94

St. Thomas teaches us that as soon as the angels were created, they were given a free choice: to serve their creator in trust or to reject him.95 Some chose to resist God, wanting to be like God on their own terms, rather than relying upon him.96 Since the angels do not have bodies, their thinking processes are outside of time, and they see more completely the reasons for their choices.97 When they made a decision, it was irrevocable or unchangeable.98 Those who chose against God out of pride and perhaps envy of God’s perfections left his presence forever, and some (perhaps all) were permitted to roam this earth while at the same time being in the state of damnation.99 As with the good angels, we do not know their number, but it is presumed that they were in a minority, in contrast to the good angels who chose to serve God. Aquinas is inclined to think that a minority rather than a majority of spirits fell away, because to fall away from God is deeply against an angel’s natural inclination, and things contrary to nature usually happen more by way of exception than as a general rule.100

Moreover, even though the fallen angels are perverse in their will against God, they are essentially good, not evil, in nature.101 The devils struggle against us, who are created in the image and likeness of God, because they hated and turned away from God in their choice against him. They seek to harm and maim both creation and redemption, having been created by the God they hate, whose reflection is in created being and in redeemed humanity.102 Just as goodness loves to communicate itself to others, so evil loves to encourage evil, and the fallen angels seek to influence human beings away from God as a way of showing their hatred toward God.103 Because of original sin, sin which was instigated by a fallen angel as we have seen in Genesis, human nature is already prone to sin. Human beings thus have a tendency to follow freely the devil’s instigation to sin. It is in that sense that through the devil, sin and death entered the world.104 Only in that sense is he ultimately the author of all temptation.105

The fallen angels then prompt us toward moral evil, but in a limited way,106 by tempting us to sin. They thereby violate our relationship to God by disobeyingHis laws, laws which are ultimately meant for our fulfillment. No one is ever permitted by God to be tempted beyond a certain point of his or her strength.107 By citing a text from the writings of origin, one of the Fathers of the Church, the Catechism teaches us that there is a good side to temptation:

2847 God does not want to impose the good, but wants free beings…. there is a certain usefulness to temptation. No one but God knows what our soul has received from him, not even we ourselves. But temptation reveals it in order to teach us to know ourselves, and in this way we discover our evil inclinations and are obliged to give thanks for the goods that temptation has revealed to us.108

The Catechism, in its commentary on the lord’s Prayer, has the following to say about the devil:

2851 In this petition, evil is a not an abstraction, but refers to a person, Satan, the Evil one, the angel who opposes God. The devil is the one who “throws himself across” God’s plan and his work of salvation accomplished by Christ.

Even though the devil has a certain limited dominion over this world, we are clearly taught that:

395 The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God’s reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and His kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries-of a spiritual nature and indirectly, even of a physical nature to each man and society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but “we know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him.”109

The devils tempt us by a process of persuasion, being able only with God’s permission to move our feelings and imagination. Sometimes, although rarely, they even appear to certain individuals in order to persuade them to rebel against the laws of God, just as they did. Sometimes in art they are portrayed with friendly miens as they attempt to seduce men to their evil ways. This process of temptation does not mean that all temptation comes directly from a demonic source,110 but some temptations do arise from diabolic suggestion.

Roman Catholics, however, believe that one of the effects of Christ’s resurrection is that this power of the devil to incite us to sin has been greatly curtailed.111 As we become more closely joined to Christ in faith, hope and charity, then the influence of the fallen angels becomes increasingly harmless. Christ’s victory is more appropriated to us as a result of our intimacy with him.


It is clear from the Catechism that because fallen angels abound in the world, “man’s life [is] a battle”:

The whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity.112

In addition to faith, prayer, the sacraments, grace, the indwelling of the Holy Trinity, and the VirginMary as our mother, God has provided us with hosts of angels as well as our own guardian angels to accompany us throughout our life, angels to whom we can pray in times of need or peril.

From the very beginning of the Church, Christians were energized by the fact that they prayed the liturgy with the angels and fought against the forces of evil with the good angels, who are far superior to the fallen angels in power and in goodness. It was devotion to the angels that, in part, taught the Church the great dignity of human nature. Many inspirations from the Holy Spirit still come through their ministry. Hence, we find the following charge given to us by the Catechism:

352 the church venerates the angels who help her on her earthly pilgrimage and protect every human being.

The more Christians have loved the angels, the more they have been able to understand how much more beautiful, wonderful and powerful God is. The highest angel conceived by the power of reason becomes insignificant when compared to God, whose attributes are infinite and beyond the scope of human reason. In addition, although each angel is above us in nature, it is possible for certain human beings actually to be higher than them through grace. It is not without reason, then, that Mary is called the Queen of the Angels. While artists throughout time have tried to paint the ineffable spirit world, they have tried even more brilliantly to show the greatness of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Son, Jesus Christ, who is even more glorious than His mother. Having to think of the angelic world, then, has made artists and theologians even more aware of how wonderful a redeemer we have been given.

It is also likely that in our everyday existence, many accidents and other occurrences harmful to humans have been prevented because of the ministry of angels.113 We have no idea what the world would have been like if it were not under their tutelage. They work constantly for our welfare with an unceasing watchfulness.114 As Christians grow in their love for their guardian angels, they are able to understand their faith more profoundly because angels, possessing an understanding of the things of God which is outside of time and space, have been allowed to help them see more clearly the implications of the faith. Possessing greater understanding of the mysteries of God, the people of God in turn became more capable of enduring the many trials and tribulations of a life which has been considered, from 1 Peter to the prayer “Salve Regina,” as a battle in this “valley of tears.”


It is clear that to paint the essence of an angel is almost a contradiction in terms, but the human imagination nevertheless tries to conceive of the angel in such a way as to introduce us to his mystery as a created being. We must never forget that we learn things not only by words but by images. As expressed in the Catechism, the importance of images is deeply rooted in catholic tradition:

1160 Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other: We declare that we preserve intact all the written and unwritten traditions of the Church which have been entrusted to us. One of these traditions consists in the production of representational artwork, which accords with the history of the preaching of the Gospel. For it confirms that the incarnation of the Word of God was real and not imaginary, and to our benefit as well, for realities that illustrate each other undoubtedly reflect each other’s meaning.

This expression of the faith is created by various iconographic symbols. For the early Christians, the angel is painted with wings because he is swift, mobile and not limited by the drag of materiality. He can be in places thousands of miles away from each other in an instant. God is on high, as it were, and so the angel as a messenger comes metaphorically from on high. Second, since he possesses the joy of the beatific vision, he can be shown anthropomorphically to be dancing, singing (Dan. 3:58) and even playing a musical instrument (the trumpet especially, as seen in Apoc. 8:2, 6, etc.) since he is praising his creator (for the Isra- elites, praise necessarily includes singing). Third, partially because of his unusual capacity for knowledge, he can also be shown with many eyes115 that strike terror, or an awe-inspired feeling, from Ezekiel; this depiction is especially prominent in contemporary art,116 fourth, because angels are not material, they are “above” sexuality and so can be portrayed as male. Guardian angels occasionally are portrayed as motherly figures, especially in twentieth-century iconography, though in the Scriptures they are always spoken of in masculine terms. The good angels can be painted as “cherubs” (a renaissance rendering of the cherubim order), to symbolize their innocence or the sublime purity which surrounds the throne of God.


The devil is normally referred to in scripture and Catholic Tradition as male. But in apocryphal literature, there is a female demon called Lilith; similarly, in the Sistine Chapel’s portrayal of the temptation in the garden, the serpent possesses feminine attributes. The devil is painted either as a serpent, horned goat, or other monster-like creature. He is frequently painted with dark hues, sometimes to indicate his burning hatred and sadness, sometimes to suggest his sinister quality as a liar. At other times, these dark shades are used to emphasize the notion of the depth of his depravity, since such darkness suggests that he is distanced from his true happiness or has brought about chaos in the world and delights in harming people both on earth and in hell itself.


It is evident, then, that the teaching of the church on the existence of good and fallen angels, while being secondary to the teachings about the Trinity and the Church, is quite helpful and important. The good angels teach us that God loves us enough to provide us with creaturely care from persons more powerful than ourselves. In the scriptures, the angels reveal both the closeness of God and His transcendence. As we appreciate the grandeur of the angels, we become even more aware of our inability to express the inexhaustible riches within the depths of the Godhead itself. For if it is quite difficult to describe an angelic being in words, how much more is it true, to use a Thomistic phrase, that we know more about what God is not than what He is. Just as we cannot demand that God perform miracles for us (though we can ask for them), so too must we realize that private revelations of the angels are out of the ordinary providence of God. That he takes care of us through the ministrations of guardian angels, as well as other angels and human saints, cannot be doubted, even if such care is not evident to the senses. As we embark upon the third millennium, we can only surmise how much worse off the human race would be had the angels not been given to us.

Likewise, we are expected to become much more circumspect in our daily lives, once it is revealed to us that there are diabolical beings who wage war against us. For we are reminded by Christ that we can easily be deceived by these “liars” if we let them. Our faith in the Lord’s redemption, however, keeps us aware that he has overcome the demons, who occasionally surround us with their “calls” to the anti-gospel of death. As we put our trust in him and His teaching Church, we become increasingly stalwart against the thrusts of the evil one.

What cannot be expressed so clearly in the theological reasoning process about the mystery of angelic beings is more than made up for by the pictorial arts, which pull us toward the spirit world through the color, shade and form. Perhaps images are the best symbols to bring forth the truth of the mystery of the angel, both good and fallen.

A fitting postlude to this essay on the angels maybe found in the beautiful prayer from the Alexandrian Christian Liturgy of St. Mark which enables us to comprehend even more the role of the angels within our understanding of the mystery of God to whom they point:

Thou are exalted high above all princedoms and powers, all virtues and dominations, and above every name that is known, not in this world only, but in the world to come. Around Thee are assembled ten thousand times ten thousand myriads of angels, and all the hosts of archangels. Around Thee stand these two most noble venerable beings, the many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim who with two wings over their eyes, with two their feet, and with two do fly. With tireless tongue, in never-silent praise of God they cry out to one another the thrice holy hymn of victory singing, crying, glorifying and shouting to Thy great Majesty, saying: Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory. For ever, all things hallow Thy Holy name; accept then O Lord, God our hymn of praise which, in concert with all who praise thee, we offer, saying: Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Sabbaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy Glory.117

In the final analysis, then, there is more of reality about which we do not know than about which we do. It is the task of the artist and sculptor, perhaps even more than the poet, musician and theologian, to show us something of the plenitude that lies beyond the scope of limited human experience.


1 This article is a further development of another article, “Angels and the World of Spirits,” by Basil Cole, O.P., and Robert Christian, O.P. (Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 1998).

2 De Sacramentis 1, I P.V, c. 31.
3 Gen. 32:26-29; Mt. 16:5.
4 Summa Theologiae, 160, 1-2, hereafter to be cited as ST.
5 Gen.28:12-13
6 Gen. 3:1-3.
7 Gen. 3:24.
8 Gen. 19; Apoc. 22:9.
9 Lk. 1:11.
10 Is. 6:1-2; Apoc. 4:6 ff.
11 Apoc. 22:9.
121 Cor. 11:10; Gal. 4:14; Col. 2.18.
13 Dan. 7:10; Apoc. 2:11.
14 See entry “Anges” in Dictionnaire d’Archeologie Chretienne et Liturgie (Paris: Libraire, Letouzey et Ane, 1924)

15 Acts 23:8.
16 2 Pet. 2:11.
17 1 Kgs. 19:5-8; Ps. 34:8; 91:11-12.
18 2 Kgs. 19:35; 2 sam. 24:16.
19 Dan. 7:30.
20 Tob. 2:2; Apoc. 5:8; 8:3-4.
21 Jn. 1:11; Lk. 1:26-38; 2:19; Mt. 1:20; 2:13.
22 Lk. 22:43.
23 Jn. 20:11-13.
24 Mt. 28:1-17.
25 Acts l 11.
26 Acts 12:7.
27 Acts 27:23.
28 Gen. 22:11; Ex. 21:17.
29 ST 151, 2.
30 Tob. 5:5.
31 Lk. 1:26; cf. Dan. 8:15-26; 9:20-27.
32 Apoc. 12:7 ff.
33 Gen. 3:1; cf. Job 1:6 ff.
34 Jn. 12:31.
35 Apoc. 12:1.
36 Jn 8:44.
37 Col. 7:13-14.
381 Jn. 1:14; 5:18.
39 Jude 1.
40 The Council of Laodicea (343-81), which dealt with idolatry of angels. One major problem eventually would be solved by the Fourth Lateran Council, referred to below.
41 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 5.
42 187 Lateran Council IV (1215): ds 800; cf. ds 3002 and Paul VI, Credo of the People of God, # 8.
43 Gen. 18:2; 19:1; Dan. 8:15.
44 Acts 10:30; Mt. 28:3; Apoc. 4:4; 15:6; 19:14.
45 See entry, “Angels in Iconography,” by S. Tsuji in New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Mcgraw hill co., 1967).
46 St. Augustine, En. in Ps. 103, 1, 15: Pl 37, 1348.
47 Mt 18:10; Ps. 103:20.
48 C£ Pius XII, Humani generis: ds 3891; Lk. 20:36; Dan. 10:9-12.
49 ST 150, 4.
50 Ibid., 158, 5.
51 Ibid., 63, 7 ad 3.
52 Ibid., 110, 1-4.
53 Ibid., 114,5; cf. also CCC 395.
54 Ibid., 1-1 180, 1; see also another important writing by St. Thomas, called De Malo 3, 3.
55 1 cor. 2:11; 2 Kgs. 8:39; Is. 46:9 ff.; see also De Malo 16, 7-8.
56 Cf. Job 38:7 (Where angels are called “Sons of God”); Gen. 3:24; 19; 21:17; 22:11; Acts 7:53; Ex. 23:20-23; Jud. 13; 6:11-24; Is. 6:6; 1 Kings 19:5.

57 Cf. Lk. l 11, 26.

58 Heb. 1:6.
59 Lk. 2:14.
60 Cf. Mt. 1:20; 2:13,19; 4:11; 26:53; Mk. 1:13; Lk. 22:43; 2 Macc. 10:29-30; 11:8.
61 Cf. Lk. 2:8-14; Mk. 16:5-7.
62 Acts 1:10-11; Mt. 13:41; 24:31; Lk. 12:8-9.
63 cf. 1 Pet. 1:10-12.
64 Is. 6:2 ff.
65 Ibid.66 col. 1:16. 67 Ibid.
68 Ibid.
69 Ibid.
70 Eph. 1:21 (Sometimes translated as “sovereignties”).
71 Jud. 9.
72 1 Thess. 4:16.
73 ST 1 108, 1.74 Ibid., 108, 2 ad 2.
75 Ibid., 108, 3 ad 1.
76 Ibid., 108, 4; see also 108, 5 ad 3.
77 Ibid., 108, 6.
78 Ibid., 108,5 ad 1.
79 Ibid.
80 Ibid., 108, 5 ad 2; see also 108, 6.
81 Ibid., ad 3.
82 Ibid., ad 4.
83 Ibid., ad 5; see also 108, 6.
84 1bid.; see also 6.
85 Ibid., ad 6.
86 Ibid., ad 1.
87 Cf. Mt. 18:10; Lk. 16:22; Ps. 34:7; 91:10-13; Job 33:23-24; Zech. 1:12; Tob. 12:12.
88 st. Basil, Adv. Eunomium III, I: Pg 29, 656B.
89 ST I 113, 4.
90 see entry “Demon, Theology of,” by C.J. Elmer in New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw and Hill, 1967).91 2 Pet. 2:4.
92 Gen. 3:5.
931 Jn. 3:8; Jn. 8:44.
94 St. John Damascene, De Fide Orth 2,4: Pg 94, 877.
95 ST 163, 1-9.
96 Ibid., 2.
97 Ibid., 58, 1-7.
98 Ibid., 64,2; CCC 393.
99 Ibid., 64, 4.
100 Ibid., 1 108, 3.
101 Ibid., 64, 4.
102 1 Pet. 5:8; Apoc. 12:7-9.
103 Apoc. 12:9-10. the Catechism puts it that “they try to associate man in their revolt against God” (414).104 Jn. 8:44; Apoc. 12:9.
105 ST 1 114, 2-3; 111 8, 7.
106 ST 163, 4-5; 64, 1.

107 Cor. 10:13.
108 Origen, De orat. 29: Pg 11, 544CD.
109 Rom. 8:28.
110 ST 1-1180.

111 Ibid., 111 48, 4; 49, 2; see also the Decree of the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

112 CCC 409, citing GS 37 § 2.
113 ST I 113, 5 ad 1.
114 Ibid., I 113, 5 ad 3.

115 Apoc. 4:6 ff.
116 See, for instance, the paintings of Ernst Fuchs.
117 F. E. Brightman, Liturgies Eastern and Western, Volume 1: Eastern Liturgies (Oxford, 1896), 131 as found in Eric Peterson, The Angels and the Liturgy, trans Ronald Walls (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964), 14.