Finding beauty and inspiration in unusual places

God’s Winged Messengers

Angels are the most common works of art in cemeteries. The term “angel” derives from the Greek word “angelos,” a translation of the Hebrew word “malak,” meaning messenger. What types of information do these winged creatures deliver? And why do we find them in cemeteries?

God's winged messenger sitting in front of a tombstone, holding a rose in his upright left hand
“As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.” Mark 1:2, KJV. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany


An Egyptian-style sphinx, guarding the entrance of the Übersee-Museum in Bremen, Germany.
The Egyptian-style sphinx guards the entrance of the Übersee-Museum in Bremen, Germany
sleeping sphinx in front of autumnal leaves.
The sphinx, a hybrid creature with the body of a large, often winged feline and a human head was originally an Egyptian motif that gained popularity in Greek art of the Archaic period. Riensberg Cemetery, Bremen, Germany

Angels are neither an idea of modern times nor related to a specific religion. They appear long before the emergence of European culture. Many ancient religions had one or more messenger gods who often appeared in the shape of a bird.

Evidence for this can be found particularly in the Babylonian-Assyrian religions. Messengers interceded for the people on behalf of the gods. They appeared as winged human figures and hybrids of humans and animals. Like the Sphinx in Egypt, these beings stood as guardians at the gates of temples and palaces.

Intermediaries In Pre-Christian Times

A Roman marble statue of Eros. He is standing in a frontal pose, with his weight on his left leg.
Roman copy of Eros, 2nd century, BC.
Photo: Wikipedia
Winged Victory of Samothrace, a marble Hellenistic sculpture of Nike, 2nd century BC.
Winged Victory of Samothrace, a marble Hellenistic sculpture of Nike, 2nd century BC. Photo: Wikipedia

Greek and Roman mythology, with their demigods and other beings who belonged to the “intermediate world”, influenced the Judeo-Christian conception of angels essentially. Winged figures like Nike, the goddess who personified victory, or Eros, god of love and sex, were a crucial part of the ancient Greek and Roman pantheons. Hermes, god of happiness and protector of travelers, was also a messenger of Zeus, god of Mount Olympus. Characteristics of Babylonian, Egyptian, and Greco-Roman gods and messengers of gods can be found in the figures of biblical angels. In contrast to the many rulers over the pagan messengers, there is only one God in the Bible who sends His serving beings.

Angels In Monotheism

From a religious perspective, angels are neither human nor divine. They are genderless, spiritual entities. In Christian art, angels got their wings as late as the 4th century. These wings are considered a symbol of victory, perhaps based on the image of the Greek winged goddess of victory, Nike. The Bible contains nearly 250 references to angels from Genesis to Revelation. Although they are spiritual beings who have intelligence, emotions, and will, they are mere instruments of God, not objects to worship.

“For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.”
Psalms 91:11 KJV

marble angel on a pedestal with a feather in her right hand.
“Bless the Lord, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word.”
Psalm 103:20 KJV. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Old Testament Times

Painting of the angel of the Lord visiting Hagar
“Angel Visits Hagar in the Wilderness” by Giovanni Lanfranco, Italian painter of the Baroque period, c.1620

In the Old Testament, two concepts of angels can be distinguished from one another: first, angels who belong to God’s court, and, secondly, the figure of the “Angel of the Lord.” One of his tasks is to bring help and strength to people. This is evident in the story of Hagar, the pregnant maid of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.(Genesis 16:7–15). Here, the Angel of the Lord exhorts Hagar to return to her mistress, promising that her son will have the special protection of God, and bear numerous offspring.

The original idea of heaven as “God’s court” is visible in the beings belonging to God’s royal household. They help God to rule the cosmos and serve as representatives of his power. Post-biblical times summarized these beings under the generic term “angels.”

Supernatural Powers

Painting of the Archangel Raphael with Tobiah
The Archangel Raphael with Tobiah by Pietro Perugino (1448–1523), Italian Renaissance painter, ca. 1500

Old Testament messengers are depicted as warlike, armed male beings. In the Book of Daniel, they act as powerful intermediaries. Moreover, angels got names for the first time, such as the Archangels: Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. The “Apocrypha,” a collection of ancient books written between 200 BC and 400 AD by unknown authors, first described angels’ role in protecting humans. In the Book of Tobit, part of Catholic and Orthodox biblical canons, God sends the Archangel Raphael to earth as travelling companion and protector for the young Tobiah. Hence in art, Raphael is often depicted wearing pilgrim clothes.




Painting of the Archangel Gabriel with a lil in his hand
St. Gabriel the Archangel: “The Annunciation” (detail), 1501, by Pinturicchio (1454–1513), Italian Renaissance painter

New Testament Times

In the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, angels appear frequently in the stories of Jesus’ childhood. The Archangel Gabriel announces the birth of Christ to Mary and the role He is to play in God’s divine plan of salvation (Luke 1:26–38). In art, Gabriel is often depicted with a lily, which stands for virginity and refers to the Annunciation to Mary. On the night of Jesus’ birth, it is the Angel of the Lord who brings the good news to the shepherds. After the resurrection of Jesus, angels proclaim both His resurrection and His ascension to heaven to the disciples. By contrast, in the Book of Revelation, angels appear particularly frequently as deliverers of judgment, punishment, and death.

How one imagines angels, however, is often culturally determined. The New Testament describes angels as young men in bright robes. During the 12th century, angels were  portrayed as childlike, while the early Renaissance period, they were depicted as young girls.

bronze bas-relief of one of God's winged messengers carrying an inverted torch and an hourglass
“And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven.” Mark 13:27 KJV. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Lucifer – The Fallen Angel

The name Lucifer is known to most people as the angel who defied God, seduces people to sin, and rules over hell. But that wasn’t always the case.

Lucifer is assumed to be one of the first angels created by God. Scripture asserts that he started out as “blameless” in all his ways (Ezekiel 28:12–15). Radiantly beautiful, Lucifer was once God’s most glorious angel. How did he become an outcast who was humiliated with the worst punishment possible: to be cast out of heaven?

Apart from beauty, intelligence, and charisma, Lucifer possessed an abundance of pride. He was not satisfied with the power and gifts God gave him. Lucifer wanted more. When God created man, it is said that Lucifer refused to honor the new creation. Because he considered people to be insignificant, Lucifer rebelled and was no longer willing to serve God (Ezekiel 28:15–17; Isaiah 14:13–14). Lucifer exercised his free scheming how to become greater than God. He assembled an army of angels to help him carry out his plan (Revelation 12:3–4, Revelation 12:9). Enamored with his powers, Lucifer raised his great battle-cry of rebellion:”I will be like the Most High!” War broke out in heaven.

A Leading Angel who Fights Evil

Archangel Michael, the first and most powerful fighter of God, and his comrades-in-arms opposed Lucifer and his followers. Michael’s weapons were the sword, love, and humility. He countered the cry of the rebellious angels with his own battle-cry of loyalty: “Who is like God?” — which is a literal translation of the Hebrew name Michael. Michael and the other angels loyal to God gained the upper hand.

Bronze sculpture depicting St. Michael's victory over the Devil.
St. Michael’s victory over the Devil, sculpture above the main entrance of St. Michael’s Church, Hamburg, Germany.

As punishment for Lucifer’s disobedience, God hurled him and his followers toward earth (Isaiah 14:15; Ezekiel 28:16–18; Revelation 12:9), ultimately condemning them to hell (Matthew 25:41), where they have been living as demons ever since.

Lucifer, cast from heaven, is depicted as a winged nude, shielding his face behind flexed arms.
Fallen Angel, painting by Alexandre Cabanel, 1847

Hierarchy Of Angels

Not all angels are created equal. The mystics and scholars of early Christianity ordered God’s winged messengers hierarchically. Dionysius Areopagita, a Christian philosopher of the late 5th century AD, created an angelic hierarchy featured in his book, De Coelesti Hierarchia. He categorized three spheres, each containing classifications for each type of angel.

Sphere 1 — Heavenly Servants

Angels in the first sphere of Heaven are known as the “Seraphim” — the highest angelic class. Their name means “the burning ones.” They are guardians of God’s throne, equipped with six wings: two cover their faces, two cover their feet, and two are for flying.

“Cherubim” guard the way to the throne of God and the tree of life. They have four faces: man, eagle, ox, and lion. Their body is that of a lion with four oxen feet. In modern times, Cherubim are often mistaken for Putti — the plump male children in works of art, usually depicted naked with wings. Cherubim, however, are terrifying beings. According to Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), an influential Dominican priest and Scriptural theologian, Lucifer was a Cherubim before his fall from heaven.

Two putti in front of a tombstone, autumnal trees in the background.
Two bronze putti in front of a tombstone. Riensberg Cemetery, Germany

The “Thrones” are the third of the nine levels of angels. They are living symbols of God’s justice and authority. Described as adoring elder men, they listen to the will of God and present the prayers of man.

Sphere 2 — Heavenly Governors

Angels of the Second Sphere work as heavenly governors of the creation. “Dominions or Lordships” regulate the duties of lower angels. Dominions appear as divinely beautiful humans with feathered wings, much like the common representation of angels. Heavenly signs and miracles are carried out by the “Virtues or Strongholds.” “Powers or Authorities” are warrior angels, fighting evil spirits. They are usually represented as soldiers wearing armor. Their weapons are shields, spears, and chains. The primary duty of the Powers is to keep order in the cosmos.

bronze statue of an angel with a tablet, sitting on a pedestal. Her left arm is stretched out towards the onlooker
“Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” Hebrews 1:14 KJV. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Sphere 3 — Heavenly Protectors

Angels of the third sphere are protectors and messengers to human beings. The “Principalities or Rulers” are the angels that guide and protect groups of people and nations. They guard the common history of humanity, thought, spiritual energy and consciousness. These spiritual forces lead lost souls back to the heavenly path. The Greek word for “archangel” (archággelos) means “chief angel” or “chief messenger.” The archangels guide other angels and deal with larger areas of human affairs.

Emery Angel, Spring Grove Cemetery, Cleveland, OH
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hebrews 13:2 KJV. Emery Angel, Spring Grove Cemetery, Cleveland, OH

“Angels” are considered the lowest of the nine orders in Christian celestial hierarchy. They are closest to the material world and human beings. The term “heavenly messenger” is particularly suited for them, as they not only establish contact between humans and God, but also between humans and the angels of the higher angelic spheres.

If you are interested to learn more about the hierarchy of angels I recommend the book The Encyclopedia of Angels. It lists the angel names, responsibilities, and various hierarchies created throughout history.

seated guardian angel with a wreath of roses in her hair
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.” 1 Corinthians 13 KJV. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Guardian Angels

Guardian angels belong to the lowest choir of angels, and are meant to serve mankind. Thus they are most loved by humans. They are of spiritual nature, but we can perceive them in physical form through dreams or visions. The guardian angels are always close to their particular person, protecting them in times of danger and acting as guide and guardian.

Porter Angel Pittsburgh
“And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” John 1:51 KJV. Porter Angel, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh

Some of the most memorable movie characters have been guardian angels. Clarence Odbody, the clumsy, affable angel in It’s A Wonderful Life, gives George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) the most precious Christmas gift: an opportunity to see what the world would be like without him.  In The Bishop’s Wife, Dudley (played by Cary Grant), an angel sent to help Bishop Brougham with his church finances, appears more human and less angelic when he begins to fall in love with the Bishop’s beautiful, neglected wife. Lastly, the movie Heaven Can Wait features an angelic Mr. Jordan, who helps a distraught professional quarterback named Joe Pendleton, after the latter is whisked off to heaven by mistake.  

“How great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it.”
Saint Jerome (342-347–420)

Do we have guardian angels? Jesus answered this question in Matthew 18:10: “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.” By using the example of children, Jesus states that each of us has a guardian angel. Apparently this angel is assigned to us at birth. Many who have escaped great danger, survived a life-threatening illness, or felt relief and comfort after praying and pleading credit their guardian angel for watching over them and providing the assistance they needed. 

bronze bas-relief of a guardian angel speaking to a child, pointing skyward
Guardian angel comforting a little girl. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany.

Angels And Cemeteries

Little kneeling angel in twilight
Little “Grabengel”. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

During the 13th century, the idea of “Grabengel” (German term for an angel standing at a grave) developed. These angels guard tombs, protecting the earthly remains and souls of the deceased. These sculptures often appear in a kneeling or praying posture. 

Angels give consolation and confidence, even beyond the grave. They build bridges between the deceased and the bereaved. When God’s winged messenger is present, the departed truly rests in peace.

Tall winged woman comforting a dying pilgrim.
“Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared.” Exodus 23:20 KJV. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

Evolving Over Time

Throughout history, our belief in angels has changed considerably. They migrated from the world of the church into the secular world. Along the way, angels lost their terrifying and awe-inspiring impacts as God’s winged messengers. Likewise, angels are no longer mediators of God’s holiness and sovereignty, who can also deliver uncomfortable messages and trigger fear.

Most people think of angels as the guardians portrayed in Hollywood film — someone to watch over us and be there in our time of need, and perhaps provide some comic relief. Maybe this image is consistent with our fundamental longing for security, unconditional love, acceptance and someone to lean on during challenging times. Such depictions in movies, greeting cards, and common forms of art only reinforce this concept.

a little cemetery angel, blowing air kisses.
“If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.” Tennessee Williams, Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg Germany

For those interested in reading more about God’s winged messengers, I recommend the book, The Physics of Angels: Exploring the Realm Where Science and Spirit Meet. Theologian Matthew Fox and Biologist Rupert Sheldrake launch a fascinating exploration into the ancient concept of the angels. 

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