For those of us around the world — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, even atheist — there is one shared conception from this Holiday Season that has undergone little debate but has left a lot of room for popular imagination: angels.
Growing up in a very Protestant Christian environment where the frenetic reach of mass marketing intrudes even into the most sacred of objects, I became accustomed to one particular image or ‘idea’ of what an angel should be: white, fluffy, well-preened feathers, golden halo, usually Caucasian in appearance, holding a harp, sporting a few other little daubs of golden accessories, like a trumpet, and perhaps wearing a neatly-pleated toga of some sort. Very clean and white-washed and harmless. Angels of this sort appear everywhere in the USA — on the topmost boughs of Christmas trees, suspended from streetlights along the main thoroughfares in many little heartland hometowns, adorning the covers of greeting cards, even making appearances in films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “City of Angels.”
So, when I read in one of my guidebooks that I would find frescoes of angels — four huge seraphim dating to the 4th Century AD — on each of the main arches inside the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul (which had once, for more than a millenia, been the primary church of the Eastern Orthodox sect of Christianity, much like St. Paul’s Cathedral for Catholicism in Rome) my mind immediately latched onto this image of fluffy happiness.
But that idea was completely, utterly mistaken.
What I found inside the Hagia Sophia turned out to be downright weird, if not frightening. But, in a way, this sort of angel seems much more real, much more like the type of messenger commonly noted to have stricken fear into the hearts of the Prophets to whom the angels came as messengers of God. Ezekiel, Abraham, Moses, and many more right up to and including Muhammad — all who encountered angels report a sense of terror and numbness at seeing or being in their presence.
So, maybe it’s our plastic and lily-white conception of an angel that is Not Quite Right while this frightening and disembodied mass of shifting feathers painted 1500 years ago more closely represents the truth —