Every angel is terrifying

July 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

After Dürer and a sorely needed coffee-and-cake break, I went exploring in the galleries of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. I was searching for sculptures by Veit Stoss, whose work I’d fallen in love with when I encountered it for the first time the day before in two of Nuremberg’s great churches. But on the way I was stopped in my tracks by something else entirely.

Hanging – or rather, hovering – high on the wall was the Archangel Michael, more than three metres tall, wings unfurled to their full span, the sole of one foot pressed flat against the wall as if about to leap out into space. He was dressed as a Roman soldier and must have once held a sword or a balance in his right hand, but the beautiful, androgynous face and its benevolent expression clashed – and yet at the same time accorded – with the military garb. He was missing several fingers and parts of feathers, but for a single heart-stopping instant I could feel the rush of wind in those giant wings, hear it whistling against the shafts of the feathers, and finally understood what Rilke meant when he started the Duino Elegies with the words, ‘Every angel is terrifying.’

Why did I find this sculpture so powerful? It was made around 1750, and much as I love the painting and drawing of the 18th century, I can’t say the same for the sculpture. Indeed, the day after my encounter with this terrifying angel, I visited the abbey church of St Michelsberg in Bamberg, whose interior is mostly 18th century, and was left utterly cold by the sculptures (including a much smaller Archangel Michael) buried under an avalanche of gilt woodwork. Is it the fact that it’s been extracted from a similar avalanche of gold and placed in such a spartan setting? Is it the size, or rather the sheer overwhelming physical presence? Or the fusion of the beautiful and the frightening?

I wrestled long and hard with whether to post a photo of the Archangel. I wasn’t able to take my own picture (my camera batteries having died at an inopportune time, as they usually do) and the few photos I was able to dig up on the Web made him look small and harmless, the very opposite of the real thing. (The issue of whether it’s possible ever for photography to do justice to sculpture is something much on my mind, as the reason I came Nuremberg was to give a paper on that very subject.) In the end, I decided that since most of you probably have never seen him in person, a photograph is better than nothing:


German School, The Archangel Michael (1750)

With the caveat that the only way to understand how terrifying this angel is, is to see him in the flesh.


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