The Art of Angels - Old Testament 2

Three angel references that come after Genesis.

  The story of Balaam (Numbers 22 24) is rather involved. The Israelites were on the advance, and had already dealt with the Ammonites. Balak, king of the Moabite kingdom, wanted to stop them, and he ordered Balaam, a diviner, to deal with them by cursing them. Balaam consulted with God, who told him that the Israelites were blessed and he was not to obey the emissaries of the kingdom of Moab. But Balak increased his reward, and Balaam gave in. The story continues:

 'And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. And God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall: and he smote her again. And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff. And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times? And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee. And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay. Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face. And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me: and the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive. And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.
     The talking Ass makes a good story, but is clearly a myth: however, Balaam himself may have been a historical character. An archaeological reference to him was discovered in 1967.

Fresco from the Via Latina Catacomb, late 4th century.
Rembrandt. Musee Cognacq-Jay, Paris.

  Now for two of the most powerful pasages in the Old Testament: the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel. Both are theologically significant, both for Jews and Christians, and both offer wonderful opportunities for resplendant art. And yet, for some reason, few artists have taken up the challenge. Let's look at Isaiah first. This is chapter 6.

'In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed. Then said I, Lord, how long? And he answered, Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate, And the LORD have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land. But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return, and shall be eaten: as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof.'

  This is the only passage in the bible to name the Seraphim, and, as we will see when looking at the angelic hierarchy, the description and the link with fire will live on. The passage is about the need to purge sins, which may be a painful process. John's gospel (ch 12 v 39 -41) parallels it with Christ's suffering. An important passage; but artists have for the most part ignored it. There are a few engraved versions, but this rather dull fresco by Tiepolo is the only painting I could track down.

Palazzo Patriarcale, Udine


On to the vision of Ezekiel

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