The Angel Gabriel

Gabriel is regarded as God's messenger in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and is ranked an Archangel. This would suggest  a senior management position in the great hierarchy of angels, but in fact Archangels are well down in the pecking order, above Angels but below the Virtues, Powers,  Principalities, Dominions, Thrones, Seraphim and Cherubim. (Celestial Hierarchy, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite,  5th/6th century).

Previous appearances
Gabriel first appears in the Old Testament in the Book of Daniel;  in Luke's gospel he is kept busy announcing the forthcoming arrival of John the Baptist as well as Jesus. According to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew he, or an angelic colleague, was a familiar figure to Mary, often popping in:
   The angels of God were often seen speaking with her, and they most diligently obeyed her. (Chapter 6)
At the nativity Gabriel appears again at the annunciation to the shepherds. 

The most familiar gesture of Gabriel is one of blessing, as shown by Botticelli  and in this intriguing version of Leonardo's Annunciation by Andy Warhol.

Uffizi, Florence

Detail. Andy Warhol Museum Pittsburgh

Gabriel is also seen pointing upwards to heaven, and with arms crossed in humility.

Stained glass, Sint Janskerk, Gouda

Masolino da Panicale
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The earliest images of Gabriel show him without wings. This may well have been an attempt to decouple him from pagan images of winged gods. By the time of the Sta Maria Maggiore mosaics (see early history) wings had become an established feature. For some artists, angels' wings had a complex iconography; other simply tried to make them as beautiful as possible. A frequent design is to give the wings three colours, representing the journey from Earth to Heaven - appropriate for a messenger. 

Pietro Cavallini
Detail of Mosaic, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

Fra Filippo Lippi was fond of showing Gabriel  with wings of peacock feathers, which according to some authorities, really should belong to the Cherubim; maybe Gabriel borrowed them. (Others argue that the Cherubim should have blue wings). 
   This is probably a good point to leave the subject of wings, except to say that wingless angels have reappeared in more recent versions of the Annunciation, such as this one by Rossetti. No wonder Mary is looking alarmed - Gabriel's feet are on fire. 

Fra Filippo Lippi
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Tate Gallery London

What is he holding?
In the two paintings above, Gabriel is shown carrying a lily - a symbol of the purity and virginity of Mary. The lily is a popular image, but less so in versions of the Annunciation from Siena. The lily was also a symbol of Florence, a place the Sienese were not fond of. (This is still true today when Siena  play Fiorentina.) In the version by Simone Martini below, the lily has been replaced by a olive branch, and the lily has been relegated to the background. Note the prickles on the lily - this refers to the Song of Solomon:

                       As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.

In other images Gabriel is seen carrying a sceptre,  or staff of office. Sometimes this is topped by a cross, symbol of the crucifixion to come.

Uffizi, Florence

Detail from Annunciation by Gerard David
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Annunciation page 1

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