We can learn a lot from Angels!
Los Angeles might be the “City of Angels” and Venice has been called “The City of Falling Angels” (in a very enjoyable book by John Berendt) – but London is also FULL of angels. Not surprising for a city that was a religious centre during the medieval period, and had hundreds of churches before the Great Fire of 1666.
Many beautiful angels decorate churches and buildings in London –
The figures we see as angels often incorporate ancient symbolism from Greek and Roman times, and even earlier, and have layers of meaning – including military overtones.
This golden angel incorporates lots of classical symbolism. She wears a small laurel wreath on her head and holds a palm branch – a symbol of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life.
Since very ancient times, civilizations like the Assyrians and Egyptians saw the palm as a sacred tree. The palm was carried in Egyptian funeral processions to represent eternal life. It was also given to victorious athletes in ancient Greece.
She stands at the top of the memorial to Queen Victoria in front of Buckingham Palace. When the queen was born, she was baptised Alexandrina, after one of her godparents, Emperor Alexander I of Russia, and Victoria after her mother. Alexandrina proved difficult for some of her subjects to pronounce – so she was crowned in 1837 as Queen Victoria. It proved a good name for a queen.
This tiny statuette of Nike, goddess of Victory, is high up above the entrance to the Selfridge Department Store on Oxford Street. She is held on the hand of the “Goddess of Time” and is a very small detail in a large group. You almost have to use binoculars to see her – but enlarging a photo gave me a good image.
She’s got the symbolism right – there’s the palm branch in her right hand.
Here is another small Victory, although this time she is not held by a winged goddess.
This is one of several large allegorical groups at the top of the Old War Office on Whitehall. Although the military theme of the groups would seem to refer to the First World War, the building was actually completed in 1906 – seemingly at the height of the British Empire.
This large classical woman doesn’t have wings so she isn’t an angel, but the little bronze Nike in her right hand does. The woman is titled ‘Victory’ and holds a laurel wreath in her left hand. (The Old War Office is now for sale and will probably be redeveloped into a 5 star hotel and expensive flats!)
I had to put in this photo of Nike that I took years ago when we went to Ephesus in Turkey. Ephesus was one of the major cities of the Roman Empire, and the classical ruins there are really wonderful.
Nike is holding a palm branch and a wreath of victory. The laurel wreath was given to victors in athletic competitions like the Olympic Games and to winners of poetry competitions (thus – the honorary title of Poet Laureate, the one who wears the laurel wreath!)
The official title of the monument is “War Being Controlled by Peace”. It was unveiled in 1910; the sculptor was William Robert Colton. The large memorial is on the Mall just at the corner with Horse Guards Road.
A golden angel holding a palm branch sits high up on the altar screen at the church of St. Magnus the Martyr in the City.
The ancient church was one of the first buildings destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. It stood less than 300 yards from the bakehouse in Pudding Lane where the fire started. Rebuilding stated in 1671 under the direction of Christopher Wren.
The carving of the organ case at St. Magnus the Martyr was overseen by Grinling Gibbons, the great English wood-carver, and I wonder if he had something to do with the two angels on the altar screen.
In London the ancient symbolism of Nike/Victory are often used for subtle (or not so subtle) propaganda messages.
In the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul, Royal Hospital Greenwich, two winged figures holding branches that look like oak leaves (a symbol of England) support a crown circled by billowing sails above a laurel wreath.
I think the message must be – the maritime might of Britain brings Peace to the world.
Some images of warrior angels come from the Bible, especially the Archangel Michael. He was a male angel who led God’s armies against Satan’s forces in the Book of Revelation.
Above the entrance to the church of St. Michael Cornhill is this scene of the warrior archangel Michael “disputing with Satan”. t was carved by John Birnie Philip when the church was remodeled in 1858-60.
The church is an ancient one – there is mention of it in 1055 (almost a THOUSAND years ago!), and underneath its foundation is the north-east corner of the Roman basilica.
(You can see a little section of the foundations of the Roan basilica in the basement of Nicholson & Griffin, Hairdressers, in Leadenhall Market. Ask nicely and they will let you go downstairs to have a look. But – please don’t tell them that I sent you!!)
This bronze sculpture of St. Michael brandishing a sword stands on the steps in front of the church – St. Michael Cornhill. It is a memorial to the 170 out of 2130 men of this parish who enrolled for military service in World War One and died in the war.
The work was created in the early 1920s and has an Art Nouveau feel to it – especially the base which has two fierce panthers fighting on the left side and a group of four children swirling upwards on the right. The sculptor was Richard Reginald Goulden.
At first I thought the figure in this little roundel was St. George killing a dragon, but legend says that George was a Roman soldier and this is obviously an angel – look at those wings. So, it must be St. Michael, who also killed dragons.
I try to keep good records when I take photos, but I can’t figure out where I found this one. If you have seen it, PLEASE let me know.
Thomas Carlyle once said: “Music is well said to be the speech of angels.”
Angels are often portrayed making music in some way: playing instruments like harps and trumpets, or singing.
Trumpets have been played since ancient times to draw people’s attention to important proclamations or public events. And angels blow trumpets to announce the coming of someone important – just as today the Royal Trumpeters play to signal that the Queen is arriving
The participation of angels in special ceremonies and events indicates that
something very important and spiritual is taking place.
Here two Angels present the Imperial Crown on the Palace of Westminster.
The coronation of a British monarch is seen as a spiritual event. In a very solemn religious ceremony the new monarch is crowned head of the government and head of the
Church of England.
Angels were important participants in all religious events, such as church services, baptisms and christenings.
This angel holds a jug of Holy Water on the Baptismal Font in the church of St. Mary Abbots, Kensington.
The Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul at the Royal Hospital Greenwich was redecorated in 1779-1789 by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart after a devastating fire.
The influence of classical designs is clear in this beautiful angel, but instead of holding a classical palm branch, he brings the bread and wine for the Eucharist.
Angels could be portrayed as a kind of stamp of heavenly approval and are often shown presenting shields or coat of arms – official identification of the location or important people. (Rather like a subtle Honor Roll of major donors?)
Traditionally Angels are portrayed as important connections between heaven and earth. They bring messages from heaven and lead souls to eternity. That’s why they are often seen in cemeteries.
Just a few more of my favourite London Angels –
Finally, these charming angels adorn the ceiling of the church of St. Botolph Aldgate.
I love discovering these spiritual symbols around London and thinking about their links
to even more ancient symbols of Competition, Victory, Life and Eternity.
All photos taken by Cathey Leitch @Cathey Leitch, 2015