The subtle bodies of angels
- the Archangel Gabriel, mosaic from Hagia Sophia
I came across an interesting book today online, Subtle Bodies: Representing Angels in Byzantium (also at Google books), and took a look. Here's just a bit of the introduction (sans footnotes) .....
Angel, literally "messenger," can designate all manner of negotiation between heaven and earth and refer to any member of God's spiritual host. Scripture is unequivocal in stating the existence of an angelic host and is full of diverse examples of the appearance of these transcendental creatures. But the difficulties of perceiving and identifying angels are signaled in scripture simply by the number of guises they assume and impressions they make. Angels appear in scriptural accounts as multiform, awful beings before whom such witnesses as Zacharias are overwhelmed and left speechless (Luke 1:20–22). They appear as clouds and fire (Ex. 13:21–22, 23:20–23), formless voices (Gen. 21:17) and, in the visions of Ezekiel (Ez. 10) and Isaiah (Is. 6), as complex and ultimately unfathomable creatures. The identity of these manifestations in scripture is often obscure; and Christian exegesis with its typological interpretation only compounded the difficulty when it discerned identities not overt in Hebrew scripture.
The scriptural definition of angelic nature as fire and wind (Ps. 104.4) established the belief in the immaterial and enigmatic qualities of angelic beings. Incorporated into the Epistle to Hebrews -- "And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire" (1:7) -- this definition became the exegetical cornerstone of Christian angelology. But although the general definition was settled by scripture, the precise nature of the proportion and blend of elemental forces was never fully explained; angelic nature was held to be beyond humanity's ken.
Angelology — as historians have named patristic scrutiny of angels — is replete with uncertainties, and these uncertainties were the source of the special problems of access and familiarity in devotion. For Christians, many questions persisted about angels' nature, organization, duties and comprehension. Agreement among theologians about the specifics of angelic nature was not possible given the transcendence of the objects of speculation, but angels figure so large in scripture and devotion that the subject could not be avoided.
The fire and spirit composition posited a relative value for angelic nature that placed the angels somewhere between the radically different natures of humanity and God. Such theologians as Theodotus in the second century called the angels "intellectual fire, intellectual spirit," distinct in property from material fire and light. Theodotus thought that angels did have bodies -- at least they were seen as such -- although these bodies, compared to ours, were without form and without corporeality. Methodius (d. ca. 311) said that the angelic nature is equally composed of air and fire, like souls. A writer later identified as Macarius the Great (ca. 300 - ca. 390) said that the angels have subtle (λεπτός) bodies. Others stated that the angels are beings without body and without matter, but not completely so. Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 33– ca. 394) appears to put the angels out of all contact with matter. And Gregory of Nazianzus (329/30–ca. 390) said that the angels can only be perceived by reason because they are composed of pure spirituality or something approaching it — he could not say for certain. Complete agreement concerning the degree of participation of the angels in matter was never possible. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and John of Damascus (ca. 675–ca. 750) came down on the side of the essential spirituality of the angels .......
- The Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Chonae, fresco from Decani Monastery