Angels delight in Paris exhibition

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Angels have many faces, evolving from winged guardian to child-like cupid, from judgement day horn-blower to beautiful female, as charts an exhibition held in Vincennes castle in Paris.

"Musician Angels", which runs till September 5, draws together paintings, sculptures, marbles and instruments associated with angels, gathered in the small but light-flooded chapel within the castle's vast courtyard.

It is "a unifying theme" castle administrator Jenny Lebard told AFP, angels are important in Christianity as the show highlights, but "they are also present in Islam and Judaism... and it is good to show what we have in common."

The chronological display begins in the Middle Ages, travels through the angels' "golden age" in the 14th Century and concludes with the figure's feminisation in the 19th century.

The show's oldest artefact, a tiny 4th-century Ethiopian notebook made from goat's skin "represents the angel as messenger between the earth and the sky" exhibition organiser Remy Fombon explained.

From the 14th century, the angel transformed into a musician, often depicted holding or playing instruments, or hovering near church organs.

A broken stained-glass window preserved in a glass case from this period captures the musical role well, and also shows the specific types of instruments angels were associated with.

In Christianity, as Fombon explained, "there was always a tendency to blacklist some instruments" and in this "hierarchisation", angels were placed in high regard, bearing the sacred strings of the violin or harp.

Wind instruments were always closer to the earth however, requiring "the breath of the devil to be played".

The figure of the angel changed dramatically after the Council of Trent in the 16th century set new rules for religious art, killing off winged messengers in favour of benign child-like cherubs.

Soon the cupids were quickly joined by another, more ominous manifestation: angels that were clutching long horns, which would be used to announce the day of judgement.

This is where the chapel's main stained glass window becomes an exhibit in itself: the three panels show the Apocalypse, and in a band at the top appear seven angels holding the horns.

The last stage in the evolution is the angel's feminisation: after wings and instruments came clearly-defined female attributes, the long hair, breasts and even wispy robes of the 19th century.

A few exhibits across the periods evoke the angel as an interior being too, whispering into the unseen ear of a disciple for example, as in the well-preserved wooden sculpture of St Matthew from 1593.

"We are told Matthew wrote the gospel under the influence of an angel", Lebard explained.

The angel's religious face then, but also its quieter, spiritual and even secular sides are all on display here.

© 2010 AFP

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