Ghost History

Books on art are often eye-opening to me.  When I was young and trying to escape the working-class hell in which I grew up, I discovered high culture.  This was mostly through local libraries.  I would check out classical music LPs and look at books of classical art.  I did the latter until I could identify several artists by their styles.  (It was probably originally because they’d painted pictures of Jesus and I went to see what else they’d done.)  In any case, I never studied art history.  I recently read an art-historian on the Devil, and now I’ve read one (Susan Owens) on ghosts.  The Ghost: A Cultural History does not address the question of whether ghosts exist, but rather traces the history of how they’ve been portrayed in literature and art throughout time.

Owens quite ably takes us through ancient to modern, pointing out that ghosts change to fit the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the times (not her pun).  In the early modern period ghosts were portrayed as physical revenants.  They were dead bodies that came back to physically harm the living.  We know this fear was widespread because some burials were clearly intended to keep the dead in their graves.  The idea of the physical ghost still comes up in modern horror as the monster you can’t kill because it’s already dead.  It was only gradually that ghosts became spirits and this was largely through emphasis on purgatory, which made it possible for the dead not to be in Heaven or Hell.  Once the idea caught on the literature and art began to focus on the spiritual nature of revenants.  As cultural interests turned towards ruins ghosts inhabited haunted houses.

This is a fascinating study of the way ghosts have evolved over time.  One of the things that struck me was that early commentators often didn’t distinguish clearly between ghosts, demons, and devils.  Demons, as we think of them, really depend quite a bit on The Exorcist.  The use of “devils” in the plural complicates the spiritual geography where we have God v Devil as the main poles of spiritual rivalry.  These ideas, and also those of ghosts, likely blended throughout most of history until a renewed emphasis on literalism came in.  Medieval scholars composed angelologies and demonologies, trying to keep everything straight.  They puzzled over ghosts, however, which don’t fit the scheme very neatly.  They would have benefitted, perhaps, if they had had Susan Owens’ book to help guide them.  It’s an exciting nighttime journey.


Bleached Angels

A friend recently asked why, in the canons of western art, angels suddenly made the shift from colorful to predominately white. What was behind this loss of color? The history of angel imagery is complex and a great deal of the complication derives from a generally iconoclastic sensibility in late Israelite religion. Images were frowned upon, so we do not get “Hebrew angels” recorded for us. The current-day perception of angels seems to go back to Mesopotamian Apkallu figures and Egyptian deities. In both ancient cultures various deities and demi-gods were portrayed as winged humans. The Egyptian figures, at least, were colorful. In the world of the Hebrew Bible angels are nowhere cited as having wings and they were likely imagined as being pretty much the same as humans in form. Many biblical characters mistake angels for people.

In Greek portrayals, Nike, goddess of victory, is a winged character. Eros, the god of love, also bears wings (and unlike Nike, he is generally bare all over.) In some vase paintings the Harpies are winged women. Since Greek pottery painting was generally monochromatic, we don’t have much color to go on. The earliest Christian angel portrayal comes from the Priscilla Catacomb in Rome. This angel is monochrome and wingless. The more familiar, and lavishly colored angels are Byzantine creations. Since my opinions on art history are not to be trusted, it is advisable not to make too much of this, but Byzantine art made flamboyant use of saturated hues to bring glory to God. This is part of the tradition behind Orthodox icon writing, and angels were simply following suit.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, angels were widely used to represent good and evil. It would stand to reason (if not to art-historical standards) that “good angels” would show their goodness by donning white apparel while “evil angels” would take on darker garb. This also fits with the growing tendency to represent Satan as dark red or black in color during this time period. As angels symbolized goodness, they became bleached of their former, Byzantine color. Symbolic value outweighed aesthetic sensibilities. Today angels retain their ancient legacy of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. Wings fit the view of angels as messengers, although ancient ideas of their colors depended more on the artistic conventions of the culture than any attempt to be true-to-life.

The earliest Christian angel (left)