It takes considerable painterly imagination to approach the wings of angels. That angels even HAVE wings is a matter of theological debate; the Bible gives variable reports – cherubim, seraphim, wingless messengers, wings with eyes and hands – and the wonderful passage in Ezekiel “The sound of the wings of the cherubim could be heard as far away as the outer court…”. I wonder what Fra Angelico heard as he worked, with his assistants, on the astonishing frescoes throughout the monastery of San Marco in Florence? Did he hear musical wings alighting in the inner courtyard, where the orange trees are? What sorts of apparitions graced his waking dreams that he was so able to imagine angels’ wings? He must have watched – as all painters charged with such solemn avian agendas must have watched – the flights of birds above the courtyard – did their wings thrum in chorus like the battering, beating wings of Ezekiel’s angels?
For Fra Angelico, an angel’s wing is a careful geometry and a fearful symmetry – a progression from the arched gold of the shoulder expanse through degrees of softest blue to reds and lilac purples to darker porphyries and ending in deep-dyed indigo tips – where did such colours come from? Hovering angels like messenger peacocks, seen through a painter’s eye and hand – here is Gabriel, angel of the Annunciation, from the monastery of San Marco –