Making a devil out of the divine

July 6, 2001

The Leeds International Medieval Congress starts next week. Tara Gale ponders the portrayal of angels.

One of the most ubiquitous images in popular culture is the angel. But unlike other religious images, the majority of contemporary angelic imagery is not originated or sanctioned by a religious body as it was in the middle ages. Angels have become big business. Historically, angels have been employed as endorsers of earthly endeavours. Invoking them was a useful and flexible tool for giving divine sanction to an enterprise without the need to summon God directly. In medieval times, these heavenly messengers, far from the friendly image we have today, reflected a world which was starkly divided between good and evil and carried out an often punitive role.

Most early accounts of angelic intervention tended to encourage devotion to the church, often with the added effect of promoting the prestige of the writer of the account. But as Christianity spread throughout Europe, political machinations inevitably became intertwined with the affairs of the church, and angels were pressed into service to promote political agendas. Countries adopted angels as patrons to inspire their armies and to appease conquered believers forced to forgo their native saints. Angels were also adopted by believers after being credited with bringing and ending plagues, helping crops to grow and safeguarding sailors and livestock. These miracles, often performed by the highest echelon of angels, the archangels, would eventually lead to different rituals in different countries, including sporting events and fertility rites.

The industrial revolution was a major factor in bringing about the commercialisation of angels. Mass-produced objets d'art became affordable to the lower and middle classes, and trinkets, statuary and prints that depicted angels became popular and acceptable in spite of their often not having any official connection with a church. But it was not until the dawn of the movie business that the true profit-yielding potential of angels was realised. Angels proved to be rich fodder for movie-makers mainly because they were familiar and yet open to great latitude in interpretation.

The first portrayal of an angel on film is lost in time and the instability of celluloid film stock, but the earliest cinema angel that comes to mind for most of us is Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life . It is entertaining to imagine what early Christians would have thought of cute, cuddly Clarence as one of God's messengers, but in 1946, audiences embraced the movie and its life-affirming message. Friendly, helpful and usually slightly flawed angels soon became a Hollywood staple, dispensing wisdom and assistance in ways meant to make a lasting impression on the mortals being helped.

A plot line that appeared more than once was the angel/human doomed romance scenario. Date with an Angel (1987) and Wings of Desire (1988, remade as City of Angels in 1998) are among the better-known examples. The most recent "good" angel film of note was Michael (1996), which starred John Travolta as an extremely non-canonical Archangel Michael.

Most movies featuring pleasant, helpful angels had at least some comedic moments. Pure comedies about angels were somewhat rarer, perhaps discouraged by the box-office failure of The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), which starred the legendary Jack Benny as the Archangel Gabriel.

A classic comedic "bit" in which a character on the horns of a dilemma has a tiny angel appear on one shoulder and a devil on the other to give the character conflicting advice can be traced back to Marlowe's Dr Faustus and the medieval miracle plays. This gag has been recycled countless times since.

The spread of television in the post-war era caused a reduction in the number of cinema-goers. As the movie-going audience got younger, the demand for happy, light films began to wane in favour of gory spectacle.

Lucifer, the original fallen angel, appeared in some of the earliest movies and has remained a popular subject. The devil, or one of his lieutenants, was the antagonist in numerous horror and suspense films. But for some film-makers, shooting yet another movie about Satan held little appeal, so instead of trying to find a fresh angle from which to approach the ultimate evil, they decided to create new fallen angels.

The concept of malcontent angels trying to overthrow God was the subject of the Prophecy trilogy (1995, 1998 and 2000) and Dogma (1999). In these four films, rogue angels are foiled by a combination of their own arrogance, brave and clever humans, and a bit of divine intervention. In an age where self-determination and individual security seem to be on the wane as all our institutions appear to crumble, spin out of control or turn on us, the idea that we can defend ourselves against foes far more powerful than ourselves is as comforting and life-affirming as the stories of nurturing angels that soothed our parents' worries.

Television's approach to the angel tends to be characterised by rank commercialisation. The worst shows are full of saccharine, heavy-handed scripts and a teary, lump-in-the-throat ambience. In general, both TV programmes and films preach to the converted, so any spiritual or artistic value they may have is undercut by their cash-generating abilities.

Superficially, they present a morally laudable thesis, but they also sell a fantasy. The parent substitute, the angel, arrives in the nick of time to solve the problem of the human "child", which induces hope in receptive viewers, but sends an ultimately harmful message. Viewers who take these shows to heart would be prone to wait and hope for divine intervention instead of addressing problems themselves.

This is a perversion of the precepts of every major religion, but one that finds all too many victims, who wind up with less money and even more problems.

Tara Gale MA is a candidate in religious studies at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. She is contributing to a session on medievalism in contemporary popular culture.

International Medieval Congress, Leeds University, July 9-12
Details: www.leeds.ac.uk/imi/imc/imc.htm </a>

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