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Angels and Demons in Art

by Rosa Giorgi
Windsor Books International, Oxford, UK, 2005
384 pp, illus. Paper, $24.95
ISBN: 0-89236-830-6.

Reviewed by Martha Blassnigg
University of Plymouth


Angels and Demons in Art is the English edition by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles of the Italian publication, Angeli e demoni (Mondadori Electa S.p.A., Milan, 2003), by Rosa Giorgi, edited by Stefano Zuffi and translated by Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia. It is the seventh volume in the series, "A Guide to Imagery," by the J. Paul Getty Museum. The book is a handy reference, measuring 7.9 x 5.5 inches and contains over 350 pages of illustrations with small, short textual supplements. As one would expect from this publisher, the reproductions are of outstanding quality. This is no casual excursion into an exotic spiritual realm but a serious pictorial art-history essay.

Through text and annotations to the images this book explores the topics of angels and demons by looking at a broader thematic context and not by simple binary oppositions. It should not be confused with many of the existing illustrated books on angels and/or demons that are often serendipitous collections driven by either a dichotomy between good/evil, heaven/earth, angel/demon or simply focus on the variety of angelic depictions through history as an iconographic exploration. Giorgi’s approach as an art historian specializing in iconography, is as one would expect very different, innovative, and illuminating. Her treatment of the subject is rather an exploration of the vast spectrum of the human imaginary and metaphysical aspirations; a sophisticated and subtle journey, including the unconscious, the imaginary, the religious, the fantastic as well as a philosophical, theological and art-historian discourse in a compilation that might be described as a pictorial, iconographic anthology of the human imaginary.

The historical narrative structure follows an imaginary spiritual path that leads ‘from earth to Heaven’, as evoked in the introduction. It ventures from the myths of creation, the earthly paradise, the underworld, hell and fire, to transitory realms such as the Jakob’s ladder and resurrection into heavenly realms to the angelic hierarchies, ending with the archangels. This journey also includes particular topics, such as nightmares, psychomachy (‘struggle of the soul’), black messes, ghosts, dragons, demonic animals, the ship of fools, homo bulla (‘Man is a bubble’), rebel angels, the antichrist, torments, Macabre dances, the Tetramorph, Ars moriendi (‘the art of dying’), Prayer and Ecstasy, the Ladder of Virtues——to mention only a few. Mixing angels and demons (in their broadest sense) affects the range of the collection dramatically. Hiernonymus Bosch (with the highest score of 11 index references of artists) and William Blake have their place in this narrative as well as Francisco Goya, with his depiction of witches and nightmares, Eugenio Lucas y Velasquez and Albrecht Dürer (following Bosch as second with eight index references of artists). These stalwarts of the history of the darker realms of the imagination appear amongst the more traditional, classical masters of religious iconography, from the first centuries BCE to a strong presence of medieval religious art to 20th century paintings, such as by Gustav Klimt, Carlo Carrà, or Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. This novel listing is interesting, but not what the book is about, nor is it an anthology intended to cover a specific period, geographical region or religious ideology. Rather, it is a collection of European iconography from outstanding artworks throughout history that is used to illuminate the depths and width of human aspirations into other realms and metaphysical ideas and concepts.

To keep this free ranging enquiry under control, Giorgi has structured the chapters into themes, from humankind looking at the spiritual world in different perspectives, into the depiction of the spiritual realms themselves, concluding with a chapter on the angelic imaginary. Within each chapter the overall theme is split into several sub-themes, as for example the theme "The Path of Salvation" in the second chapter treats the topics "Classical Antecedents (Hercules at the Crossroads), Psychomachy, Overcoming Temptation, Works of Mercy, Jacob’s Ladder, The Ladder of Virtues, The Trial of Job, Prayer and Ecstasy, and Saints Who Battled the Devil." Each sub-theme is elaborated by a short introduction, and the images themselves are accompanied by several textual supplements that highlight certain particularities, details, and meanings of the image through a short description. Here Giorgi demonstrates her versatility in art-historical, metaphorical, literary, and philosophical research and insight. This transdisciplinary approach offers a thicker account of form, meaning, and context of the selected artworks.

As with every encyclopedic attempt (and this could be classified as a kind of encyclopedia for the metaphysical imaginary), completeness is not the aim, but it is a broad vision that constitutes a virtue, and Giorgi should be congratulated on this profound study of human imagination and in the way she has succeeded in creating a flight into metaphysical realms with accessible descriptions and insightful textual commentary based on high quality research and a sophisticated selection of artworks. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles should also be congratulated for making this available in an English edition. This is a serious study for the scholar and an insightful excursion for the layman, leaving one with a multiplicity of impressions of the variety and extent of human imagination.



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