Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gendering the Angel

by Elizabeth Winkler

Last weekend at the Met, I was wandering through the customary Western exhibits – Greco-Roman, Renaissance, Neo-classic – and was struck by the evolution of the representation of angelic (or at least winged) figures from Greek and Roman mythology through Christian scripture. Of course, some will argue that the dating of this artwork displaces it from contemporary relevance to the issue of gender, and that, moreover, such a mythologized figure is negligible to discussions of human import. However, I would argue that it is precisely in the roots of Western culture that we must seek to understand the origin of contemporary ideas surrounding gender, and that un-human as the angel may be, it was created by humans, for the viewing of humans, and thus exposes fundamental notions of gender that have shaped artist and viewer alike.

Although there is a decidedly androgynous air to the figure of the angel, they emerge most prominently and most pervasively as male. In Greek sculpture and ceramics, Eros and Hermes appear repeatedly as the earliest and primary ‘winged’ creatures. Later in Christian artwork, biblical angels – Gabriel, Asriel, Raphael, Michael, Uriel, even Lucifer – are illustrated time and again as incontestably male figures. Even in the depiction of cherubs – a term meant to describe young children – the telling male organ is almost always discernable. Think about it: there is never a baby-girl angel. We don’t think of angels in terms of gender, and so the subject is easily overlooked, but when all’s said and done, those cherubs are always little boys.

A female version of the angel surfaced in only two forms: the fairy and the Greek goddess Nike (Victory), most famously portrayed in the “Winged Victory of Samothrace.”

In the medieval world, fairies carried a variety of associations, but generally-speaking were understood to be ‘demoted angels,’ unworthy of heaven but not sufficiently evil to be termed ‘devil.’ As fallen angels, however, they were potentially subject to the influence of the devil such that in some circles they came to be associated with demon-like, or at least mischevious, deeds. This was realized most potently in their association with witchcraft.

Nike, on the other hand, presents on interesting paradox. She figures repeatedly in Greek sculpture as the embodiment of military success (thus carrying strong correlations to Athena). Because of her idolized, allegorical nature as the figure of a certain ‘virtue’ – Victory – she can be placed among similar figures that de Beauvoir uncovers as super-woman, and thus not-woman, members of that elusive category, the “Eternal Feminine.” Among these are, for instance, the figure of ‘Lady Liberty,’ the Virgin, the notion of a female nation (ie: Mother Russia, LA France, references to America as ‘she’) and even the common habit of christening ships with female names.

In these figures, femininity does not exist on its own, but is crafted and projected onto an ideal that no human woman can achieve. Thus, as de Beauvoir discusses, if the provided definition of the feminine is contradicted by flesh-and-blood women, “it is the latter who are wrong; we are not told that Femininity is a false entity, but that the women concerned are not feminine.”

Granted, numerous Greek figures function as representations of such ‘qualities.’ Where the figure of Victory then becomes interesting is in her surprisingly frequent depiction in the art of the Renaissance and Neo-classical periods. In Christian art, she becomes increasingly and noticeably more feminized (read: curvy, voluptuous, bosom-y), and in this sense, can be seen to function as a definitive representation of the allegorically “feminine.”

What does it mean then, when the female ‘angel’ can only exist as the mischevious, lesser fairy or a symbol of categorical femininity? Why are those cute, cherubic creatures only boys? What idea is being conveyed in the bible when all God’s messengers – among the holiest of the holy – are unconditionally men? The angel is not remotely human; it is associated with no sexual or reproductive capacities: why, then, has the angel been gendered as predominantly ‘man’?

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