Opaque glass mosaic, designed by William Blake Richmond, executed using material produced by Messrs Powell of Whitefriars, completed by 1896
This mosaic is one of a group of twelve nearly identical depictions of six-winged angels. Only the inscriptions differ from mosaic to mosaic. They are quotations from Psalm 104 and the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 9.
The word angel derives from the Greek ‘angelos’, messenger. Accordingly, the heavenly messengers are shown here with arms wide open above their heads with palms facing the viewer. This so-called ‘orans (or Orant) gesture’, which also symbolises Christ on the cross, was adopted for prayer from early Christianity, and is still part of Christian liturgy today. It is also the gesture which was chosen for many figures depicted on Byzantine mosaics, for example at S. Apollinare in Classe on the outskirts of Ravenna, Italy.
The angels populating the mosaics of the pendentives of the three central bays of the quire, reflect therefore a tradition going back to the very beginning of Christianity. This reference goes beyond the adoption of the traditional gesture, and includes the golden background as a direct reference to Christian wall mosaics made in Byzantine times. The four pendentives of the central dome of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, also show six-winged angels (which consist of wings and faces, but have no body as such). In the context of the creation of the mosaics of St Paul’s Cathedral at the end of the nineteenth-century, it is particularly interesting to note that the two eastern angels of the Hagia Sophia were restored in the mid-nineteenth century, while the other two were reconstructed in fresco at the time. Hence the Byzantine angels might well have served as inspiration for the twelve pendentive angels at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Brief description: spandrel mosaic depicting a seraph with six wings as young male figure with blond short hair, standing on clouds, with arms raised above his head, in a white full-length tunic inspired by ancient dress with a feathered breast piece and a grey-coloured ribbon, the blue outer pair of wings open, the two inner pairs, one red, the other green and brown close to the body; with golden background changing to black at the bottom tip of the spandrel and nine gold or silver stars above and to both sides of the angel; inscription above the head and to both sides of the angel: “POPULUS QUI AMBULABAT IN TENEBRIS VICIT / LUCEM / MAGNAM”
Analysis and comparisons
Related quotes: “populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem magnam” (Latin Vulgate, Isaiah 9:2); “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (NRSV, Isaiah 9:2)
Related work elsewhere:
Sant’ Apollinare, apse mosaic, S. Apollinare in Classe/Ravenna, Italy, 6th century AD; pendentive angels, mosaics, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, prob. in current version a 14th-century restoration of earlier work, restored once more in the 1840s
William Blake Richmond and studio, Study of an Angel, watercolour on paper, 24 x 19 inches, private collection (The Victorian Eye, exh. London, 2013, no. 18; this is one of the preparatory cartoons)
Literature and references: Bieritz 2004, p. 224.