Angels in Icons

How to Recognize Angels in Icons

Although the Orthodox tradition considers angels to be incorporeal and invisible beings, their iconography remains rather consistent. Certainly, we cannot claim the authenticity of the depiction of God’s messengers since, in fact, the image of angels in icons is a vision of different people in early Christian times. However, the traditional iconographic features of angels have been accepted by the Church and considered canon. So how can you recognize these heavenly creatures in religious icons?

How to recognize angels in icons

Attributes

The first things that indicate an angel in an icon are, of course, the wings and halo. Angels are often called heavenly messengers, so the wings in this context symbolize a connection to the heavenly realm and flight. The halo over the heads of angels, as well as the saints, shows grace and the presence of God. Interestingly, these attributes have not always been commonly accepted. In early Christian times, the halo and wings were considered pagan symbols, so they were not featured in religious icons.

Clothing

The traditional image of angels in icons features white garments. Usually, the heavenly messengers are dressed in a chiton (lower garment) and a himation (cloak) over the chiton. These were the clothes worn in antiquity.

Some representatives of the heavenly host, such as the Archangel Michael, are depicted in sagias, an outer garment similar to a cloak. One can also see them wearing the armor of commanders.

Symbols of power

One of the attributes of angels symbolizing power is a rod. In later Russian iconography, it stands for the measure of the purity of the human soul. Angels’ heads are often crowned with diadems. Initially, the diadems looked like small white ribbons tied around the head.

Another symbol of power is an orb, a ball decorated with a cross and monogram of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, in icons, angels are depicted with a mirror, for example, the Archangel Gabriel. He can often be seen in icons of the Annunciation. 

The doctrine of incorporeal heavenly entities is not as extensively elaborated as the doctrine of Christ or the Mother of God. Despite this, angels in icons are much beloved by Christian believers, as they are regarded as guides and protectors of mankind. Religious icons depicting the messengers of the Lord are found in nearly every church and home of the faithful.

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