A detail from A Choir of Angels: From left hand shutter
c1449 by Simon Marmion
The National Gallery
Marmion’s angels are delicate and curiously stylistic considering the time in which they were executed. With gently understated faces adorned with soft reddish curls, these figures possess a realist beauty that removes them from any mould of religious painting. Their wings mount upwards to part in a decidedly raised and pointed fashion, scattered with glittering dust at the centre, while the folds of their tunics curl up magically like mermaid tails. There is something other-worldly about these figures, not just in their heavenly existence but in the air of mystery and fantasy that surrounds them. They are truly captivating of the imagination, illuminated against their dark and cavernous background, a distinctly shadowy interpretation of Heaven. It is no wonder that Marmion’s angels appear so luminous considering his usual commissions of illuminated manuscripts. A Choir of Angels was painted as part of the high altarpiece in the St Bertin abbey in Saint-Omer, northern France, and clearly possesses the traits of Marmion’s manuscript illustrations. Perhaps this is why his angels appear so delicate, considering the constrictions of his usual canvas. More than this, however, these angels possess a style that seems reactive against the Gothic spires they would have adorned, betrayed in the points of the wings, the linear curling of fabric and the honed ends of the thin horns the angels play. The style is curiously pre-emptive of Art Nouveau; Marmion’s angels sit almost like Mucha’s women in his distinctive posters (postcard 39): they are radiant figures, possessing both the viewer and that space that surrounds them. Marmion gives his angels a curious power — one that pushes past their depiction as adornment, celebrating their form and beauty for itself alone.