The Last Angel

I deliberately made this image too small so you’d have to click on this link to see it bigger!

My brother Joe Prever, who recently started writing for Catholic Phoenix, pointed me in the direction of the artist, Nicholas Roerich, a Russian painter of the early 20th century.  A fascinating guy with varied interests, he did a number of religious paintings.  I’m always on the look-out for new religious art, just to reassure myself that you can combine theology with modernity and come out with something other than the standard issue “my hands are bananas” clip art:

(image source)

I mean, there’s nothing terribly wrong with this kind of picture, except for its pernicious ability to teach bored children flipping through the missalette that religion is for, you know, neanderthals.  Duhhh.   What’s the deal with that, anyway?  Why did 20th century art start showing modern men looking like stodgy, doughy, immobile cave men, while actual cave men were painting elegant, funny, snappy portraits?

(image source)

Why, huh?

Now the original picture again:

Oh, you can’t see that — you better click on the link.  It’s called “The Last Angel.”  I’m trying to wake up the art part of my brain after a long, long sleep, so be patient with me.

Part of what makes this picture so alarming is the aggressive combination of different styles, isn’t it?  The flowers in the foreground are almost primitive, the mountains in the background are Chinese, and those wild, roiling clouds are something like a combination of Cezanne and Rouault.

But the city, the flames, and of course the angel have the flat perspective, the brushwork, and the stylization of a Russian ikon.  The contrast tells you what is going on here:  something really different, SLAMMING into the world.  Days of wrath.  I don’t think this one is saying “Be not afraid.”

Or, as I saw it phrased on a bumper sticker once:  Angels are just teddy bears with wings.


  1. It’s interesting; but I couldn’t help noting during my RCIA class years ago just how many times some variation of “Be Not Afraid” was spoken in the New Testament. I like that message. So even though something big is obviously happening in the picture, I don’t think it instills fear. Or it shouldn’t, anyway.

    • Karen – when you say “it shouldn’t,” do you mean that there is nothing in the NT that instills fear? Or that I’m misinterpreting the painting, and it’s not intended to instill fear? (Those are sincere questions – not trying to be snotty. I seem to have a tone problem today!)

    • I think Fear in this sense, is akin to awe. And we should have fear (the afraid kind) – fear of sin, fear of death, fear of the consequences of sin. Remember that every time “Be Not Afraid” is spoken, its because there IS fear. Sure, it has to be overcome, but its not an unreasonable response. In fact, to not be afraid is supernatural.

  2. I recently bought (on amazon) several children’s books based on the Catechism with gorgeous, original illustrations: the writer is Inos Biffi and the illustrator is Franco Vignazia. Originally published in Italy, the books are used in the Archdiocese of Chicago. LOVE them!

  3. Nicholas Roerich was a very far-out dude. He was a Theosophist and a devoté of yoga and Madame Blavatsky. I sang a recital once at the museum in New York that’s dedicated to his work, and it’s hard not to feel, there, as if his occult ideas helped to inform his art and philosophy.

  4. First, Catholic Phoenix = great stuff. Should’ve known there was a connection.

    Second, What about a stern, spear-wielding, shield-carrying angel surrounded by smoke and flames doesn’t just scream teddy bear. I would still prefer this version of a teddy bear over a Teddy Ruxpin.

  5. Seriously, where do you FIND this stuff??? Your mind is a labyrinth. I enjoy it.

    My 2 yo daughter was frightened/amused by the banana hands. I shut it off, then she said ‘Do again.’

  6. Karen, I think the appearance of an angel probably is frightening to humans. That’s why the first thing the angels say is, “Do not be afraid”–they’re reassuring the shepherds or Mary or whomever it is.

    • But don’t you think that if an angel appeared to you and said, “be not afraid” you’d have to withhold judgment until the end of the conversation?

  7. Isn’t this a portrayal of a scene from Revelations? Looks like it to me. Those angels were bringing destruction!

  8. Thanks for the pic; it is well worth meditating on that an Angel is NOT a teddy bear by far! Powerful, grace filled, obedient to God, but not soppy sweet. It is amazing to me that Cherubim allow themselves to be portrayed as baby angels?? Second highest order of Angels! Maybe it is because Jesus humbled himself and was born of a woman, came as a baby, that they do this?

  9. No teddy bear has a scowl like that angel’s. He is very focused on his mission, eh? And it ain’t cuddles. Cool art, thanks.

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