The Nine Orders of Angels
This month’s panel comes from the church of All Saints, North Street, York, world-famous for its remarkable collection of medieval stained glass. It shows a richly-attired figure from one of the Nine Orders of Angels carrying a sword (the Order of Dominations, sometimes Dominions) leading two kings, a pope and an emperor in procession. It has been chosen for its own interesting history and for the opportunity it provides to discuss depictions of this subject elsewhere in stained glass.
Our panel can be found in the south aisle(sV 2a)of the church. Although representations of the Nine Orders of Angels appear elsewhere, the North Street window is one of only two in situ examples of a main light scheme devoted to this subject, the other is at Great Malvern Priory (Worcs). [Fig. 1]
The window was probably painted c.1420 and survived largely intact until at least 1670 when it was drawn and its inscriptions transcribed, by Henry Johnston, a local antiquarian. By the nineteenth century, however, the window had suffered grievous losses and its original design had been lost.
Reassembled as a jumble of fragments in which elements of a procession could be seen, writers who were unaware of Johnston’s work speculated that it showed either a traditional Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) procession through the city or scenes from the coronation of Edward IV in York in 1465. So it might have remained until the discovery of Johnston’s drawings in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, by the architectural and sometimes stained glass historian, John Harvey (1911–1997), and the reconstruction of the window in its present form by the CVMA author Dr Peter Newton (1935–1987) and the York Glaziers Trust in 1965. In keeping with contemporary practice, no attempt was made to ‘recreate’ lost faces. Its original quality can be gleaned from the angel’s magnificent embroidered robe which shows passant lions or dogs set against foliage. [Figs. 2, 3 and 4]
The Nine Orders of Angels
Angels were important components of medieval religious belief, featuring in the liturgy and calendar of the church year, with St Michael enjoying special prominence. Nearly seven hundred churches in England were dedicated to St Michael and All Angels. From 1401 a figure of an angel was lowered from the roof of Norwich Cathedral to cense the congregation during the cathedral’s Holy Trinity festival. When Henry V returned to England after his famous victory at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 his entry into the city of London was celebrated by a pageant with hundreds of children painted and dressed as angels.
The great theologians of the Christian church devoted much effort to identifying and understanding the role of angels in God’s divine governance. About the year 500AD, an otherwise anonymous scholar known as the ‘Pseudo-Dionysius’ wrote a treatise called De Coelesti Hierarchia (The Celestial Hierarchy). After scouring the Old and New Testaments for information relating to angels, he compiled a list of different types of angels and claimed that there were nine Orders, divided into three hierarchies with each Order having a specific responsibility or function
The first hierarchy, the Epiphania, consisted of Seraphim, the Cherubim and the Thrones. They worship and minister to God. The Seraphim are full of His love, the Cherubim have the knowledge of God and the Thrones command the universe of men.
The second group, the Hyperphania consist of the Governors of the Universe – Dominations (or Dominions) who preside over the lower angels, Virtues who are associated with miracles, and the Powers (Potestates) who ward off hindrances and attacks and combat the devil
The third group, the lowest hierarchy, Hypophania, are concerned with mankind and number the Principalities who look after particular provinces, the Archangels who are assigned to certain groups or cities and who carry special messages from God and lastly the Angels who are responsible for individuals.
Although the ordering of the first hierarchy was universally accepted, variations to the placing of the others were made by both Pope Gregory the Great (c.540–604) in his homily XXXIV on the Gospels, and again in the Etymology of Isidore, the scholarly bishop of Seville (c.560–636). Jacob de Voraigne’s account of the Nine Orders in his influential compendium of saint’s lives written c. 1260, Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) employed the Pseudo-Dionysius version (see Notes) while Gregory’s revision of the middle hierarchy was adopted by the artists who painted our panel at All Saints, North Street.
The All Saints window is divided into three registers corresponding with the three-tier system devised by the Pseudo-Dionysius. Each scene is thematically similar: an angel leads a procession of the people/functions he is associated with. There are no female angels. The window shows from top left to bottom right: figures representing the Seraphim leading a group of top-level clerics, the Cherubim leading a group of clerks and scholars, and the Thrones leading members of the medieval legal profession. Our panel is next, first left in the middle tier of the scheme, followed by Principalities leading a group of noblemen, while the Powers are represented by an armoured angel who leads a group of priests. The bottom register shows figures representing the Virtues, Archangels and Angels. Virtues lead a procession which includes a priest wearing a vestment embroidered with the Holy Monogram of the Virgin Mary. Finally, the Archangel and the Angel head processions of townspeople from different strata of medieval York society. They include the well-off, a man with a spade, a woman with a basket and a man holding up a pair of spectacles to his eyes. Perhaps they represent some of the parishioners who paid for the window. [Figs. 5 and 6]
The All Saints North Street scheme also contains remnants of the original (abbreviated) Latin texts which accompanied each panel, identifying the specific order being shown and summarising its characteristics. According to Johnston’s transcription of 1690, our panel was accompanied by the words: D(omi)nac(i)ones humilit(er) d(omi)nant[e]s [b]enigne [c]astiga[ntes] (Dominions: ruling humbly, chastising benignly).
Interestingly, other schemes depicting this subject in different media also incorporated textural inscriptions. Before the destruction of St Michael’s cathedral, Coventry in 1940, a series of boards with restored black letter inscriptions listing and describing the Nine Order of Angels, together with a painting of St Michael overcoming Satan, could be seen fastened to the roof beam spanning the nave between the Rood piers. For comparison, Dominations were described as Dominaciones presunt spiritibus hominibus (Dominions preside/rule over souls (and) men). Another set of now lost inscriptions was once in the windows of the parish church of St Mary at Ufford (Suffolk). [Fig. 7]
Without labels or other textual identifications, it can be difficult to distinguish between the different types of angels especially as there was never any consensus about how they should be shown. In 1936 the eminent art historian, Gordon McNeil Rushforth (1862–1938) concluded that, ‘hardly any two sets are quite alike’
Seraphim are often shown with six wings as in the vision of the Prophet Isaiah (6: 2–7): ‘I also saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up . . . Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings, with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew’. Unfortunately, other figures can also be shown with six wings. At All Saints, North Street, their worship of God saw them paired with high clergymen. Seraphim can also be shown against red backgrounds or with red garments symbolising the divine fire of God’s love. At Great Malvern Priory (Worcs) each Order of Angels has a brooch, or ouche of gold, set with the precious gem assigned to them: the Seraphim wears a ruby.
Cherubim (Cherubyn) frequently stand on wheels in accordance with the Old Testament vision of the prophet Ezekiel who saw a chariot supported by them, (Ezekiel, 1:4–26). Because they have the knowledge of God they can be shown with open books. At All Saints, North Street, the angel carries an open book and wears a doctor’s black skull-cap. He leads a procession of learned men. At Coventry the inscription on the roof beam declared: Cherubyn habent omnem scienciam (Cherubim have all knowledge).
Thrones may be shown with scales representing Justice, as at St Michael Spurriergate, York and Great Malvern Priory. At All Saints, North Street, the angel wears a close-fitting coif, similar to those seen on brass monuments of judges and lawyers.
Dominations, as at All Saints, North Street, might wear regal robes and carry swords symbolising their authority.
Powers or Potestates as they appear in Latin inscriptions, are usually shown wearing armour befitting their warrior-like status. Sometimes they are shown chastising demons. [Figs. 8, 9 and 10]
Virtues are associated with miracles. They can be shown be shown holding pyx, chrismatory or censer, linking them to the miracle of the Eucharist. At All Saints the angel figure holds a pyx – see Fig. 5.
Principals can carry symbols of authority, such as a sword or sceptre, similar to Dominations.
Archangels may hold trumpets, as at All Saints, North Street.
Unlike members of the other Orders, four of the Archangels are known by name through biblical and apocryphal texts: St Gabriel (who brings a message from God to Mary – The Annunciation); St Michael who is often depicted fighting an evil dragon or weighing souls as part of judgement imagery; Raphael, who cures Tobit’s blindness as told in the Book of Tobit and Uriel, who was sent by God to instruct Esdras (Book of Esdras 2: 4). While images of the first two are common and Raphael often appears in sixteenth-century Netherlandish roundels, depictions of Uriel are rare. He can, however, be seen (albeit in a heavily restored condition,) alongside the other archangels in the parish church of St Michael at Kingsland (Hereford). [Figs. 11 and 12]
Images of angels were extremely common in late medieval and early renaissance stained glass, and can be shown in many ways. They are often dressed in an alb, a full-length garment of white linen worn by the celebrant at the Mass, or the dalmatic vestments of a deacon, a short, wide-sleeved and open-sided over-tunic decorated with stripes running from front to back over the shoulders. Tippets – a stole or wide scarf – covering the shoulders to the elbow – are frequently worn. Some authors have suggested that the ‘feathered costumes’ worn by angels which end at their neck, wrists and ankles evolved from mystery plays and pageants. [Fig 13]
Angels can be shown carrying heraldic shields or shields with the emblems of Christ’s Passion or censing holy figures. Another popular theme was to show them playing musical instruments or singing the Te Deum, a hymn of praise to God. They can also appear in elaborate canopy schemes or manning battlements in holy architecture. In Norfolk they are painted in an instantly recognisable style. [Fig. 14]
Sadly, few schemes showing the Nine Orders are completely intact. Fragments of others can be recognised. Individual images of angels in tracery lights, especially from the fifteenth-century, may be remnants of otherwise lost schemes but without supporting evidence, firm conclusions are impossible. The ‘10 mighty great angels in glass’, seen and destroyed at the parish church of St Gregory (Suffolk) by the puritan iconoclast, William Dowsing, on January 9th 1643, might have been one of the wholly lost schemes (for Dowsing see Vidimus 32.
Where to see the Nine Orders of Angels
All Saints, North Street, York; St Michael’s Spurriergate, York (no longer in situ but by the shape of the panels suggestive that they once occupied main light positions); Great Malvern Priory (south choir clerestory); New College chapel, Oxford (tracery lights in side windows); St Neot, Cornwall, tracery lights in chancel east window; St Lawrence, Harpley, Norfolk (complete scheme in tracery lights of west tower window); St Peter and St Paul, Salle, Norfolk (six angels with labels in the chancel east window); St Mary Magdalen, Wiggenhall, Norfolk (remains of scheme above former Holy Trinity altar).
Besides stained glass, a complete set of the Nine Orders survives on the painted rood screen at the parish church of St Michael and All Angels, Barton Turf, Norfolk.
I am grateful to Dr Mike Stansbie for his help with this item.
•The Golden Legend – chapter on St Michael see the Medieval Sourcebook .
•A. B. Barton, A Guide to the Church of All Saints, North Street, York, York, undated
•B. Bruderer Eichberg, Les neuf choeurs angéliques origine et évolution du thème dans l’art du Moyen Âge, Université de Poitiers. Centre d’études supériueres de civilisation médiévale., 1998
•E. A. Gee, ‘The Painted Glass of All Saints’ Church, North Street, York’, Archaeologia ,102, 1969, pp. 151–202.
•M. Dormer Harris, The Story of Coventry, London, 1911, p. 329.
•D. King, CVMA entry for St Peter and St Paul, Salle .
•N. Morgan, ‘Texts, Contexts and Images of the Orders of Angels in Late Medieval England’, in Glas, Malerei, Forschung. Internationale Studien zu Ehren von Rüdiger Becksmann, Berlin, 2004, pp. 211–20
•A. E. Nichols, The Early Art of Norfolk. A Subject List of Extant and Lost Art Including Items Relevant to Early Drama (Early Drama, Art, and Music Reference Series, 7; Kalamazoo, 2002, pp. 31–35 and Appendix 1, pp. 289–297 which also discusses costume and musical instruments
•G. McN Rushforth, Medieval Christian Imagery as Illustrated in the Painted Windows of Great Malvern Priory, Worcestershire, Oxford, 1936: 204–17, 250–53 and plates
•H. Gilderdale Scott, The Painted Glass of Great Malvern Priory (Worcs.) c.1430–1500, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of London, 2008
•K. August Wirth, ‘Engelchoirs’, Reallexikon zur deutschen Kunstgeschichte, V, Stuggart, 1967, colls 555–602
•C. Woodforde, The Norwich school of glass-painting in the fifteenth century, Oxford, 1950, pp. 128–148
•C. Woodforde, The Stained Glass of New College, Oxford, Oxford, 1951, pp. 71–91