- Amy MacKinnon
Why Do Catholic Churches Have So Many Images of Angels?
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
This is the first of two posts on angels in Catholic Churches. The second post is here: Where are the Angels in the Mass?
If you walk into a Catholic Church the chances are pretty good that you’re going to see a statue or image of at least one angel, but why is that?
Images and Statues of Angels
One church that I’ve been to has images of angels etched into the glass of the front doors. The angels have swords in their hands, but those swords are sheathed and the angels are holding them in front of them, with the tips pointing downwards towards their feet.
Sometimes there’s an image of St. Michael, and usually he’s shown holding a sword in a fighting stance, or about to slay a demon. It’s a visual portrayal of the scene from the book of Revelation (12:7-9) where he’s just about to defeat Satan and cast him out of Heaven, along with all of the other angels who rejected God.
Sometimes there are images of angels surrounding the tabernacle, and this is a reference to the angels in Exodus 25:17-22, where the sculptures of angels are used to provide the Mercy Seat. The angels are often holding candles, but they're not blocking the way (you'll see why soon).
The Mercy Seat is the throne of God on the top of the Ark of the Covenant, and it’s where God descends from Heaven so that He's dwelling among the Israelites. There are two angels are bowing down with their wings extended. The angels are facing each other, so their wings stretch across the space between them, meeting in the middle. Their wings provide the throne for God.
In a Catholic Church, the Eucharist is kept in the tabernacle after the Mass. The candle beside the tabernacle is kept lit to indicate the presence of God in that tabernacle. This is why whenever Catholics enter a Catholic church, we genuflect towards the tabernacle while making the sign of the Cross to acknowledge that we’ve entered into the presence of God.
God is Always Surrounded by His Heavenly Court
During every Catholic Mass, heaven descends to earth and everyone in the church—the Church in heaven, on earth, and in purgatory—is united, even though we’re usually only able to see the members of the church on earth that are around us.
The images in Catholic and Eastern Rite churches are there to remind us of the others that are there with us: the images make visible what is invisible.
It's not just the angels who are present with us during the Mass, it's also all of the human souls in Purgatory and in Heaven.
The entire Church is united during a Mass, and that unity reminds us of the perfect unity that will take place in heaven for all eternity after the Second Coming of Christ.
What are Angels?
Angels are pure spirit so we’re not able to see them as they are, but sometimes we can see them when they choose to take on the form of a human body. They're able to do this because angels are able to manipulate matter far more than we're able to.
A human being can take clay and mold it into any shape. We even teach children to do this using Play-doh. Angels can do something similar, but they can take any kind of matter, and make it take on the form of whatever they want it to.
This is also why they can cause storms, or stop them. Wind, rain, snow, etc. can all be caused by manipulating the material world. Angels don't create new matter, they just move matter around.
The images of angels also remind us of the different ways that they interact with us during our lives.
When Adam and Eve rejected God and had to leave the Garden of Eden, God placed a cherubim wielding a fiery sword to guard the entrance to the garden so they couldn’t return.
That cherubim is guarding the gate, because Eden is a symbol of Heaven, and angels (good angels, anyway) are in heaven and in the presence of God. So in Genesis 3:23-24, the angel standing there and blocking Adam and Eve from returning to Paradise, is indicating that the gates of Heaven were closed to human beings.
The entrance to Heaven remained closed to humans until the savior that God promised to send (Genesis 3:15) healed the damage done by the Fall, and re-opened the Gates of Heaven. This is what Jesus did when He died on the Cross and rose again on the third day.
Before God tells Adam and Eve what their punishment will be, He shows them mercy
God tells them that He will send a savior to open the gates of Heaven, and reunite us with Him.
At the Incarnation, the second person of the Trinity assumed a human nature. He became incarnate and was born to heal the broken relationship that human beings now have with God so that everyone can be reunited with God in heaven.
Through His suffering, death, and resurrection, He took on the punishment for the sins of Adam in Genesis 3:17-19 and re-opened the gates of Heaven to human beings.
When we enter a Catholic church where Christ is present in the tabernacle, we enter into the presence of Heaven because that way is now open to us.
This is why the angels on the doors of that Church are shown holding swords that are sheathed and pointing downwards: the angel guarding the way to Eden no longer prevents us from entering, so when we die in friendship with God, we enter Heaven, and eternal life with Him.
The statues and paintings of angels, are there to remind us that we're in the presence of Heaven. God is in the tabernacle, and He's always surrounded by His heavenly court.
The images of angels (and saints) are also there to help us when our mind starts to wander; they remind us that we're in the presence of all of the angels and saints in heaven. We can't see them, which is why we need the visual reminders.
Next week's post: