Of course, the first issue is that of definition: what are we talking about when we talk of miracles? Blank looks from the hormonal hoards. It takes some time, and with heavy guidance from me, to decide on “A dramatic and unusual event which goes against the laws of nature and is caused by God or one of his agents.” This is where it all starts to unravel as we are taken down an unexpected line of discussion in relation to what constitutes an agent of God. Predictably angels come in for some considerable forensic examination and I find myself explaining the mindset of the medieval artist.
O.K. I say, I’m a Medieval Pope. They look less than convinced.
Michael, Old Boy, I need a nice fresco on the ceiling of my new chapel. Nothing fancy, just a Biblical story. How about the Nativity?
Right you are Guv.
So Michelangelo goes away and gets out his Bible. What’s in the story that I need to include? Stable, check. Mary and Joseph, check. Infant, check. Cattle, check. Shepherds, check. Wise men, Check. Innkeeper, check. Angels, ch … Angels? Oooh, Angels.
What does an angel look like? I ask.
Surprisingly for a group of avowed Atheists they soon build up a picture: M & S floaty nighty, pigeon’s wings and a tinsel halo.
Musical Instrument of choice? I venture.
“Harp.” They chorus happily, entering into the spirit of the occasion.
(I ponder, briefly, how far we have moved in five minutes from my lesson plan on miracles – sorry: miricals.)
I draw said angel on the board. It takes about six pen strokes but they pronounce themselves happy with the result.
So I ask them, How did we get to this?
“Well, it’s in pictures.”
“And adverts. Sir, Sir, Have you seen that advert for cream cheese where …..?”
And so it goes on. Having established that this image of angels is firmly established in the international psyche I try to point out that medieval artists were faced with a no-win situation in attempting to representing something visually where there’s not much in the way of description to go on.
I explain, They needed to get over the idea of something spiritual rather than human otherwise we’d be looking at these paintings asking “Who’s that man in the background?” or “Why are those women falling out of the sky?” The angel as we know it is an artistic compromise.
“Are you saying they don’t look like that then?”
I’m saying they might not.
“What do they look like then?”
O.K. I take a deep breath. What does “angel” mean?
There is no response.
I offer them a clue, It’s a Greek word. Why did I tell them that? This is bottom set Yr 9. What are the chances?
Still no ideas.
There’s no real reason why you should know. I was just wondering if anyone did. It means messenger – or more specifically, God’s messenger. What does God’s messenger look like? Perplexed looks. This is marginally encouraging as it indicates some level of mental activity above and beyond maintaining a heartbeat.
Do you remember when Mrs. Cooper sent a pupil down with a message last lesson?
“Are you saying Emily was an angel?”
I’m saying Emily was a messenger. What does a messenger look like?
“Could be anybody.”
“I don’t get it.”
I sigh. I do that a lot with Yr 9. Why does God’s messenger have to look picturesque?
“Coz it’s an angel.”
And angel means messenger, I persevere. Why couldn’t anyone be God’s messenger? Please don’t say “because we don’t have wings.”
“So, right? Are you saying Sir that anyone could be an angel because they’d be being God’s messenger? Would they know they were an angel?”
Maybe. Not necessarily. Some angels appear to be spiritual beings: I’m just saying that the images of medieval artists might not always be helpful, that’s all. What was an aid to faith in the middle ages seems to be quite the opposite today: "Who'd believe in one of those winged things?"
“Yeah. Too right Sir.”
I remember going to a primary school nativity where the Head had dressed the angels as postmen.
“I don’t get it.”
Postman – messenger – angel.
“Oh right. Now I get it.”
“So…” We all turn to look at Lauren who has been looking at one of my inspirational posters above the board. It is one little corner of some huge painting. I don’t know who the artist was, but the breadth and scope of the painting must make him to the art world what Cecil B. DeMille was to the world of film. The little segment, so easy to overlook, shows two cherubim - or possibly seraphim – chubby winged infants anyway, looking rather bored, it has to be said, peering down over the edge of a cloud as if at the pupils in my room. Underneath their imagined conversation is printed: I bet they don’t revise for R.S. Losers. “Are they baby angels?” Lauren is pointing.
No. That’s another artistic attempt to describe the indescribable that’s stuck in our collective consciousness.
Amazingly, they seem satisfied with this.
I make a mental note to put together a little unit on religious art and ponder, on the basis of this lesson, whether I actually have the confidence or knowledge to put such a unit together and have a moment of blind panic at the possibility that someone should innocently ask about demons.
We move on from angels and go on to talk about Prophets and Saints and, of course, Jesus as agents of God. There is a glimmer of hope that we might, at last, move on to talk about miricals.
Any questions on anything we’ve looked at so far? Yes
“Sir, who’s Michelangelo?”
Update: It was well received.