Library Team member Michael Graham reviews Peter Stanford's Angels: A History.

Peter Stanford’s history of angels is well researched, extremely comprehensive and scholarly. A broad-ranging exploration of angels, his study transports us from the Ancient Near East to cultural portrayals present within our own lives, such as films – ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and ‘Wings of Desire’; sculpture – Anthony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’; art – Rembrandt’s Balaan and the Ass’ (1626), and the Burne-Jones exhibition at the Tate; and literature – Lorne Byrne’s 2008 book ‘Angels in My Hair’.

In Part 1 of the book, the author shows how angels are projected by people with their different range of ideas and takes us on a thorough theological tour of religions by examining the Hebrew Scriptures, Christianity’s New Testament, Islamic teaching of the Qur’an, looking at links with Zoroastrianism and other ancient religions.

In Part 2 the influence of angels is explored and their standing in theology, religious art and popular culture as the Church moves from the first century through the medieval period to the present day looking especially at the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Today, in a scientific age, angels are barely mentioned by religious professionals. Yet the general public is becoming more interested. A 2016 poll in Britain showed one in three people believes he or she has a guardian angel, one in ten having experienced their presence and some having even seen an angel.

But what exactly are angels, and what is their basis, their history and role in great faiths? Why have so many people in different times and contexts around the globe believed in them? The author explores these questions in an often very personal journey into the history and current cult of these heavenly beings. ‘I grew up with guardian angels’, he begins. But he is often asked: “Do you believe in angels?” He concludes that rather like God, the angels can neither be proved or disproved by a scientific method. Nevertheless, he believes in their spiritual and metaphysical presence and importance. 

Photograph: Peter Stanford by Mykel Nicolaou