Angels have just as much as a right as the star to be present at the Nativity. They are mentioned in all four gospels, as it happens, although Mark only mentions them when Jesus is tempted by the devil, and John has one stirring the waters of the pool of Bethesda, and more appearing at the resurrection. It’s only in Matthew and Luke, then, that they are connected with Christmas.
For Matthew, the angel (which one is not specified) is tasked with communicating with Joseph. When the recently espoused old man found out that his young wife was pregnant, and knew, in the way that you would, that the child was not his, ‘Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.’ (Matthew 1:19-20). Then after Jesus was born, the angel – or an angel – returns: ‘…the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.’ (Matthew 2:13). A third visitation followed some years later: ‘But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.’ (Matthew 2:19-20). However, what is sometimes assumed to be a fourth visit was not necessarily from an angel. Having been told to return to Israel, there is an intervention to tell him, effectively, that he was going the wrong way… he had already been worried: ‘But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee’ (Matthew 2:22). While we’re at it, it was not necessarily an angel that told the Magi to avoid Herod, as Matthew again says they were ‘warned of God in a dream‘ (Matthew 2:20). Direct intervention is a posibility.
Notice that Joseph had as many as four dreams. This is surely one of the reasons why he is painted asleep so often – he would have to be, to receive all these divine revelations. And apart from that, he was very old. It doesn’t say so in the bible, but it does in the Golden Legend, written in the 1260s (see Day 31 – The Suitors Praying), and that idea probably came from the Protevangelium, a second century text that didn’t make the final cut, as far as the bible was concerned.
However, Matthew does not mention angels at the Nativity – that is down to Luke. Not only does Luke talk about the angel’s appearance at the Annunciation – nine months before Christmas when the whole thing started – but he is also very specific about the angels at the Nativity, in this passage which you probably know very well, Luke 2: 8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Today’s angels are just two of the ‘multitude of the heavenly host’. People usually get the number of angels in this painting wrong, as it happens, and draw conclusions from their miscounting – I’ve done it myself – but more of that another day.
How would an artist know what to paint? We should assume that none of them had ever seen a real angel, after all (I could be wrong, of course). Like most angels painted in the North of Europe in the early 16th Century, it is likely that these were inspired by carved, wooden angels (see, for example, Day 70 – The Annunciation, again). Certainly, the way their long robes fly around them suggests the crisp lines and taut folds that can be created by a skillful chisel, and held up by the tensile strength of wood, rather than flowing fabric fluttering in the wind. While we’re at it, these robes were clearly designed to be flown in: they would be completely impractical for the solid ground. You’d trip over the hems before you’d even taken one step.
The colours are a delight – slightly misty as they are flying at some distance: the artist clearly had an awareness of atmospheric perspective. I particularly like the combination of blue and rose-pink in this detail. Why does everyone think that angels should be in plain white from top to bottom these days? It’s a relatively recent development (sorry, I haven’t researched this one – if you know when ‘white’ became the new ‘glorious’ for angels, please let me know – my guess would be the 19th Century), and I far prefer the rainbow colours of old. Their gestures are also wonderfully expressive – one is in prayer, hands joined at the fingertips, and the other is astonished, hands out in awe at the wonder of the incarnation. God has become a little baby. How beautiful.