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Just the other day my family and I were walking carefully through an antique store when I noticed an old painting sitting on the floor. It was a replica of Raphael’s famous work Sistine Madonna (cir. 1512–1514). It brought to mind the first occasion when I encountered Raphael’s masterpiece. My wife and I were studying in Germany several years ago, and we traveled to Dresden for some sightseeing. Upon our visit to the Zwinger palace and the Old Masters Picture Gallery, we soon found ourselves standing in front of Raphael’s original nine-foot tall painting. The oil-on-canvas piece features the Virgin Mary carrying the baby Jesus in her arms while standing on a bed of clouds, framed by heavy curtains that open to either side. In the painting, Mary appears to descend from heavenly space, through the picture plane, out into the real space in which the painting is hung on the gallery wall.
Though it is a magnificent work to behold, from the moment I first set eyes on it I have been troubled by one particular scene. At the bottom of the painting two angels lean casually on a ledge with their heads resting on their arms as they gaze nonchalantly at the heavenly scene above.
These two young little angels are perhaps the world’s most famous angels. We see them everywhere, and no matter their location — on greeting cards, living-room walls, or coffee mugs — they always appear to be bored — similar to the seemingly dispassionate “pensive angel” on the cover of this month’s issue of Tabletalk.
Although Raphael studied the works of great artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, examining their depictions of angels and other beings within the spiritual realm, I wish he would have spent more time studying the Word of God. He would have realized very quickly that angels are never bored, nor do they ever go about their work casually. They are messengers of Almighty God who are always about God’s eternal business. And just as we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against principalities, powers, and the spiritual hosts of wickedness, so the messengers of our sovereign King fight on our behalf so that we might be more than conquerors through Him who loved us, living coram Deo, before the face of God. Deus pro nobis, “God is for us,” and if God and His heavenly hosts are for us, then who, or what, can be against us?