The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

On Genii and Angels in Thorvaldsen's Art

  • Kira Kofoed, arkivet.thorvaldsensmuseum.dk, 2017
  • Translation by Karen Jelved, Andrew D. Jackson
  • The article takes a closer look at Thorvaldsen’s representations of angels and genii and places the ambiguity of the motifs in Thorvaldsen’s general universe of shifting attributes.

Angels and Genii in Thorvaldsen’s Art

In Thorvaldsen’s art, both angels and genii are depicted as winged beings – they can be represented as chubby little boys or beautiful young men. They are never represented as women or girls. In the case of young angels, they are always dressed, while young genii are most often depicted naked or half-naked. In the case of small boys, they are most often naked regardless of type.

Thorvaldsen’s representations of angels and genii also include the entire group of representations of Cupid which shows the god of love Eros / Cupid in various situations. This figure is very frequently depicted in Thorvaldsen’s art but will not be dealt with specifically here.

At the end of the article, there is a chronological survey of Thorvaldsen’s angel and genius motifs and cases that can be difficult to place unambiguously in either category.

Some Previous History

In terms of motifs and ideas, genii as well as angels are associated with the so-called cupids of Antiquity, i.e. small winged beings that served as messengers for the gods and attended humans as tutelary spirits all their lives. The antique Roman genii were such tutelary spirits resembling little boys that were attached to individual people, and they are frequently used as a motif on sarcophagi and in architectonic decorations (e.g. in the form of the so-called reggifestoni, i.e. genii carrying garlands, see fig. 1 and 2).

Campanarelief med Erot med guirlande. Romersk Vinget genie bærer en guirlande af frugt og blade
Fig. 1. Fig. 1. Thorvaldsen’s own antique Roman Campana relief with a Cupid Carrying a Garland. H1114. H1114. Fig. 2. Sketch of unknown original of Genius Carrying a Garland of Fruits and Leaves. C803v.

The small genii were taken over by the early Christians as images of angels, e.g. in catacomb paintings and on sarcophagi. In the Middle Ages, however, it was rather the adult goddess of victory (Greek Nike, Roman Victoria) who served as a model for representations of angels, and little boys did not really emerge again until the Renaissance and the Baroque under the generic name of putti – as images both of angels in a religious context, of genii and the so-called spiritelli (small winged spirits associated with and influencing life and respiration), and of Cupid’s (and Venus’) attendants when representing earthly love (i.e. cupids proper).

There is (at any rate in principle) a great difference between their devout religious significance and a worldly, ultimately wild and orgiastic, meaning. Therefore, context is crucial for decoding the meaning of the motif. When the context of the motif is unclear, it can of course be difficult or impossible to distinguish one from the other. For the same reason, it is also possible for the artist to play on both associations.

In the art historian Charles Dempsey’s book Inventing the Renaissance Putto, the reborn Renaissance putto is generally referred to as spirello in the works of the Italian sculptor Donatello (ca. 1386-1466), who is credited as the artist who revived and renewed the representation of the small, often winged boys in art. I.e., they are more closely related to genii than to angels. Dempsey (following the German art Historian Wilhelm Bode (1845-1929)) argues that they, like the Satyrs in antique Greek drama, serve to release tension – i.e. the new putti have functioned as a relatively independent counterbalance to the heavy, serious, and dramatic content of the main narrative – in the Greek tragedies or in the many representations of the life of Christ and the countless depictions of or references to the executions of saints.

The Motifs in Thorvaldsen’s Art

In Thorvaldsen’s works, there are far more genii than angels. Actually, few works with unambiguous angel motifs are known, and they are primarily connected with the commission for the Church of Our Lady and Christiansborg Palace Church in Copenhagen. Also the relief The Annunciation A569 (fig. 3) represents, given its literary source, an angel, i.e. the Archangel Gabriel, but even this representation may, according to Nanna Kronberg Frederiksen’s article Venus Priapus, actually turn out to be ambiguous and thus, in spite of the unambiguously Christian point of departure, belong somewhere between Christian and antique iconography.

Bebudelsen Flugten til Ægypten
Fig. 3. Thorvaldsen’s relief The Annunciation, A569, with the Archangel Gabriel. Fig. 4. A protective angel, typically dressed, in Thorvaldsen’s relief The Flight into Egypt. A571.

Another ambiguous type can be seen in the relief The Child’s Guardian Angel that may be perceived both as an angel and as a classical tutelary spirit, i.e. a protective genius connected with an individual, even though its attire is clearly closer to Thorvaldsen’s other demurely dressed representations of angels (fig. 5).

Barnets skytsengel
The Child’s Guardian Angel, A596.

In addition to these, there are several reliefs with small winged putti who, given their ecclesiastical context, are generally considered as angels instead of genii: the relief with the present title Three Hovering Angels, cf. A555,3, which constitutes one side of the four-sided Baptismal Font, cf. A555 (Fig. 6), originally executed for Brahetrolleborg on Funen, and the two reliefs with garland-carrying, hovering putti, commissioned for the Communion table in the cathedral of Novara, cf. Hovering Angels, A590 and A591 (Fig. 7 and 8). This commission specifically stated that they wanted a variation of the so-called gloria relief on the above-mentioned baptismal font.

Døbefont, Tre svævende engle Svævende engle
Svævende engle
Fig. 6. The so-called gloria motif on the Baptismal Font, A555,3, consisting of three tightly grouped putti. Fig. 7 and 8. The two reliefs entitled Hovering Angels, cf. A590 and A591, executed for the cathedral in Novara, inspired by the gloria motif.

The reliefs for the Novara Cathedral are characterized by the covering of practically all sexual organs while two other putti reliefs, previously erroneously considered to be connected with the Novara commission, reveal everything. This may be an important distinction in relation to Thorvaldsen’s religious and secular iconography.

Even though an amanuensis for Thorvaldsen in a draft referred to the garland-carrying Novara putti as “ sei angioletti con ghirlande” (six little angels with garlands), they are, with regard to motifs, very close to a chimneypiece relief in which the represented putti are called cupids, cf. A592 (Fig. 9) – not angels. This chimneypiece relief has a clear connection with Thorvaldsen’s so-called angel frieze (Fig. 10) in Christiansborg Palace Church.

Tre amoriner Tre svævende engle med blomsterranker som guirlander
Fig. 9. Chimneypiece with three putti, called Three Cupids, A592. Fig. 10. Sketch for the angel frieze in Christiansborg Palace Church, Three Hovering Angels with Flower Garlands, C222.

However, this type of little putti was known in antiquity as a popular sarcophagi and sima motif, cf. the above-mentioned terracotta fragment in Thorvaldsen’s own collection of antiquities, Campana relief with a Cupid Carrying a Garland, H1114 (fig. 1).

Thus, the garland-carrying putti often play a double role with one foot in antique and the other in Christian mythology so that it will often be context that determines whether they are perceived as angels or genii.

Summarizing Remarks

This ambiguity and context dependence can be extended to include Thorvaldsen’s treatment of angels and genii generally since both types, as mentioned at the beginning, ultimately refer to the Greek and Roman cupids. The above-mentioned distinction between total nakedness (cf. the chimneypiece frieze) and the modest covering of sexual organs (cf. the Communion table of the Novara Cathedral) has probably been an important indicator to Thorvaldsen for placing the motif primarily in one or the other context, but it is, significantly, not consistently carried though. The ambiguity or openness in Thorvaldsen’s representations of angels and genii must therefore be seen in direct connection with his other intellectual and attribute-shifting iconography, cf. also the related article Shifting of Attributes – a Fundamental Feature in Thorvaldsen.

This apparently effortless alternation between religious and secular iconography points to a further problem, i.e. the titles. Most often the titles under which we know the works today were added later, and often a work was known under several different titles in Thorvaldsen’s time – see an example of this in the related article From Genii to Angels and Back. With one title, the motif is locked in one reading, which immediately seems to exclude other interpretations. Thus, the ambiguity and the interaction between antique and Christian mythology, probably quite conscious on Thorvaldsen’s part, is limited. When one reads the titles in the survey below, one must, for the moment at any rate, take at least some of the titles with a pinch of salt and let ambiguity prevail.

Survey of Thorvaldsen’s angel motifs – children

Værkfoto Værktitel
Kristi dåb Kristi dåb, A557, 1820
Kristi dåb Kristi dåb, A573, 1842
Hyrdernes tilbedelse Hyrdernes tilbedelse, A570, 1842
Juleglæde i himlen Juleglæde i himlen, A589, 1842

Survey of Thorvaldsen’s angel motifs – young people

Værkfoto Værktitel
Dåbens engel Dåbens engel, A110, 1823
Dåbens engel knælende Dåbens engel knælende, A781, efter 1823
Dåbens engel knælende Dåbens engel knælende, A112, 1827-28
Opstandelsen Opstandelsen, A561, 1835
Tro, håb og kærlighed Tro, håb og kærlighed, A599, 1836
Barnets skytsengel Barnets skytsengel, A596, 1838
Dommedagsengel Dommedagsengel, A593, 1842
Dommedagsengel Dommedagsengel, A594, 1842
Dommedagsengel Dommedagsengel, A595, 1842
Flugten til Ægypten Flugten til Ægypten, A571, 1842
Bebudelsen Bebudelsen, A569, 1842
Juleglæde i himlen Juleglæde i himlen, A589, 1842

Survey of Thorvaldsen’s more ambiguous putti motifs

Værkfoto Værktitel
To amoriner bærer en tredje i guldstol To amoriner bærer en tredje i guldstol, C563,79v, udateret
Vinget genie bærer en guirlande af frugt og blade Vinget genie bærer en guirlande af frugt og blade, C803v, udateret, muligvis mellem 1800 og 1804, jf. tegningsregistranten, THM.
Døbefont, Tre svævende engle Tre svævende engle, jf. A555,3, 1805-07
Tre amoriner Tre amoriner, A592, antagelig 1820
Tre svævende engle med blomsterranker som guirlander Tre svævende engle med blomsterranker som guirlander, C221r, 1820
Tre svævende engle med blomsterranker som guirlander Tre svævende engle med blomsterranker som guirlander, C222, 1820
Arkitekturskitser. Svævende engle Arkitekturskitser. Svævende engle, C221v, 1820
Svævende engle Svævende engle, A590, 1833
Svævende engle Svævende engle, A591, 1833
Musikkens genier synger Musikkens genier synger, A586, (tidligere kaldet Syngende engle), 1833
Musikkens genier spiller Musikkens genier spiller, A588, (tidligere kaldet Spillende engle), 1833

Survey of Thorvaldsen’s genii motifs – children

Værkfoto Værktitel
To amoriner. To dansende genier To amoriner. To dansende genier, C1106, udateret
Dagen Dagen, A370, 1815
Parcerne Parcerne, A366, 1833
Nemesis med straffens og belønningens genier Udsnit af Nemesis med straffens og belønningens genier, A364, 1834
Poesiens genius Poesiens genius, A532, 1838-42
Tragediens genius Tragediens genius, A533, 1838-42
Komediens genius Komediens genius, A534, 1838-42
Musikkens genius Musikkens genius, A535, 1838-42
Dansens genius Dansens genius, A536, 1838-42
Statsstyrelsens genius Statsstyrelsens genius, A537, 1838-42
Krigens genius Krigens genius, A538, 1838-42
Søfartens genius Søfartens genius, A539, 1838-42
Handelens genius Handelens genius, A540, 1838-42
Lægekunstens genius Lægekunstens genius, A541, 1838-42
Havekunstens genius Havekunstens genius, A542, 1838-42
Agerdyrkningens genius Agerdyrkningens genius, A543, 1838-42
Astronomiens genius Astronomiens genius,, A544, 1838-42
Religionens genius Religionens genius, A545, 1838-42
Syv genier Syv genier, A546, 1838-42
Seks genier Seks genier, A547, 1838-42
Tre genier Tre genier, A153, 1842
Nyårets genius Nyårets genius, A548, 1840
To genier bekranser kunsten og videnskaben To genier bekranser kunsten og videnskaben, A610, 1843

Survey of Thorvaldsen’s genii motifs – young people

Værkfoto Værktitel
A genio lumen (Kunsten og lysets genius) A genio lumen (Kunsten og lysets genius), A517, antagelig senest 1808
A genio lumen (Kunsten og lysets genius) A genio lumen (Kunsten og lysets genius), A518 (originalmodel), marmorversion A828, 1808
Lysets genius Lysets genius, A519, 1814
Gravmæle over Jacqueline Schubart Gravmæle over Jacqueline Schubart, A704, 1814
Livets og dødens genier Livets og dødens genier, A158, antagelig 1815-19
Svævende kvinde og dødens genius Svævende kvinde og dødens genius, A625, antagelig 1818
Livets og dødens genier Livets og dødens genier, A157, antagelig 1825
Dødens genius til gravmæle over Wlodzimierz Potocki Dødens genius til gravmæle over Wlodzimierz Potocki, A626 (marmorversion), originalmodel A627, 1829-1830
Poesiens genius Poesiens genius, A131 (marmorversion), originalmodel A134, 1831
Poesiens genius Poesiens genius, A526, 1835
Poesiens genius Poesiens genius, A136, 1836
Lysets genius med Pegasus Lysets genius med Pegasus, A327, 1836
Statsstyrelsens genius Statsstyrelsens genius, A530, 1837
Retfærdighedens genius Retfærdighedens genius, A531, 1837
Genier for maleri, arkitektur og billedhuggerkunst Genier for maleri, arkitektur og billedhuggerkunst, A525, 1843
Poesiens og harmoniens genier Poesiens og harmoniens genier, A528, 1843
Malerkunstens genius Malerkunstens genius, A520, 1843
Bygningskunstens genius Bygningskunstens genius, A521, 1843
Billedhuggerkunstens genius Billedhuggerkunstens genius, A522, 1843
Genius Genius, A785, 1843
Billedhuggerkunstens genius Billedhuggerkunstens genius, A523, 1844
Billedhuggerkunstens genius Billedhuggerkunstens genius, A524, 1844
Poesiens genius Poesiens genius, A527, 1844
Fredens og frihedens genius Fredens og frihedens genius, A529, 1844

References

  • A Guide to Thorvaldsen’s Museum, København 1871, p. 7 og p. 18-19.
  • Julie Lejsgaard Christensen & Kristine Bøggild Johannsen: Thorvaldsen’s Ancient Terracottas, København 2015, p. 121-122, kat.nr. 68.
  • N. Dalhoff (ed.): Jørgen Balthasar Dalhoff: Et Liv i Arbejde, bd. 1-2, København 1915-16.
  • Charles Dempsey: Inventing the Renaissance Putto, Chapel Hill & London 2001.
  • Nanna Kronberg Frederiksen: Venus Priapus, arkivet.thorvaldsensmuseum.dk, 2015.
  • Edmund Gosse: On viol and flute, London 1873, p. 134-136.
  • James Hall: Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, London 1984.
  • Jørgen Birkedal Hartmann & Klaus Parlasca: Antike Motive bei Thorvaldsen. Studien zur Antikenrezeption des Klassizismus, Tübingen 1979, p. 183-184.
  • Ludvig Müller: Thorvaldens Museum. Tredie Afdeling. Oldsager. Første og andet Afsnit, København 1847, p. 112, kat.nr. 114.
  • Ludvig Müller: Thorvaldens Museum. Første Afdeling. Thorvaldsens Værker., København 1848, p. 68, kat.nr. 585-588.
  • Thiele 1848, p. 99-100.
  • Thiele IV, p. 264 (1856).
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  • Thorvaldsens Museum. Haandkatalog for de Besøgende, København 1866.
  • Thorvaldsens Museum. Haandkatalog for de Besøgende, København 1871.
  • Thorvaldsens Museum. Haandkatalog for de Besøgende, København 1877.
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  • Thorvaldsens Museum. Haandkatalog for de Besøgende, København 1886.
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  • Thorvaldsens Museum. Haandkatalog for de Besøgende, København 1898.
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  • Thorvaldsens Museum. Haandkatalog for de Besøgende, København 1910.
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  • Thorvaldsens Museum. Haandkatalog for de Besøgende, København 1920.
  • Thorvaldsens Museum. Haandkatalog for de Besøgende, København 1921.
  • Thorvaldsens Museum. Haandkatalog, København 1922.
  • Thorvaldsens Museum. Haandkatalog, København 1923.
  • Thorvaldsens Museum. Haandkatalog, København 1925.
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Works referred to

A112 A370 A157 A153 A570 A530 A531 A828 A364 A520 A522 A528 A110 A781 A366 A589 A704 A561 A557 A518 A590 A591 A555 A596 A524 A134 A131 A517 A573 A627 A569 A571 A586 A588 A523 A626 C221r C222 A592 C803v A535 A532 A548 A625 A529 A136 A521 A533 A534 A536 A537 A538 A539 A540 A541 A542 A543 A544 A545 A546 A547 A525 A527 A526 A785 A158 A519 A610 C1106 C221v C563_79v A593 A599 A594 A595

Last updated 18.12.2020