How often is Ripon visited by angels? Saturday is the feast day of St Michael and All Angels – Michaelmas Day – so it’s a topical question, perhaps. We can, of course, have no way of knowing; there are some who say that when we find a single white feather floating from the sky we have been blessed with an angelic visitation.
The last documented visit by an angel to Ripon was in around 630 AD. We have it on the authority of the Venerable Bede that at that time the monk Cuthbert, from the monastery of Melrose, had moved to Ripon when his abbot, Eata, was given land here by King Alhfrith. Cuthbert, in his mid-twenties, was appointed guest master of the fledgling Ripon monastery.
Bede says, ‘One morning Cuthbert left the main part of the monastery to go to the guest house, and found a young man there. He gave him the normal kindly greeting . . . he provided water for him to wash his hands and himself washed the youth’s feet, dried them and, putting them to his chest, humbly warmed them with his hands.
‘The young man was asked to stay until after the service of Terce, when there would be a meal; if he went immediately he would be faint with hunger because it was very cold weather. Cuthbert believed he had travelled all night in wind and snow and had arrived at the monastery in the morning to rest. But the youth said he must leave at once as he was hurrying a great distance.’
After persuading him to stay, Cuthbert set a table and said he would bring fresh bread. When he returned the young man had vanished. The ground was covered with newly-fallen snow, but it had no footprints on it. And when he went to replace the table in the storeroom he was met with three, very fine, newly-baked loaves with a heavenly smell.
Cuthbert concluded ‘Now I know that he was an angel, who had not cone here to be fed, but to feed . . . No wonder he refused our earthly food when he can enjoy the bread of everlasting life in heaven.’
The monastery where St Cuthbert entertained the angel in Ripon has long gone, effaced by the might of its successor monastery under St Wilfrid and the great church we now know as Ripon Cathedral. Yet perhaps we now have around us more angels than Cuthbert could evert have dreamed of, in the shape of carvings, statues, paintings and stained glass.
Theologians tell us that angels are just one of the levels – and the lowest in the pecking order – of the heavenly hierarchy. There are nine ranks, separated into groups of three. The first comprises the highest, the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones. Then come Dominions, Virtues, Powers, with Principalities, Archangels and Angels finishing the three triumvirates.
To most of us the distinction between each of these angelic beings may matter little, though to the medieval mind they were significant. Sometimes they were all depicted in churches; at All Saints, North Street, in York there is a stained-glass window depicting all nine ranks.
These days we tend just to think of angels – though the occasional archangel gets a mention. Gabriel is considered an archangel, so we sing about him in our Christmas carols, as he announced Mary’s conception of Jesus. And Michael is unusual in being called both a Saint and an archangel; in fact, he’s the only archangel names as such in the New Testament. We sometimes meet two others, Raphael and Uriel. And, of course, Lucifer was an archangel before his hubristic fall from heaven.
How do we recognise an angel? The answer is that most of us don’t – just like Cuthbert and, eons before him, Abraham, who entertained three without recognizing their status. No wonder the Epistle to the Hebrews says, ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’ It was a lesson Cuthbert had taken to heart.
If we can’t recognise angels amongst us, at least we can recognize then in art. For, as we all know, they have wings. In fact, they only started being depicted as winged creatures in the fourth or fifth century – possibly because they are described as ‘messengers’ and were therefore thought to use wings to travel very fast – just as the Roman god Mercury was depicted with a winged helmet and winged heels.
With wings, of course, go feathers. So angels have feathered wings. In the Middle Ages the feathers were often depicted as being of a variety of colours – white wings were a later refinement. And medieval stained glass sometimes depicts angels whose whole bodies are feather-covered. This is thought to be a detail copied from actors in the Mystery Plays, who wore feathered suits to depict angels.
Even in the rational says of the 18th and 19th centuries angels were popular on monuments and gravestones, often wearing neo-classical drapes but still sporting wonderful wings. And angels enter military folklore as well – the Angels of Mons who appeared to men struggling away from the World War One battle in 1914 was a sensation of the day.
Are we more cynical about angels today? Or do we still have a sneaking regard for them? At Christmas we’ll put then on top of our tree or send them on Christmas cards. And there is still a demand for angels on gravestones.
Maybe we use the word too loosely these days – anyone can be called an angel for doing a generous deed. But perhaps it’s worth keeping an eye open as you go about your day for the occasional real angel– and looking carefully at the images of them as you visit the Cathedral or other religious buildings.