Henry writes: I enjoy looking at paintings. They often slip under my guard and take me by surprise. I sense that they speak, and my soul hears them before the rest of me catches up. One painting that does this for me is this one.
‘The Wounded Angel’ is by the Finnish artist Hugo Simberg, and I saw it as a postcard on my first visit to Helsinki many years ago. It hit me like a brick, I’d never seen anything remotely like it before: “A Wounded Angel”? How could that be?
It is Finland’s favourite work of art. Simberg painted two versions, at the beginning of the 20th century just prior to Finland achieving independence, (which might or might not be significant): one is in The Ateneum in Helsinki, the other is a fresco on the wall of the cathedral in Tampere, a town in western Finland.
Apparently he had planned a large image of a wounded angel for many years but struggled for the right approach. First he drew a sick angel, who is given medicine to drink by two small devils; in the next image the devils decide to find expert help and lift the angel on to a wheelbarrow; the wheelbarrow is gradually replaced by a stretcher, which the devils carry, then the bearers become human children, and the route becomes established, a lonely road along the bank of a narrow river.
The highly symbolic group move in a realistic setting. The background is taken from the Elaintarha Park in Helsinki, which was popular amongst Helsinki’s working class as a place of leisure - the upper classes preferred another park in the south of the city. In The Wounded Angel healthy boys carry an injured girl toward the Disabled Persons Mansion and School for Blind Girls.
The angel girl is not seriously hurt. Her ‘wing’ is slightly broken, and she has a bandage covering her forehead. The angel could fly, but won’t. It could also look around but keeps its eyes glued to the ground. She wants to be helped.
The painting was an important work for Simberg, who did not try to explain it, nor did he give it a title. So how do we proceed? I have a print in my shed, and over the years it has sometimes provoked strong emotions. Some are moved to compassion, others get very angry. One person said, ‘Why doesn’t that silly woman get down and walk’ and asked for the picture to be turned back to front while we talked. Most, but not all visitors, assume the angel is female, but not everyone.
What do we see? Two teenage boys carry an angel sitting on a makeshift stretcher on a path from right to left. How do they come to be doing this? Are they willing, or were they coerced? The boy in front is dressed in a black suit and is quite short. The other wears a brown jacket, black trousers and boots, and is taller. He looks at us. What does his look ask? Does he accuse us of being responsible for the angel’s wounds?
The angel is dressed all in white, with a dress that trails to the ground, white wings, and a white bandage/blindfold over her eyes. She appears to be a young girl, perhaps a bit younger than the boys. She has blonde hair to below her shoulders.
There are just two poles and a cross piece for the angel to sit on, and she holds onto the poles. Her head is bowed. Her right hand holds some small white flowers. Her white wings have a brush of red on them, which might be blood.
What does she need? Where have they come from, and where are they going?
How could an angel, God’s messenger, be wounded? If not recognised, heard or accepted, maybe. But God would not wound one of Her angels. So the wound must be inflicted by a human. As an act of rage against God?
Another question might be ‘Can a wounded person be an angel’? Or even, given God’s Biblical concern for the poor, the outsider, ‘Is any wounded person an angel, a messenger from God, like immigrants, the hungry etc’. “As you do it unto one of these, you do it unto me.”
Might you or I be a wounded angel? Do our wounds prevent us being used by God as messengers, or might God speak through them? Indeed, given the example of Jesus, who was certainly a messenger from God, might God be incarnate in a wounded angel?
Or might we be one of the boys carrying her? Would we be doing that willingly? Is she a cross we’d accept?
Interestingly in writing this I have often mis-written ‘wounded’ as ‘wonder’ and realised that wonder and wounded are very similar! Here is a modern version of the painting by Pekka Vuorilehto: