Angels in the Wood

Michael Rimmer’s book about the angel roofs in East Anglia led me to take a closer look at the many carved wood angels to found in houses of worship. I narrowed a very large field of heavenly hosts to three that were made between 1450 and 1540: one plump, one commanding and one broken. All are small carvings made by highly-skilled craftsmen whose names we will never know. (Note: no stone angels. Thank you very much, Dr. Who.)

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The Plump Messengers in a National Treasure

In the Marwood Church of St. Michael in Devon, England there is a 16th-century rood screen. The screen is a riot of carved foliage and fantastic figures of demons and spirits. The construction follows the classic form of canapy, vaulting, supporting columns, carved lower section (dado) and elaborate footings. The screen is dated 1535-1540 and was given to the church by Reverend Sir John Beauple. In the mid-19th century the screen was destroyed by the church’s vicar and only one portion was saved.


The rood screen. Devon Historic Churches Trust.

Just where the ribs of each vault descend and gather to meet the capital of the column there stands a small plump angel. 

Unlike the other carved figures on the screen, the four angels, each holding a tablet, appear to be stoic and almost static. They seem to be an anomaly, but they are not. They are right where they should be between the vertical supporting column and arched vault. Just as arches in church buildings draw our eye upwards, so too, do the vaults in a rood screen. The angels help direct our eyes and thoughts heaven-ward.

The wood carvers did not neglect these plump little angels. They gave them fabulous and flowing hair.

An Archangel Appears

Saluzzo Altarpiece, Brussels City Museum. Photos copyright Y. Peeters and A. Dohet.

The Saluzzo Altarpiece is dated 1500-1510 and was possibly made in the Borman workshop in Brussell (the workshop origin is disputed). The carved side shows the life of Mary, the reverse is painted and depicts the life of Joseph. The painting was done by Valentine van Orley. The altarpiece was made for the Pensa di Mondovi family in Saluzzo Italy. The altarpiece returned to Brussels late in the 19th century.

In the mid-15th century tableaux within altarpieces were often carved from one block of walnut. By the end of the century construction of altarpieces became more complex and the Saluzzo altarpiece is a prime example. Each scene usually has several figures, they gesture and the faces are animated. The backgrounds are complex with furniture, drapery and architectural elements. Textures are added to add dimension and richness. Figures were carved individually from quarter-sawn oak and made to exact measurements in order to fit together in their respective scenes. When new, the checkered floors between the figures would appear to be seamless. Now, after 500 years, we can see gaps between the figures.

The following is a description of how the figures were made. It is from “Late Medieval German Sculpture: Materials and Techniques” by Julien Chapuis, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“A standing figure was typically cut from a halved section of a tree trunk, clamped horizontally in an adjustable workbench that allowed the block to be rotated. Working from this angle, the sculptor was able to envision the figure in strong foreshortening, much as the viewer would when the finished work was installed above eye level; thus the sculptor could compensate for visual distortions by adjusting proportions and modeling. After marking the contours of the figure on the block with calipers and compasses, he roughed out the form with a variety of tools: two types of axes, curved and straight adzes used in an overhand chopping motion, broad chisels, and mallets. The deeper recesses were created with augers and hand-cranked borers. Various chisels and gouges were used for the elaboration of forms, working from the highest point to the deepest. Certain parts of a figure, such as hands, attributes, and protruding folds of drapery, were carved separately and attached to the figure with dowels. The backs of figures were normally hollowed out to prevent the wood from cracking as it aged. The carvings were meticulously finished with knives and scrapers, exploiting the contrast between broad, smooth areas and incisive details. Last, decorative patterns were either appliquéd or cut or pressed into the surface with punches. Before a figure left the sculptor’s workshop, the eyes and lips were often tinted.”


The Bishop, originally from an altarpiece, now in the collection of the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Norway.

The photo on the left is an example of how dowels were used to attach hands. On the right is the hollowed-out back of the figure. The drapery piece on the left may have been separately carved and attached, or may just be cracked.

 Guild laws in Brussels regulated how each component of the altarpiece was to be marked to ensure both quality and place of origin. The hutch maker (a medieval term for a cabinetmaker that crafted altarpieces among other things) marked the altarpiece piece case and other elements with a compass and plane. Carved figures were marked with a mallet. The polychromy was punched with “BREUSEL” in the gilding. All of these marks have been found on the Saluzzo altarpiece during restorations and cleanings.


Diagram of markings from “Support and Polychromy of Altarpieces from Brussels, Mechlin and Antwerp” by Myriam Serck-Dewaide. The two lower marks are probably personal marks of craftsmen.

Thanks to a Getty Institute publication, “The Conservation of Medieval Polychrome Wood Sculpture” by Michele D. Marincola and Lucretia Kargère, we have photographs of the maker marks from two altarpieces made in Brussels.

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Top: the hutch makers’s compass and plane from the Saluzzo Altarpiece. Bottom: the mallet mark of the sculptor of a figure from a different altarpiece. Copyright the J. Paul Getty Trust.

The Annunciation is one of the most repeated themes in religious art and the Saluzzo altarpiece has an outstanding depiction. I think of it as the “action panel.”

The carver of the Archangel Gabriel had the task of capturing both the moment and movement as the angel arrives in Mary’s chamber. Gabriel’s wings are still aloft, his mantle and gown swirl around him and his hair flows back from his face.He begins to speak his message as represented by the ribbon he holds. Mary, kneeling at her prie-dieu, turns to face Gabriel.

Layers of white ground (chalk and animal glue) are applied to the wood sculpures prior to the application of polychrome and gilding. Gabriel was given finely arched brows, his eye lids painted to give them depth and his cheeks have a delicate blush. His mantle is enriched with brocade pressed into the gilding. Gabriel’s beauty and the power of his arrival dominate this panel of the altarpiece. His presence emphasizes the immense importance of the message he carried to Mary.

The Lone Gitternist

Angels were often shown playing musical instruments, either alone or in groups. Unfortunately, as with choir stalls, misericords, rood screens and other church fittings, the groups were often broken up.

French, circa 1450-1500, Metropolitan Museum of New York.

This angel plays a gittern, a forerunner of the guitar. The face is captivating with rounded cheeks, a faraway look and a crown of wild curls. 

Feathered, but clipped wings.

He has the posture of a musician, focused on his performance. Sadly, the other musicians are missing,  but not due to creative differences causing a rift between members. Sculptures with multiple figures, as this probably was, were sawed apart and sold to collectors.

The side views.

This angel has such a strong presence that it is surprisingly just how small it is. The dimensions are only 16-1/8 x 15-13/16 x 3-3/8 inches (41 x 40.1 x 8.5 cm).

Alone, forever separated from his group, he can play power solos to his heart’s content.

Rock on, angel.

Suzanne Ellison

In the gallery below are a few more photos of the rood screen including the canopy and vaults; photos of the Saluzzo Altarpiece closed, the painted side (with the Joseph Cycle) and a screen shot of a video when the altarpiece was being dusted – it shows the immense size of the altarpiece.



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