Angel Makers

A few autumns ago, in Copenhagen,  I encountered my first Angel Maker. Unaware of what an Angel Maker was, I met her sister shortly after, in Stockholm. The sister appears, painted on a wooden panel, in the Medeltidsmuseet, the Museum of Medieval Stockholm. It is displayed in a reconstructed medieval village with, among other attractions, a main square, a knight on horseback, a church, a gallows and a display of common crimes and punishments of the Middle Ages. These two angel makers are separated in time by several hundred years, but what they share in common is expressed in the Swedish word, Änglamakerska, that is, one who has made an angel out of a child by returning it to heaven, sometimes in gruesome ways.

Änglamakerska -Oak panel

The Angel Maker in Copenhagen was painted in 1886 by Erik Henningsen. In the bleak landscape and emotional rawness of his painting there are eight figures: five men, one woman, and a dog. The eighth, the hidden one, is gradually being unearthed at the bottom left side of the composition.

Erik Henningsen – The Infanticide – Oil/canvas – 1886

Before making another comment about the painting, let me recall a memory that intruded into my thoughts when I encountered the Angel Makers in Scandinavia. In 1994 in South Carolina, USA, a woman named Susan Smith created a nation-wide manhunt for a black man who had, she said, carjacked her at pistol point and had kidnapped her two young boys. Panicked citizens, pundits, police officers and politicians offered their views and opinions during several days of media frenzy. The nadir was reached by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, one Newt Gingrich, who pronounced that the ultimate blame for Ms. Smith’s terrifying experience were the “Liberal” social policies of the Clinton administration. Eventually Ms. Smith confessed that there had been no kidnapping: She had deliberately drowned her sons by driving her car, with them strapped in their seats, into a lake. She had been involved with a married man and said that her life, and her children’s, had been so awful that she wanted them to find peace and comfort with “their Heavenly Father.”

Ms. Smith’s psychiatrist said that she suffered from major depression and dependent personality disorder. Four hundred years before the birth of Christ, Euripides suggested that the protagonist of his drama, Medea, suffered from the oppressive, male-dominated culture of Ancient Greece. We don’t know the sufferings of the woman in the Medeltidsmuseet or of Henningsen’s woman, but would it surprise us if a man had not been involved?

As for “The Infanticide,” the compositional pivot of the painting is the kneeling young man, who turns from his task to glare accusingly at the woman. His left arm and the spade form an arrow pointing directly at her. The three uniformed constables seem indifferent: they observe the proceedings, they write the report, they arrest the accused; they do their jobs.

The Infanticide, detail – Oil/canvas – 1886

In my view, the most important figure, and the emotional pivot of the painting, is the dog. It nuzzles her and she pets it; it doesn’t judge her, but seems to understand her and to offer what little comfort it can. Considering the barrage of vitriol and hatred that is still directed at Susan Smith, I wonder: if we could summon up the compassion of the dog, might we be better human beings?

“You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late.” Greta Thunberg, a sixteen year old young woman from Stockholm, spoke these words in London in April, 2019, to the Members of the Houses of Parliament. If you asked her who today are the Angel Makers, what do you think her answer would be?

2 thoughts to “Angel Makers”

  1. I recall having read an earlier version of this post, in your journal notes from your travels in the Nordic countries. I was moved then by your commentary and by the painting itself. I especially appreciated your analysis of the structure and design of the painting and the figures in it, which so aptly underscore the story that the painting tells. I think I would have missed much of it without your guidance.

    Reading your commentaries now and finding them even more chilling with the addition of the larger perspective on the contemporary world in which we live, has me wondering about our history as human beings and, inevitably, about the future.

    Stalin is reputed to have said that one death is a tragedy; a million deaths, a statistic. Much of what happens in the world unfortunately seems to confirm his assertion. That sort of callousness and cynicism, however, keeps us from understanding that all wars are civil wars: brothers and sisters of the same human race killing each other and their children. This painting suggests that a million deaths are a million tragedies, a fate we seem determined to repeat, ad nihil.

    Thank you for drawing attention to the dog and its unconditional fidelity. And thank you for utilizing art, beauty, tragedy to draw our attention to ourselves, our fate and perhaps our hope.

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