Angel Making Music

Tyrol, 2nd half of the 17th century
Wood, with original paintwork and gilding
Height: 52 cm

Through its posture the angel takes on the appearance of an elegant dancer. A stringed instrument that no longer exists today, rested on the raised, right leg which, in all probability, was originally supported by an architectural element. The neck of the instrument lay in the angel’s rights hand, the violin bow being held in the left. This explains the expressive, expansive gesture of the two arms. The heavenly creature with its black curls is lost in thought, concentrating solely on the music.

The little music-maker is to be seen within the context of an altarpiece on which, together with another music-playing companion, it would have been standing on the volutes flanking the crowning pediment of the altarpiece. One such example can be found on the altar in St. Jacob’s Church in Schondorf am Ammersee. The angels there, however, are holding laurel wreaths and the branch of martyrdom in their hands, rather than musical instruments. This altarpiece is attributed to a sculptor from the so-called Weilheim School, probably a member of the Degler family’s workshop.

Thanks to the mediation of his father-in-law, Adam Krumper, among others, Hans Degler (1564–1632/33), the leading exponent of the Weilheim School, worked for the Court in Munich. He created the high altar in the basilica of St. Ulrich and St. Afra in Augsburg, as well as the two side altars and the pulpit.

Music of the Spheres

When angels sing …

In antiquity, the theory of the ‘harmony of the spheres’ or ‘music of the spheres’ was first propagated by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. He believed that the planets revolving around the earth (as the centre of the universe) were supported by transparent spheres. Pythagoras also thought that the movement of these transparent spheres produced sounds, the pitch of which depended on the distances between the planets and the speed at which the spheres moved. Based on this assumption, a harmonic sound (Greek symphōnía) was produced that the human ear, however, cannot normally hear.

The theory of the music of the spheres was picked up and discussed into the Modern Age. As the aesthetic expression of an ordered cosmos this notion was particularly well received in philosophical and literary circles that considered the universe to be the uniform manifestation of a mathematical order of divine origin. Christians were able to relate to it too, thanks to the passage in the bible according to which God ordered everything “in measure, and number, and weight” (Wisdom 11:20).

William Shakespeare created an enchanting poetic monument to the music of the spheres in his Merchant of Venice (1596–98):

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
(Act V, Scene 1)

South Tyrol

A long history

South Tyrol, the home of our music-making angel, is a region that boasts a chequered, centuries-old history. Now the autonomous region of Bolzano-South Tyrol and, since 1918, the northernmost province of Italy, the name was originally used for the County of Tyrol. It was ruled for the longest by the House of Habsburg – from 1353 until the end of World War I it controlled the destiny of this largely Alpine region. Incidentally, Tyrol takes its name from Tyrol Castle, the ancestral seat of the Counts of Tyrol, located near Merano. Many well-known artists journeyed to wealthy South Tyrol where they created sculptures and altarpieces of great beauty. Artistic exchange was lively with Tyrolean artists also travelling on to Bavaria on the northern side of the Alps.

Colour in art

The power of contrasts

The artist and Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten (1888–1967) defined colour contrast very precisely in his seminal work The Art of Colour (1961):
“Contrast is when there are clear differences or intervals between effects generated through the comparison of two colours”. As soon as two colours are used, a contrast is created by implication. The brightness and saturation of the colour are also important. Particularly strong colour contrasts are created by using complementary colours, i.e. colours that are diametrically opposed on the colour wheel, such as red and green. The artist who painted our carved wooden angel not only specifically used red and green to create a strong colour contrast but also the warm hues red and gold as well as the cool colours green and blue. The result is a vibrant and cheerful impression of the celestial musicians.