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The Wounded Angel

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?  

Its 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 & 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, & 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 & School for Blind Girls.

The angel girl is not seriously hurt. Her ‘wing’ is slightly broken & 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 & 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 & boots, & 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 & 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.

4 Comments

  1. James Grenfell

    Thank you Henry. I love this painting and I am grateful to you for introducing me to it about twenty years ago now. I have spent a good deal of time looking at it since then and have shared it with others in different contexts, with people training for Ordination and Reader ministry and more recent from nurses in hospital wanting to reflect what spiritual care might mean for their patients. I love the muted colour palette, the sense of stillness and movement, and the sheer mysteriousness that pervades this painting. I continue to see new things in The Wounded Angel and for me it is a particularly rich reservoir of meaning.

    I know that when Hugo Simberg painted it he was recovering from meningitis and that he regarded the painting as an important part of his convalescence. The symptoms of meningitis: lethargy, sensitivity to light, a stiff neck and scarring on the lungs (a similar shape to wings) are all visible in his depiction of the angel. It feels important to me that he has painted himself and his recovery into the painting.

    When I’ve shown the painting to some people, they identify deeply with the wounded angel, seeing in the angel something of the hurt and damage in themselves and, like the angel, longing to be carried by others to a place of healing. Then there are those who identify most strongly with the first child, the one on the left. Motivated by a strong sense of duty, he trudges onwards bearing the angel and seems pretty much oblivious to what is going on around him. More disturbing, I think, is the rather more sullen, angry-looking child who carries the other end of the stretcher and who looks out at us challenging us. Some people find in this boy an echo of their own resentments and struggles to care for others, some of whom can be very demanding. I’m reminded sometimes when I look at the painting of the three roles in Karpman’s Drama Triangle: rescuer, victim, and persecutor and the complex dance they perform.

    It’s possible I think to see the angel herself as a symbol of the church. At one level the church often appears to be a deeply flawed and damaged institution whose fragility and vulnerability is only too evident. From the outside, like the angel, the church often seems to have its head bowed, unable to lift its eyes to the light. The angel’s damaged wings, or are they lungs, seem to speak of diminished capacity, perhaps the church’s inability to fly or perhaps its inability to breathe deeply of the Spirit.

    Over the years, there are times when I’ve identified with the angel, sensing myself part of that damaged and hurting church, unable to see very far ahead and feeling highly dependent upon others. At other times I’ve felt far more like the dutiful child at the front, plodding onwards with limited enthusiasm, continuing to go through the liturgical motions, and feeling like I’m propping up a sick, dying institution. And then there are other periods when I have felt far more frustrated with the church, much like the child on the right of the painting. I’ve resented the time and energy I’ve given to the church which seems powerless to help itself.

    I have always felt that the Wounded Angel is a pretty mysterious painting but it became even more mysterious for me when I realised (after several years of looking at it) that the stretcher, with the angel sitting on it, appears to weigh nothing at all. There is no tension in the boys’ arms or shoulders to suggest that it is remotely heavy. For me, that begins to unsettle the painting still further and I wonder who is carrying whom?

    Is it the boys who are carrying the angel, taking her to a place where she can receive help and healing, or is it her, with her snowdrops (symbolising healing), her downcast eyes, and her fragility and vulnerability, who is in fact taking them somewhere. For me this has been a powerful reminder of the sheer mysteriousness of God’s merciful providence that carries me, and all of us, to a place of healing and grace.

  2. Henry

    Thank you James for your deep and insightful reflections.

  3. Aino-Kaarina Mäkisalo

    How good to read many questions which you do, Henry. The painting is very familiar to me and also one of my favorites. I like to change place with the wounded angel and with boys who is carrying her: to be carried and to carry, both sides in me. Who is carrying me and whom I am carrying?
    What has happened before? I stay to imagine it in my life.

    • Henry Morgan

      Thank you Aino-Kaarina, for your thoughtful comment. It’s especially good to read a comment from Finland and about a famous Finnish painting. Henry

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