Painting the sounds: sacred music in art

Fleur Dorrell takes us on a visual exploration of sacred music as depicted in three different paintings.

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By Fleur Dorrell

The Bible describes a large number of musical instruments, particularly in the Old Testament, reflecting the importance of music in Israelite worship and culture. When we arrive at the New Testament, there are far fewer references to music, and yet the Passion narratives in particular, have inspired a global canon of music for centuries.

If you’d like a whistle stop tour of musical instruments in the Bible then look here – Top Ten Musical Instruments.

Paintings of secular music and musicians became very popular from the 16th and 17th centuries, as religious content in art began to loosen its hold in preference for landscapes and domestic scenes. Finding paintings of sacred music is therefore, more limited in scope since most of the musicians tend to be either angels or saints. Nevertheless, these portrayals provide us with a lens from which to view both a variety of instruments and their evolving styles, as well as a host of holy beings creating divine music.

Medieval Christians believed that every church was both sacramentally and symbolically, a microcosm of heaven and angels celebrated an eternal version of church rituals. Angels led heaven and earth in singing the Sanctus hymn (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) prior to the consecration of the Eucharistic bread and wine, at which point they were believed to enter the physical space of the church. Pope Gregory I (d. 604) wrote: “In the very hour of the sacrifice, at the words of the priest, the heavens [are] opened and the choirs of angels are present in the mystery of Jesus Christ…and earthly [things] joined to heavenly, and one thing is made visible and invisible.” (Gregory the Great, Dialogues IV, 58). In this theological context, our angel-musicians provide us with two aspects to our faith – a bridge between this earth and the next, and the music to lead us all the way to heaven.

Here are three paintings of sacred music that we have chosen to explore this month.

Two seated angels making music, Gherardo Starnina, c.1400-1410.
Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Source: Wikimedia Commons
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Gherardo Starnina was an Italian painter from Florence in the 14th century (c.1355–1413). Despite being one of the most important painters of his region, very little is known about him apart from what we are told by Vasari. Surviving documents show that he worked extensively in Spain, specifically in Toledo and Valencia, where he executed many panel paintings and frescoes. Most of Starnina’s known paintings are altarpieces, predominantly of scenes from the lives of various saints. Stylistically, Starnina drew inspiration from many sources, including the Late Gothic style with its sumptuous colours that he observed in Spain. He developed an independent technique that distinguished him from his Italian contemporaries. In particular, in his use of space, three-dimensional figures, his love of fabrics and ornate patterns.

This painting used to be a part of a larger polyptych altarpiece in a Chapel just outside Florence but the altarpiece was cut into 13 smaller pieces (a common practice), which are now found in 11 different museums around the world. Originally, these two angels were seated at the Virgin’s feet, while she held the baby Jesus, flanked by various saints. All the angels and saints were following the Queen of Heaven into paradise.

Here we see two music-making angels who have curly blond hair with ringlets in the current fashion; accessorised by thinly decorated red hair bands which also ensure that their music isn’t impeded by loose locks at a critical counterpoint. These angels have extraordinary wings with their gradations from black to pinks, and floral stamped halos dazzling against the sea of gold in the background. Their robes are luxuriant, shimmering and flowing against their form while their gold braided tunics are finished with elaborate cuffs. This is celestial haute couture.

The angel on the left is playing a portative organ, and the angel on the right is playing a harp. We can see how they are listening to the sounds they are making through a whole series of bodily gestures. The angel on the left has tilted their head, and more importantly, their ears upwards. Not just to denote heaven, but to allow the physical space above them to help hear more accurately. It is important that the background is not busy for the viewer and listener so that the notes being transported are uninterrupted. The angel is praising and gazing at Mary, and at heaven of which she is Queen. This angel is also crouching as it manipulates the keys with delicate pressure, and keeps its wings well back so as not to cause any movement to interfere with the music.

Mediaeval organs came in a wide selection of sizes — from large cathedral models, to small, lap-held instruments called portative organs, where the player pumped the bellows with the left hand and played the button-like keys with the right as we see here. By the l4th century, the arrangement of keys was as it is today, although the keys were slightly more shallow.

The angel on our right is playing a lap harp and is leaning in to the harp to listen to the sounds of the strings it is plucking. Not only do we see how this angel’s body embraces the harp, but we notice their head angled to receive the music immediately through their right ear. Their elegant hands work together to create the harmony with which they wish to honour Mary and worship God as in Psalm 43:4.

Then I will go to the altar of God,
    to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp,
    O God, my God…

This angel’s lower body is anchored by sitting on the carpet, enabling gravity to root both their posture and their harp, while the music can ascend. A gold shoe appears from out of their robe to remind us that angels have both legs and feet and can be grounded as well as airborne.

In the Middle Ages, the number of strings on a harp varied a lot. By the l4th century there were sometimes as many as twenty-five and we can see at least 20 strings on this harp. Around 1400, the harp acquired a more slender shape known as “gothic,” and a series of little elbow-shaped pegs called “bray pins” which touched the strings as they emerged from the sound box. This caused a nasal buzzing sound as the strings were plucked. It helped to project the sound, since the sound-box of the gothic harp was small (compared with later harps) and made of hardwood, and so did not have the natural resonance of larger spruce wood instruments.

These two angels portray not just two different instruments or the different sounds made by them but complementary body positions. Therefore, as we gaze at this painting we are compelled to look up and down and alongside the angels in unison with their rhythms. They provide a song of beauty and comfort, in the liturgical present and the anticipated heavenly future.


An angel playing a flageolet, Edward Coley Burne Jones, 1878.
Sudley House, Liverpool, England.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was one of the major artists of the second phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Burne-Jones was a painter, illustrator, stained glass window and tapestry designer of considerable influence in 19th century England. He is best known as a star of the Aesthetic Movement, the Arts and Crafts partner of William Morris, and an influence on European Symbolism.

Burne-Jones threw himself into the art of the Renaissance after being beguiled by Bellini, Mantegna and Botticelli. He made four trips to Italy which changed the direction of his work, including the painting of a huge number of angels. Burne-Jones gives us a real education in the biblical role of angel types: he paints guardian angels; ministering angels that feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and lead the blind; Annunciation angels with blush-pink wings; angelic cheerleaders and merry makers; angels that praise and worship God, angels playing trumpets, angels swinging censers, and angels striking bells. Burne-Jones provides us with angels in flight and angels just landed; angels in a rush or silent and still; angels at dawn and angels at night.

This pretty angel is typical of Burne-Jones’ evolving style. Presented in gold and tempera, it was reproduced numerous times in different colours and media including in stained glass windows in several churches. In this painting we see the combination of classical ideals of beauty and clothing, melded with a more modern sense of colour and fluidity of form. This angel evokes a number of emotions about the world above and around us since it is depicted with both human and divine features, can you spot them all? And if we thought the wings on the previous paintings’ angels were fancy, then these wings are outlandish, feathery splendours – we could be at the Folies Bergère! Nevertheless, ergonomic this angel might not be, but it’s here to stay as it plays the flageolet to usher in the divine.

Burne-Jones portrayal here of a flageolet is not entirely convincing since a flageolet was a medieval woodwind instrument that was akin to a small recorder. The flageolet comprised six finger holes and an opening at one end. The player would blow into the flute from the open end and then manipulate the finger holes to play different tunes. The flageolet itself was usually constructed from wood, making it a cheap and easily available instrument for the medieval musicians. The sound produced by a flageolet was soft but distinct and colourful, and was used as a musical instrument in its own right on many official occasions. Whereas Starnina is depicting contemporary instruments (and therefore a source of information for music historians), Burne-Jones is deliberately choosing an ‘old instrument’ – as part of his Pre-Raphaelite legacy. The flageolet is often compared with a shepherd’s pipe, and therefore, linked to the Nativity, of which Burne-Jones painted a number of times.

The fluid style and colour of this musical angel with a rosy garland around its head shows us a player who is concentrating very hard. With their eyes focused on their adolescent fingers, this might be a celestial novice rather than a professional, or maybe just a player ensuring that the sound will travel far and wide in praise of God.

Burne-Jones must have felt some great attachment to this particular angel since he kept it in his studio for 10 years before releasing it to a dealer, where it was snapped up immediately. Our artist once commented to Oscar Wilde that ‘the more materialistic science becomes, the more shall I paint angels: their wings are my protest in favour of the immortality of the soul’.


Saint Cecilia – John William Waterhouse, 1895.
Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, Canada.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was one of the most famous Victorian Romanticist and Pre-Raphaelite painters and draughts men. One of Waterhouse’s greatest masterpieces is this oil on canvas painting of St Cecilia, who is the patron saint of music, lying asleep in a decorative chair.

Two angels kneel by her side, both playing the viols upon a red and gold carpet. The angels as well as Cecilia herself, share a look of gentle innocence and vulnerability, but also respect as they admire this saint for her strong faith and courageous deeds. The book in her hand is very probably the Bible which the actual saint and martyr always carried concealed from her non-Christian family. St Cecilia converted many people to Christianity which ultimately cost her own life. She was ordered to be suffocated by steam, but survived, and was found smiling inside the chamber. She was then ordered to be beheaded, but the executioner could not sever her head with the three blows permitted. She is believed to have survived for three days, throughout which she was said to be fully coherent and joyful. She finally died after being blessed by Pope Urban I.

Inspired by Tennyson’s poem The Palace of Art, this painting was an immediate success when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Waterhouse’s depiction of St Cecilia stays close to Tennyson’s brief description, but adds poppies as symbolic motifs of sleep and death, as St Cecilia was a martyr. The angels are playing their viols in recognition of her being the patron saint of music:

Or in a clear-wall’d city on the sea,
      Near gilded organ-pipes, her hair
with white roses, slept Saint Cecily;
      An angel look’d at her.            

(From The Palace of Art, Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1832, revised 1842).

Neglected in the background is a small organ. More significantly, St Cecilia is seated near the seashore, perhaps inspiring, W H Auden’s line from his 1942 poem Hymn to St Cecilia which he wrote for Benjamin Britten to set to music:

‘And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer.’

This scene displays all of the intricate detail that Waterhouse added to every inch of this canvas. Notably, with the clothing of each figure, he has created material that you can touch and feel, as if you are right there watching this saint asleep or having a vision.

The link between Cecilia and music began during the 14th century, although the reason is something less clear. One explanation says that it is because of a wrong interpretation of a passage in a religious song.

In the Latin text of Saint Cecilia’s Passion Mass is written: Cantantibus organis, Cecilia virgo in corde suo soli Domino decantabat… which means “while the (musical?) instruments were playing, Cecilia was singing glory to God in her heart… . This phrase was interpreted as referring to Cecilia’s wedding. Therefore, from the 15th century Cecilia started to be represented with an organ beside her. However, this might be a wrong transcription of older manuscripts where it is written: Candentibus organis, Caecilia virgo…  which means “amidst incandescent (torture) instruments, Cecilia was singing glory to God in her heart…

Whatever the real story is, we are privileged that her life has inspired so many beautiful works of art, and compositions by Purcell, Handel, Charpentier, Scarlatti, Gounod and Britten.