My Festive Favourite: The Fallen Angel

Philip Hammond finds solace - and an escape from Christmas kitsch - in the tangential paintings of Alexandre Cabanel

It’s no secret amongst my friends and acquaintances: I don’t care for Christmas and its trappings. I don’t like everybody else’s family thing and I don’t like my isolation. That’s the way it is and I realise I run the risk of nomination for Mr Scrooge. But I get over it, every year.

One good way I have found to do this is to indulge myself just a little and hide myself vicariously amongst some of the better examples of art which I associate with the season. No, not the obvious baubles like sugar-coated carols, tear-jerking poems or garish religious iconography – definitely not the latter. My favourite festive art is much more tangential.

For example, I am fascinated by the thought of angels, which are so much a part of the Christmas story – but I like my angels to be a little darker. All this good news stuff just isn’t borne out by the facts, is it? If you want to know more about angels, and there’s a lot to know, you could choose a book from one of the 51,857 relevant titles currently available on Amazon – neat Christmas present, perhaps?

Basically, angels are thought to be spiritual entities, portrayed as human-like creatures with wings and always male, who act as messengers of a divine will. This fantasy world has held great power for generations of artists and writers, inspiring art works for several millennia.

There are countless stories connected with angels in the Bible and the Qur’an. The one that has always intrigued me is the particular fate of Lucifer, a name literally translated as 'the bringer of light'. Apparently, Lucifer refused god’s command to bow down to human beings, enlightened angel that he was, and as a result was banished from Heaven with his cohort of followers and exiled to Hell, for want of a better word.

The bible writers tended to give him a bad press, loosely connecting him with the name Satan, whereas those writing in the Qur’an take a rather more understanding view of his behaviour. Lucifer, the fallen angel, is the embodiment of the morning and evening star, otherwise known as Venus by classical astronomers and astrologists.

So the piece of art I choose as my festive favourite on this occasion is Alexandre Cabanel’s painting 'The Fallen Angel'. Cabanel was a French painter (b Montpellier, September 28, 1823; d Paris, January 23, 1889) who specialised in portraiture but who also had a penchant for mysterious, elegiac, or tragic heroines, influenced, I’m reliably informed, by the suave finish of the Florentine Mannerists.

Cabanel's paintings of the latter genre include 'The Birth of Venus', 'The Death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta' and my own particular favourite, 'Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners'.

'The Fallen Angel', Alexandre Cabanel


'The Fallen Angel' was first seen in 1868, when Cabanel was at the height of his fame and well into his maturity as an artist. What I like about this picture is the flaming red hair, the muscular intensity, the simmering anger, and the fierce resentment which Cabanel captures in the body and especially in the eyes of the angel.

I notice the way that all the other angels are so demurely and flowingly clothed in comparison to Lucifer's beautifully naked physique. They recoil like outraged angelic bourgeoisie as if from the negative energy he creates as he clasps his fingers together, presumably trying to get his wings ready for action again and escape from the barren rocks and the sharp thorns amongst which, fatefully, he has fallen.

Christmas-y this picture is not - but not without its analogies in my mind!