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Deities, Angels, and Allegories: Winged Figures of the NCMA

/ July 22, 2021
Wings elevate—both literally and figuratively. Walk through any museum, and you will find winged figures scattered throughout the collection. Often these images represent a figure or concept that exists beyond the limits of the human world, just beyond the ordinary. Ancient gods, Renaissance angels, and even modern superheroes are just a few examples you might see.

This virtual gallery tour introduces you to some of the winged figures in the NCMA collection, starting from the most ancient objects and moving forward through time. What can we learn from these figures, and from the wings themselves? When looking at these objects, keep these questions in mind:

  • What different shapes and colors of wings do you see? What might these things tell us?
  • How are the wings positioned? Are they at rest or in flight? Does this convey a particular meaning?
  • What are some differences and similarities among these depictions? How do later objects reference earlier ones?
Egyptian, Coffin of Amunred (detail)

Coffin of Amunred

Egyptian, Coffin of Amunred, circa 715–525 B.C.E., wood with gesso and paint, H. 71 x W. 19 x D. 16 3/4 in., Gift of the James G. Hanes Memorial Fund

In the ancient world, winged figures were often deities. Here the Egyptian goddess Nut sits at the center of a coffin, her wings stretched wide, protecting the coffin’s owner. Nut was the goddess of the sky but was also associated with resurrection; the dead were believed to become stars in the celestial body of the goddess. She is not the only winged figure on the coffin, however. Look closely and below Nut you will see two more winged goddesses facing each other. These are the sisters Isis and Nephthys. They were frequently depicted together on funerary objects and, like Nut, offer protection for the coffin owner. Hieroglyphs at the head of these goddesses identify them by name, along with the inscription “May she give a beautiful burial.” They are painted here with the wings of a kite—birds of prey whose piercing cries are said to sound like the wails of mourning women.

There is one more small, winged figure on this object, though it’s not visible in the photograph. A winged scarab—holding a small sun disk in its legs and representing resurrection—is painted at the very top of the coffin. Try to find it when you visit the Museum!

Greek, Aryballos, late 7th century B.C.E., painted, black figure, H. 6 3/4 x Diam. 5 1/4 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

Corinthian Aryballos

This aryballos (small flask or bottle) comes from Corinth, a city in ancient Greece. We aren’t certain exactly who the winged man depicted here is, though there are some suggestions he is a wind god. The depiction of the wings is especially striking. The tips curl in, almost like a shell. This style is typical of Corinthian wings and is aesthetically quite different from the more realistic bird-like wings of many of the figures in the NCMA collection. Compare this figure’s lifted wings and bent legs, which convey running, to the seated figure of Nut we just saw. While Nut is static, here there is a feeling of movement and action.

Greek, Intaglio Ring with Scene of Nike and Trophy, 4th–3rd century B.C.E., gold, Diam. of bezel: 1 3/8 in.; H. through band: 3/4 in., Purchased with funds from the Friends of Greek Art in honor of Mary Easley, First Lady of North Carolina

Intaglio Ring with Scene of Nike

The Greek goddess of victory, Nike, is inscribed on this small ring. Nike was both a goddess and the personification of the concept of victory, both in war and athletic competition. Greeks often turned concepts into deities—Nike’s sisters were Zelus (zeal), Bia (force), and Kratos (strength).

Nike is one of few Greek deities who is almost always depicted with wings. She is often shown alongside the winners of Panhellenic games; sports festivals in which citizens of city-states would compete against each other. The Olympics were one of these competitions. Though she is often seen delivering the message of victory, here we see her standing with a trophy. Her association with sport and competition lives on into modern times. The sportswear brand Nike took their name from the goddess, and their iconic swoosh was designed to resemble her wings!

Sicilian, Funerary Vase (Lebes Gamikos) (detail), circa 250–225 B.C.E., ceramic with paint and gilding, H. 35 x Max. Diam. 12 1/2 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

 Funerary Vase (Lebes Gamikos)

 There are two different winged figures on this vase. Nike, whom we just saw, is depicted on the very top of the vase as a bust and pair of wings. To find the other winged figure, look at the leftmost woman: you’ll see a small figure hovering by her head. This is Eros, the god of love. Like Nike, he is a manifestation of a concept. Eros and his siblings form a cohort of winged deities called the Erotes that accompany Aphrodite, each representing an aspect of love or sex. Some of the other Erotes are Pothos (yearning) and Hedylogos (flattery). As the god of love, Eros is a particularly appropriate figure to appear on this vase, which was likely originally used in a wedding ceremony (lebes gamikos literally means marriage vessel), though the vase was subsequently used as a burial object as well.

Ubaldo Gandolfi, Mercury About to Behead Argus, circa 1770–75, oil on canvas, 86 1/8 x 53 7/8 in., Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest), in memory of Robert Lee Humber

Mercury About to Behead Argus

This work of art is not ancient but was painted during a period of intense classical revival in European art, inspired in part by the discovery of the ancient Roman cities of Herculaneum (1738) and Pompeii (1748). Shown here is a myth in which the Roman god Mercury (Hermes in Greek mythology) was caught up in the complicated relationship of Jupiter and his wife, Juno (Zeus and Hera to the Greeks). According to the myth, Jupiter had an affair with the mortal woman Io, and to conceal his affair, he transformed Io into a cow. Suspecting Jupiter of infidelity, Juno requested Io as a gift and placed her under the guard of the giant Argus. In this scene we see Mercury, sent by Jupiter, approaching Argus in order to steal Io back. If you look closely, you will see two sets of wings on Mercury. One attached to his helmet, and the others on his ankles. Mercury was the messenger god, but he was also the god of travelers and trade. The wings on Mercury’s ankles, which are often depicted as winged sandals, are especially associated with Mercury’s role as a swift messenger. On occasion Mercury would loan his sandals out to heroes such as Perseus to help them complete their quests.

German, Adoring Angel, circa 1735–60, wood, polychrome, and gold leaf, 41 1/4 x 31 in., Gift of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation

Adoring Angel

Angels are perhaps the first thing people think of when they imagine winged figures, and the gilded wings on this statue are particularly beautiful and realistic. Angels were not always depicted with wings, however. The first depiction appears in the 4th century C.E., around the same time that the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion.

Why do angels have wings? Perhaps the answer can be found in their name, which derives from the Greek angelos, meaning “messenger.” Like the Roman god Mercury, whose wings facilitated his swift deliveries, angels’ wings can be understood as aiding in their role as divine messenger. We can also imagine that the wings, like those of the Egyptian goddesses Nut, Isis, and Nephthys, serve a protective function, as angels are often called on for protection.

François Boucher, Allegory of Music, 1752, oil on canvas, 26 1/2 x 30 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

Allegory of Music

This painting does not directly depict figures from either religion or mythology. However, like Nike, who represents victory, and Eros, who represents love, this painting is meant to represent the idea of music. The winged infants depicted here, sometimes called cupids or putti, are most often associated with secular art and are also evolutions of ancient winged figures. A small quiver of arrows in the bottom right recalls Eros, whom we saw on the Lebes Gamikos. Indeed, Cupid is the Roman name for Eros. These winged infants are often mistakenly called cherubim, who, though similar in appearance, are depicted in religious as opposed to secular contexts.

Auguste Rodin, The Call to Arms (La Défense), modeled 1879, cast at a later date, bronze, H. 44 1/2 x W. 22 1/2 x D. 15 in., Gift of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation

The Call to Arms

Rodin first created this sculpture as a submission to a competition for a public monument that would commemorate the defense of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It was rejected, which Rodin attributed to the starkness of the violence depicted. The sculpture alludes to both sacrifice and liberty. It depicts a fallen soldier who is leaning against and gazing up at a winged figure symbolizing liberty.

The male soldier is reminiscent of Christ in Michelangelo’s Pieta. The winged woman, though in some ways reminiscent of Nike, is not a goddess. Unlike the many figures we’ve seen before, this woman is not placid and angelic. She is angry and protective, screaming over the wounded hero in her lap, her arms outstretched, her fists clenched. Her wings, which seem to be beating furiously in the air, aid in expressing her emotion.

Michael Richards, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, 1999, body cast in resin and fiberglass, painted and supported by steel shaft, with airplanes cast in resin and fiberglass, painted and attached by steel bolts, H. 84 in., On loan from the estate of the artist

Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian

This sculpture is artist Michael Richards’s most well-known work. It commemorates the Tuskegee Airmen, who fought in World War II and are known as the first Black American pilots. Richards used a cast of his own body for the sculpture, which he dressed in the Tuskegee uniform, painted gold, and pierced with 18 airplanes. The name of the sculpture and the symbolism of its imagery reference a range of narratives, including that of St. Sebastian, who was shot with arrows and martyred.

Richards often worked with images of flight and incorporated feathers, wings, and plane parts into his pieces. This sculpture took on new meaning, however, after 9/11, when the artist was killed during the attack while working at his studio in the World Trade Center in New York City. After his death the sculpture was thought to be lost but was later found in storage. It was subsequently displayed in the exhibition Michael Richards: Winged and was later featured in the NCMA exhibition Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight in 2003. Richards said of his art, “The idea of flight relates to my use of pilots and planes, but it also references the Black church, the idea of being lifted up, enraptured, or taken up to a safe place—to a better world.”

Rachel Webberman
Rachel Webberman was the NCMA’s spring, summer, and fall 2020 curatorial intern in ancient art.

2 thoughts on “Deities, Angels, and Allegories: Winged Figures of the NCMA”

  1. Fascinating and well-researched, Rachel! Thanks for your contributions to the museum! I did a tour on birds before the long-year(s) of no touring which included a few winged humanoids, but your focus is terrific!

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