In the Catholic liturgy the torchbearer is a prominent character. During the procession he takes place between the priest celebrating the mass and the thurifer – incense bearer – who opens the cortege. In depictions torchbearers and thurifers are often paired up, one symbolizing purification and the other one expressing God’s light. Their role goes beyond utilitarian and touches the sacred. Arts always assign this role of torchbearers to angels as it is the case with our sculptures. This attribution finds its origins very early in Christian history as it refers to the Byzantine iconography of the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy designates the Eucharistic celebration transcending time and space, bringing together the livings, the deads and the heavens. Thus angels take over the position usually devoted to acolytes (from Greek akolouthos attendant). By giving the torchbearer angels a physical place inside the church – via the statues – a duplication operates, a cohabitation of both celestial and human acolytes in one celebration. Heavens and earth hand in hand for the duration of a mass.
Torchbearer angels figure in Christian iconography among heavenly assemblies, expressing the majesty and holiness of the characters they accompany. We can find them on tympana where are depicted Christ in Judgement or the Coronation of the Virgin Mary. We can also see them flanking a Virgin and Child. In most of the cases the sculptures are treated in low-reliefs. However our pair of sculptures, one mirroring the other, is carved in the round. Undoubtedly they took place in the choir, framing the high altar or the processional cross as it is seen in illuminated manuscripts as soon as the 12th-13th century.
The posture of these angels, the lampstand they are coupled with as well as their important size dissipate every doubts regarding their function and location. The refinement of the traits and the elegance of the figures carved in the round from a beautiful walnut wood are typical of the 14th century productions.
The two angels are standing on a cloud in reference to their celestial nature but also echoing the incense smoke floating around them during the celebrations. A way of connecting these heavenly creatures with their terrestrial environment.
The gracious figures adopt a slight contrapposto, the engaged leg reflecting the candlestick’s stem. The free leg’s knee is bulging under the soft dress worn by the angels. The straight pleats of the blousing upper part and of the skirt are broke up by the apron pleats created by the hand holding a flap. The effect gives rhythm to the statue’s verticality as much as a natural dynamism. The dress collar is adorned with three large pendants.
The faces of the angels are serene and peaceful presenting a high forehead, almond-shaped eyes and thin lips. Both angels are crowned with an antic tiara from which emerge delicate hair curls.
This pair of torchbearer angels presumably originates from Italy, around Siena.
BOCCADOR Jacqueline & BRESSET Edouard, Statuaire médiévale de collection, tome II, éditions les clefs du temps