Art is the John the Baptist of the heart, preparing its affections for Christ. Jacques Maritain

Sidney Nolan: Angel over Ely

ArtWay Visual Meditation November 14, 2021

Sidney Nolan: Angel over Ely

On the Edge

by Jonathan Evens

Sidney Nolan was one of Australia's best-known artists from the 20th century, his reputation resting primarily on paintings of Australian landscapes and legends from Australian history, most famously Ned Kelly, the bushranger and outlaw. However, his work is also among the most diverse in modern art, with images in a wide variety of mediums as he worked quickly in series and regularly innovated in his use of materials.

Angel over Ely was painted using ink and enamel on glass and is one of over 130 such paintings Nolan produced between 1948 and 1951. Nolan painted this image after a visit to Ely Cathedral in England during the winter of 1950–51, while staying with his wife Cynthia’s sister in Cambridge. The image represents the moment when religious symbolism returned to his repertoire, inspired by the thought of angels over the cathedral and a subsequent trip to Italy. The subject of floating or flying angels then recurs constantly in his magnificent religious series of 1951/52 set against an Australian outback landscape.

Nolan wrote to fellow artist Albert Tucker in 1951 saying: "Our trip to Europe forced a few vigorous conclusions on me. The outstanding one being that the painters who moved me most (El Greco & Giotto) seemed men primarily of faith. Presumably religious faith. The painting is wonderful in the sense that it is a painting of wonder. Differently from Michelangelo for instance, in the Sistine Chapel, which is certainly wonderful painting, but by no means painting of wonderment.”

Angels first appeared in his work in a series of paintings from 1941 made in response to the ending of his first marriage and his affair with his patron Sunday Reed. In ‘Sidney Nolan: Landscape and Legends, A Retrospective Exhibition 1937-1987,’ art historian Jane Clark described these images as: “Swiftly executed, utterly – almost naively – simple …. sometimes Nolan’s angels swing through the air like acrobats …. Nolan recalls that Rilke …. had a special impact on his imagination at this time – with images of lovers, angels, hands picking flowers and tingling feet.” Religious imagery remained a part of Nolan’s oeuvre with, among others, a series of crucifixes and crucifixions following a second trip to Italy in 1954, crosses (often combined with Holocaust imagery) during the 1960s, particularly as he prepared for a visit to Auschwitz, and Ned Kelly crucifixions in the 1970s. 

In his diary for 1952 Nolan wrote: “What search is at the back of my present series of religious paintings? Does one conceive of Jesus as the ultimate hero? This is an attractive proposition for painting but seems a travesty as far as faith is concerned.” Charles Spencer, writing in Studio International in 1964, sensed a similar ambivalence when he commented that Nolan is “extremely well-read, deeply concerned with spiritual and philosophical issues” and concluded “Whilst not himself religious in any formal sense, Nolan is ever-conscious of the spiritual or communal impulse necessary to great art. When this is absent he feels art is in decay.” Nolan was a voracious reader from a young age, with his reading including the Bible, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and Rilke, among many others.

In preparing for ‘Sidney Nolan: Landscape and Legends’ Jane Clark went through most of the works in the exhibition a couple of times with Nolan himself and it was he who indicated that the poetry of Rilke was the prime source of his imagery in 1941. The Rilke poem he pointed to particularly is ‘Annunciation (Words of the Angel)’ which begins:

You are not nearer to God than we,
and we are far at best,
yet through your hands most wonderfully
his glory’s manifest.

Angels appear throughout the Bible as messengers from God. As such, they act separately from God’s people – whether Israel or the Church – often bringing messages that prompt God’s people to action, but also appearing independently of God’s people. Angel over Ely depicts this sense of independent activity beyond that of the Church, through the simple device of depicting the angel flying above and away from the cathedral. In the religious paintings of 1951/52 Nolan creates a similar sense by setting images with floating angels in the outback. Rosemary Crumlin writes in Images of Religion in Australian Art that to enter these religious paintings “demands a leap into the unknown, a forsaking of the familiar territory so often traversed by other painters, a suspension of credibility that is beyond the kind of rationality so valued by traditional theology.”

Nolan’s angel images suggest the ability of God to work beyond or outside the influence of his people, however defined, through other messengers. The extent to which Nolan, although not himself religious in any formal sense, utilises religious imagery suggests something of that same wider influence. The angel in Angel over Ely is on the extreme edge of the image suggesting that that is where renewal may be found.


Sidney Nolan: Angel Over Ely, 1950, oil on glass, 30.5 x 25.4 cm.

Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) is an Australian artist who grew up in a conservative, colonial society in the grips of a savage depression. He became one of the most celebrated and influential modern artists of his generation. Between 1946 and 1947 he painted his first series of works that commented on the life of the Australian bandit Ned Kelly. This was the first chapter of an Epic Poem for Nolan that continued to absorb him until his last painting in 1992. He painted in series like visual poems which are at their most profound when exhibited together – and the poems are complete. He speaks to the world of the imagination, offering a different interpretation of life so that the viewer can engage with the subject emotionally. Sidney Nolan was knighted in 1981 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1983. He was also made a Companion of the Order of Australia, elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a member of The Royal Academy of Arts in the UK.

Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar for HeartEdge at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, England. Through HeartEdge, a network of churches, he encourages congregations to engage with culture, compassion and commerce. He is co-author of ‘The Secret Chord,’ an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life written through the prism of Christian belief. He writes regularly on the Arts for a range of publications and blogs at



1. ARTWAY – For Advent Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker discusses the painting Sick Child / The Eighth Work of Mercy by Frans Franciscus, which combines Advent and care for the earth. Click here For Christmas she writes about the painting Lodging Strangers by Egbert Modderman. Click here 

2. VCS ADVENT RESOURCE PACK AND ADVENT CALENDAR – A VCS Advent Group Resource Pack is now available. The pack is designed for those meeting online or in person, such as church groups.  It contains material for four sessions during Advent, drawing on VCS exhibitions exploring key Advent themes.  If you would like to receive these resources, or to find out more about the sessions, please email The VCS will also be producing an Advent Calendar, with daily images and readings. You can subscribe by entering your email in the box at the bottom of the VCS homepage. Visual Commentary on Scripture | VCS (

3. THE ART OF CHRISTIANS IN LEBANON – 16, 18, 23, 25 November, 6:30-8pm, online: The Art and History of Christians in Lebanon. Organised by the World of the Bible in partnership with the Petit Palais, Paris, and led by art historian Raphaëlle Ziadé, this series explores the art and history of Lebanese Christians, the production of icons, and the printing of the first Bibles in Arabic and Syriac. Chaired by Benoît de Sagazan, editor in chief of Le Monde de la Bible.Art et histoire des chrétiens du Liban (

4. MORPHE ARTS MAKE GOOD ONLINE LECTURE – Art, Gardening and The Gospel, 15 November, 8pm, online. The next Make Good lecture by Morphē Arts features contemporary fine artist Makoto Fujimura, author/musician & founder of The Rabbit Room website Andrew Peterson, artist, author and director of Morphē Arts, Ally Gordon. From the moment of creation and the garden of Eden to the garden city of the New Jerusalem, God’s Word presents a symbiotic relationship between human beings, the natural world and artistic expression. In Christ all things are made and redeemed through his cross. The discussion will hinge around how artists today might draw from the eternal reality that art, gardening and the gospel matter in the Kingdom of God. Book for the event here:

5. CIVA RECOMMENDED READS – In preparation for Transcend Biennale 2021, we put together a recommended reading list. Each book or journal falls within the theme of transcendence and can be purchased from various online booksellers. Even if you did not attend the biennale, this list should help keep your mind and heart engaged - maybe even until the next conference. Click here to download the reading list PDF

6. ITALIAN RENAISSANCE ALTARPIECES – 10 December, 18.30 – 20 h, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Research Forum Seminar Room, Vernon Square, Somerset House, Strand, London: Sacred Traditions and the Arts seminar. Prof. Ekserdjian discusses his recent book on Italian Renaissance altarpieces (God and the Painters-The Altarpiece in the Italian Renaissance) and explores who – between the patrons, the ecclesiastical authorities, and the artists – actually calls the shots.  The STA seminar is a collaboration between the Courtauld Institute of Art and King’s College London, convened by Dr Scott Nethersole and Prof. Ben Quash.

7. NEW NETWORK FOR UK CURATORS – For UK Curators who work with Sacred Art in Collections pre-1900. The National Gallery is establishing a new network for UK museum curators. This diverse and growing group will have its inaugural meeting in June 2022, on the theme ‘Crossing Borders’. For more information email Ayla Lepine, Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion (

8. CALL FOR PAPERS – The Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA) "The Artist as Truth-Teller and the Legacy of French Artist Georges Rouault", June 17, 2022, Institut Catholique, Paris. A symposium in honour of the recent 150th anniversary of the birth of French modernist Georges Rouault, exploring the implications, influence, and subsequent reception of his work. Proposals due Nov 15, 2021. For full CFP, see

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences etc., click here

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