Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and for the artists that create our magnificent architecture there can be controversy when you try to change an artists opinion of their artwork.  Guzton Borglum, the creator of Mount Rushmore, was a great artist with a large, some would say challenging, personality. Never one to sacrifice his artistic vision to popular opinion, he found himself immersed in controversy in 1905, when the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, in New York City, commissioned him to sculpt the Heavenly Choir. This was a group of 20 angels to flank one of their chapels. Although tradition deemed angels to be male, Borglum believed certain angels must be depicted as female. Borglum therefore had crafted two angelic members of the Heavenly Choir as female. A storm of criticism and debate ensued that proved to be a hot topic in the midst of the turn-of-the-century women’s rights movement.

In an interview with the New York Times, Borglum insisted that, “…in the angel idea there is something pure and spiritual and clearly beautiful which is more compatible with woman than with man.” The media jumped on the debate, with fierce opinions on both sides delivered up and down the East Coast. Finally, bowing to tradition, the Cathedral asked Borglum to adjust his statues from female to male—a request to which he reluctantly complied. With a heavy heart and “feeling like a murderer,” he destroyed the plaster casts of the female angels, preserving the faces and a hand to take home with him as a memento. His work for the Cathedral continued, eventually comprising 46 angels both inside and outside the edifice. And all are male.

Are angels male or female? Many people do not stop to consider whether angels are male or female. Some prefer the idea of a comforting presence, or a silent witness, to be either male or female. If you visit St. John the Divine, study the angels created by Borglum and see if you agree that female angels belong in the choir.


Article Author: Sylvia Moss is a renowned fine arts photographer and author of the book “Angels of New York,” a stunning visual journey of the spectacular displays of angels that grace New York architecture. Sylvia brings her unique perspective as an international sound and energy healer to her work. She is passionate about helping people be well and transform with the healing energy of angels. Sylvia’s angels have been exhibited in many New York and US galleries, MoMA Wales, and private collections. 

Article Resource: Diehl, Margaret, Acting Editor of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine quarterly newsletter. “The Gender of Angels”, Episcopal New Yorker, Spring 2011 edition, p. 36.

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