Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Saducismus Triumphatus image

This image was published as an illustration to Joseph Glanvill’s book Saducismus Triumphatus (London, 1681). In this period, there was widespread belief in angels and their role as protectors of human beings. The turbulent religious climate perhaps gave people more cause to cling on to beliefs in angels, and popular ballads and pamphlets often referenced them. This image depicts one of the responsibilities of angels in early modern England: to appear at the bedside of the sick and carry people’s souls to Heaven once they had passed on.

This image portrays an angel standing next to a bed in which a person is resting. The angel appears as a delicate, feminine figure; this represents that belief that the role of angels was to protect the ordinary people. Images of gentle angels in human form (though usually winged) were common in the early modern period, marking a contrast with biblical angels, which might be more amorphous and/or warlike. Seeing a gentle being would reassure the soul that the angel was there to help them reach their final resting place.

Furthermore, the source infers that another role of an angel was to bring closure to the family of deceased. The idea that the soul of their loved one was being cared for by an angel helped with the grieving process; without the help of angel, they might be unsure where their loved one’s soul would end up.

Early modern stories about angels appearing at the deathbed were commonly framed as factual, but from a modern-day perspective we might be sceptical. With the belief of angels being so powerful and personal, it is possible that families could have thought they saw an angel at the bedside of their sick relative whereas in reality, it was their imagination during a time of grieving. In some cases, it is possible that a sighting of an angel at a relative’s deathbed could have been fabricated in the hope of local attention and sympathy.

Glanvill was a propagandist and natural philosopher. The purpose of Saducismus Triumphatus was to quash any criticism of witchcraft and other supernatural phenomena and to prove the existence of a world of spirits. It was part of a broader shift in late-seventeenth-century culture away from the post-Reformation hard-line on supernatural experiences. Whereas earlier Protestant theologians had insisted that angels no longer appeared on earth, Glanvill considered stories of extraordinary experiences to be a defence against growing ‘Atheisme and Infidelity’.

The images in his work could catch the eye of all types of audiences. Those who were illiterate were able to see the illustrations and understand the point about supernatural occurrences without having to read the descriptions. However, Glanvill was extremely eager to ensure that his work reached a wide audience and disproved his critics. This means that there is a possibility of exaggeration and fabrication in the accounts related in his work in order to form a plausible argument.

Overall, the illustration highlights some of the roles of an angel according to ordinary people in early modern England. The use of imagery alongside text helped Saducismus Triumphatus reach a wider range of people and further spread the influence of Glanvill. The belief that angels escorted the souls of the dead to Heaven helped relieve the burden of death for all involved.


By Georgia Cirillo


Further Reading

Laura Sangha, Angels and Belief in England, 1480-1700 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012)

Laura Sangha, ‘Revelation and Reckoning: Angels and the Apocalypse in Reformation England, c.1559–1625’, in Peter Clarke and Tony Claydon (eds), Studies in Church History 45: The Church, the Afterlife and the Fate of the Soul (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2009), 248-57

Alexandra Walsham, ‘Invisible Helpers: Angelic Intervention in Post-Reformation England’, Past & Present 208 (2010), 77-130

Illustration from Joseph Glanvill, Saducismus Triumphatus (London, 1681)