For many years the angels have knelt atop their “riddle posts” in the tiny chapel of Our Lady of the Way on the Hudson River. Their posts on either side of the Blessed Sacrament hold tapestry “riddle curtains,” which separate the altar from the rest of the chapel (from the Middle English riddel “to separate.”) Their sincere expressions and the precious materials indicate the seriousness of their task.
Much like the cherubim described in the Book of Chronicles who guarded the Holy of Holies, these angels guard the Blessed Sacrament. However, the chapel being very small, their wingspans were not of such great measure.
The anonymous artist or artists who made them were masters of liturgical art. However, the angels had slowly fallen into disrepair.
The first angel’s gaze was sincere but depressive. His eyes had been crudely repainted, and were slightly askew.
The second angel had a piercing yet loving gaze but also disheveled appearance and a bump on his chin.
Time, which could not mar their angelic beauty, had ravaged their garments.
The surface of each angel was carefully scraped, sanded and prepared.
Their faces were painted in white gypsum gesso ground. For a while, they looked like the angels in white who greeted Mary Magdalene as she wept outside Jesus’ tomb.
The robes and wings were underpainted with yellow burnish sealer bole before being gilded with 23 K gold leaf.
The next stage was to underpaint the faces in terre verte (green earth pigment) which, when layered with flesh colors, would give the skin a human vibrancy. The green was temporary. Their skin color was soon restored to a tone and expression matching the original.
Why seek human vibrancy on an angelic creature? In art, angels appear as humans to show that they share with us an intellect and will, and wings to show that they are not bound by time and space.
Restoration complete, the first angel retains his gaze of pleading sincerity.
The second angel regained a noble expression of supernatural awe.
And what of the riddle posts upon which the angels keep watch? These, too, have their story.
When this historic chapel was built, every detail was carefully selected to tell the story of the victory of light over darkness through the blood of Christ.
While the little chapel contains no Baptistery, the riddle posts upon which the angels sit contain Baptismal imagery.
The cross-section of each column is in the shape of an octagon, symbolizing the eighth day, the time after the Bible’s seven days of creation. It also symbolizes eternity, the new heavens and the new earth of the life to come, which is the promise of Baptism.
Alternating arrows of gold (symbolizing the light of heaven and heavenly grade) and black (symbolizing death and sin) work their way up the riddle posts, ladder-like, until they reach the angels, who herald the coming of Christ and His Victory.
It is interesting to note that the gold arrows are actually carved out of the columns, whereas the black is painted on the surface. The symbolism is striking once you see it: the darkness of sin must be removed for light (gold) to be revealed.
Between the arrows of gold and black are long lines of red, shafts, pouring down, symbolizing the blood of Christ.
Black symbolizes the darkness of sin and death.
Green is also present near the top of the riddle posts; it represents hope and the drama of “Ordinary Time.”
The riddle posts of Our Lady of the Way Chapel in Hyde Park, New York are a striking example of how symbolism should work in a church. Nothing is arbitrary. Restored to their former glory, the colors and forms all work together in harmony, while illustrating a supernatural reality: the victory of light over darkness through the blood of Christ.
A very helpful book to learn more about the riddle curtain, riddle post, and many other architectural and design elements in churches is Dennis R. McNamara’s How To Read Churches: A Crash Course in Ecclesiastical Architecture (New York: Rizzoli Press, 2011).