here are no angels in these photographs. At least, nothing that an Albuquerque housewife would want to go on Montel Williams to confess that she'd seen hovering at the foot of her bed. Despite their spectral delicacy, Francois Le Diascorn's images are more worldly than that. They depict children dressed up for religious processions and mystery plays, adults in parade costume, beings no more supernatural than the plastic figure on the top of your Christmas tree. But the strange, fragile beauty of these images offers a few explanations for the current upsurge of interest in matters angelic. Take a look at Le Diascorn's pictures, and you can see why 70 per cent of Americans say they believe in angels, why 13 per cent claim to have seen one in the past year, and even - perhaps - why Robbie Williams wants to dress up as one.
Angels are distillations of human innocence: patches of light unpolluted by rage, greed, sex or self-disgust. They're dead children who went to heaven untroubled by adult desires and doubts, or dead adults relieved of their passions and suffering. They reflect our aspirations for something less achy-breaky than the corporeal world. They can personify the guilty's desire for redemption, women's desire to escape from domestic misery or boredom, gay men's desire for a kind of transcendental boyhood. Victorian husbands idealised their wives as angels in the home, battle-weary First World War soldiers saw angels hovering at Mons, people with Aids imagined themselves transfigured into angels, liberated from disease. "Angels lead us back towards childhood ... where we can still believe in a fresh clean world," argues Le Diascorn. They are lucent. Unfingermarked.
Belief in angels is common to Christianity, Judaism and Islam (the word comes from the Greek angelos, meaning "messenger"). All these traditions find a place for divine couriers between humanity and God, issuing orders and disseminating information. They are the residue of older polytheistic beliefs, lesser deities who were absorbed, synod by synod, into monotheistic religions. As far as the Bible is concerned, they are also an excellent literary device for getting narrative points across.
The Old Testament's angels were indistinguishable from human males, but over the years, the mythology was altered and enriched. Taking their inspiration from Mesopotamian iconography, Jewish artists and writers added wings, and developed a complex system of names, ranks and uniforms. From the Persian tradition, they imported the notion of a war between good and bad angels. Much later, other adjustments followed: Milton made the angels into God's spin-doctors and policemen. He humanised them, giving Gabriel and Michael sex lives and sweat pores. At a time when belief in Britain was going through one of its periodic crises, Paradise Lost helped to crystallise the vagueness of the Bible into strong, populist stuff. It worked, and still works. When you think of Satan, you're thinking of Milton's, not the Bible's.
Over the past five years or so, new strains of angelic mythography have been enthusiastically created, discourses that subscribe to the millennial prejudice that uncritical belief is somehow morally superior to rational inquiry. This year's all-star weepie, City of Angels, showed Meg Ryan's heart-surgeon abandoning cold science for the burnished mysticism of an angelic lover played by - of all people - Nicolas Cage. This Christmas, What Dreams May Come is taking Robin Williams to heaven.
Trawl the Internet and you'll find thousands of pastel-shaded web pages devoted to angel lore. Scrolls and flapping wings abound, all rendered in a My Little Pony aesthetic. The language is a soft-focus mixture of therapeutic platitudes, quiet tragedy and diet-pill rhetoric. At the homepage of Oprah's Angel Network, she writes, "Our planet recently lost two of our most beloved angels - Princess Diana and Mother Teresa - who helped us see people in need in a different way. In our own way, I'd like us all to try and continue - and build - on their legacy." Elsewhere, a teenage believer tells how an angel has assured him that their "real daddy" and "real brother" are safe and well. Barbara Mark and Trudy Griswold invite you to attend their "Angel Empowerment Workshop", a cocktail of therapy, meditation and automatic writing.
It's consumer-led Christianity Lite, with all that demanding, rigorous stuff about blood and death replaced with vague celestial beings who'll act as our knights errant and spiritual PAs, whether or not we believe in God, keep religious rituals or try to lead a virtuous life. "I believe in angels," says the Abba song, "when I know the time is right for me." As one Internet angelologist expounds, "Angels listen deeply with genuine interest, compassion and love. Angels will protect us from ourselves as we want and request. Angels love precious beads and flowers tangled in our hair and cool hats and old-fashioned ceiling fans." Angels, in other words, are anything and everything we want them to be. They're benign beings who grant wishes but don't appear to ask for anything in return. They'll tell you you're right even when you're wrong. They will offer soft words of comfort, even if you spend your afternoons slumped drunk in front of daytime TV, wondering where your life went