Angels exist, but don't have wings and are more like shards of light, at least according to a top Catholic Church "angelologist" who says the heavenly beings are now back in vogue thanks to New Age religions.
"There is a re-discovery of angels in Christianity," Father Renzo Lavatori told AFP on the sidelines of a conference on angels in a lavishly-frescoed Renaissance palace in Rome.
"You do not see angels so much as feel their presence," said Lavatori, adding: "They are a bit like sunlight that refracts on you through a crystal vase."
The senior clergyman was taking part in a debate this week on angelic art by the Fondazione Archivio Storico, an Italian art foundation, and was held in the Vatican-owned Palazzo della Cancelleria.
Professor Valerio Massimo Manfredi, an art historian taking part in the conference, said the first mention of the word "angelos" came from the Mycenaean civilization in Greece more than 3,000 years ago.
The word means "messenger" in ancient Greek.
Monsignor Giovanni Tonucci, head of the Loreto Marian sanctuary, said that angels were "pure souls" whose lack of a defined form had allowed artists through the ages to let their creative imagination run wild.
"Following the cultural history of angels is following the history of humanity, or at least of our civilization," the organizers said. "Angels have helped drive religious and philosophical thought and have given birth to sublime forms of poetic and artistic expression."
Lavatori said the popularized image of angels is a necessary result of their being "back in fashion," but is dismissive of all the angel art around Christmas.
"There is space for that, but you have to understand that these are not real representations. Angels do not have wings or look like cherubs," he said.
The news that angels don't have wings will come as a shock to North Americans. Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed for a 2011 Associated Press poll said they believed in angels.
Roughly two-thirds of Canadians believe in angels, with 16 percent of them saying angels look like human beings with wings attached.
The widely published Catholic clergyman is also a "demonologist" and says angels are more needed than ever because increasing secularization and materialism in society have left an "open door" for the devil.
"There is a lot more interference from diabolical forces. That is why you see queues of people outside the exorcists' offices in churches," he said.
"Pope Francis talks more about the devil than about angels, and I think rightly so. But it's still early, he will get round to the angels, too."