Angels on High: Auctioned Sculptures Once Adorned Pennsylvania Church | Information about antiquities and teaching history


A set of three wooden angels, carved in the 18th century, once graced St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in the village of Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania. Over the next 255 years, angels have made an intriguing flight through time.

Schaefferstown, in what is now Heidelberg Township, Lebanon County, became a small but prosperous crossroads after German immigrants began settling there in the early 1700s. Around 1730, the Congregation German Lutheran Church in Heidelberg was organized, worshiping in a shared log structure with a German Reformed congregation.

In 1765, having formed a building committee, the Lutherans set about building their own church and sold their part of the so-called Union Church to their Reformed brethren.

A pre-1885 photo of St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania shows the building as it was originally constructed, with a steeple above the west-facing doorway and the south-facing main entrance to its right. The three wooden angels are nestled almost invisibly among the dentils of the cornice at both ends of the south wall and in the middle above the main door and its keystone dated 1765.

The New Lutheran House of Worship, an imposing two-story limestone edifice built near the town center along the main street of Schaefferstown, was completed in 1767.

In the first decade of the 1900s, the steeple church became known by its current name of Evangelical Lutheran St. Luke. It featured three entrances, each with an arched doorway, echoing the high arched windows of the structure. These entrances were on the south, east and west sides of the building. The south gate faced Main Street; its arch was surmounted by a red sandstone keystone bearing the date 1765.

While this keystone, along with the red sandstone corner chains, water table and window sills, contrasted against the gray limestone walls of the church, three much less obvious objects were tucked under the eaves. south-facing roofline roofs. Spread evenly, high along the cornice at its east and west ends, and in the middle of the wall above the main street entrance, were three hand-carved heads of angels with wings. They were painted the same white as the cornice on which they were mounted.

To the casual observer at ground level, these three angels, each about 10 inches tall with a wingspan of 20 inches, might have looked identical; however, closer examination would have revealed that each wore a different facial expression. One was grim, another had a faint smile, while the third smiled more openly.

A certain mystery surrounds these angels. Who carved them by hand from pine wood and why were they placed outside the church in such an inconspicuous place?

Schaefferstown resident and retired professor of history from Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Dr. Diane Wenger has researched and written in two publications on angels. In the spring 2011 edition of the Historic Schaefferstown Journal, of which she is the editor, as well as in a 2020 history of St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Wenger wrote about what she learned about these angels. elusive.

The angels are believed to have been installed during the construction of Schaefferstown Church. Their simple, stylized depiction of eyes, curly hair, and feathered angel wings indicate their creation in the 18th century. There are no marks on the angels or parish registers revealing who might have been the sculptor of these winged figures.


A Sophia-style angel similar to the three angels once displayed under the south eaves of the nearby Lutheran church surmounts the tombstone of 12-year-old Mary Elizabeth Erpff, who died in 1769. Her father, Philip Erpff, had been member of the church building committee around 1765. Also note the image of the skull at the bottom of the tombstone.

Wenger characterizes the style of the angels in St. Luke’s Church – heads with wings – as a kind of “Sophia”, named after the Virgin Sophia. The Sophias were considered a symbol of wisdom and were the subject of mystical religious writings in Europe and colonial America. Wenger discovered that the nearby Ephrata Cloister, led by Conrad Beissel in the mid-1700s in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, decorated the letter “V” with an angel Sophia in an alphabet book printed at the time.

“The Schaefferstown Angels are rare and perhaps unique survivors of Pennsylvania Colonial German vernacular architecture,” Wenger said.

She said various carved figures decorated German and Swiss buildings. In fact, angels were commonly used in other Pennsylvania German folk art forms, including frakturs and tombstones.

Angels were common symbols found in 17th and 18th century cemeteries. According to, angels were seen as symbolic messengers between God and man.

Wenger writes that, in a cemetery a few hundred yards from St. Luke’s Church, a Sophia-style angel adorns the tombstone of Mary Elizabeth Erpff, the 12-year-old daughter of Philip Erpff, who served on the building committee of Saint Luke. . She died in 1769, two years after the church was completed.

But, despite much speculation, no conclusive evidence has established the significance of the three angels. Perhaps looking up at them was meant to be a reminder of God’s watch. Some believe the trio represents the past, present, and future, while others suggest they represent life, death, and resurrection.

Wenger sees them as a reflection of the changing times. While “skulls” of a skull, sometimes with crossbones, were once symbols used on tombstones in times past, the Great Awakening – a spiritual revival movement between 1720 and 1760 – had hijacked the attention of believers to the negative side of death and damnation. . Images of angels provided a more optimistic attitude, emphasizing resurrection and heavenly reward.

Wenger also points to the upheavals in the churches of Schaefferstown around the same time. Not only did the Lutherans branch out in their own building, but there was also dissension within the Heidelberg Lutheran congregation itself, leading some members to leave and follow another Lutheran pastor with dubious theological views. Wenger speculates that the different facial expressions of the three angels may be symbolic of transitions within the congregation, as well as changing worldviews, such as those that ultimately brought about the American Revolutionary War.

In 1884, the need arose to expand and update the Schaefferstown Lutheran place of worship. The church was added to the west end of the building and moved the altar there, making the east doorway the new main entrance to the repurposed sanctuary. The old Main Street entrance has been closed, although its keystone from 1765 remains.

The decision to modernize the church led to the salvage and eventual sale of discarded components, with proceeds going to renovations. These elements included windows, the original wineglass pulpit with its soundboard, the existing altar, heavy wooden gallery pillars and the trio of carved angels, described by a local newspaper columnist as “soft-eyed cherubs”. While the price of the angels and their buyer remain unknown, according to sales reports from the Lebanon Daily News, the various items recovered appeared to sell for prices ranging between 35 cents and $1.55.


This is how St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Schaefferstown appears today after an 1884 addition to the western end of the structure, which reoriented the sanctuary, resulting in the relocation of the steeple and main entrance at its eastern end.

Wenger’s research showed that the Angels had apparently been acquired locally and only resurfaced at the April 1933 estate auction for Frank M. Iba of Schaefferstown. The auction’s advertisement highlighted the “rare carved wooden church ornament”, referring to the angels, which had at one time been mounted vertically in an open rectangular frame, believed to be constructed from the boards of the original cornice of the church. The announcement stated that the angels “represent the Ark of the Covenant”.

Following this auction, the angels again remained in obscurity until they were sold at a 2002 Sotheby’s auction in New York. Their buyer paid $72,625 for them and then resold them to David Wheatcroft Antiques. When Wheatcroft sold them in 2004, their asking price was $150,000.

The angels have passed to at least one other private collector since then, but were included in a 2011 exhibit of Pennsylvania German folk art at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Around this time, St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church chartered a bus so members could see these historic angels again.


About Author

Comments are closed.