The Art of Angels - Cherubim

The word cherubim (singular cherub) comes from the Hebrew meaning 'effusion of wisdom'. It  does not mean a chubby child. As previously mentioned, why angels became so we will discuss later.

The appellation of the Cherubim denotes their knowledge and their vision of God, and their readiness to receive the highest gift of light, and their power of contemplating the super-Divine comeliness in its first revealed power, and their being filled anew with the impartation which maketh wise, and their ungrudging communication to those next to them, by the stream of the given wisdom.

  It needs to be made clear that Pseudo-Dionysus did not write detailed descriptions of the appearance of the various classes of angels. These have come from biblical descriptions and from tradition. The biblical source for the description of the cherubim comes from the vision of Ezekiel, quoted on the Old Testament pages. It is repeated in Revelation chapter 4:

And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.  And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever. (v 6 - 9)
As mentioned, these descriptions provide the attributes of the four evangelists. But it doesn't make for an easy painting. Many images of cherubim pick and choose from this description. Most cherubim images have blue wings, but not always.
  The mosaic from the cathedral at Cefalu, Sicily, (left below) omits the four heads, but does emphasise the eyes. The fresco from the Meteora monastery, Greece, (right below) gives us the heads but not the eyes.

The description given by Ezekiel of the cherubim mentions wheels:

'And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.' These wheels generally do not feature in images of Cherubim. The engraving is one of the few that does.
   Why wheels? Is this just an age-old confusion with Thrones, coming up next? It has been suggested that 'cherubim' has been used in Ezekiel to cover a range of Angelic types, 'to organize originally independent visions into a unified collection.'*

Engraving after illustration by Matthaeus Merian the elder, 1670


Some later images.
The image on the left below by Jacopo di Cione is medieval, c1370. The red angels are the seraphim, the blue ones are cherubim. Already the angelic figures are more human-like. Mantegna's painting is just over a hundred years later; already the angels are more childlike, and the fashion for winged heads is under way.

San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece
National Gallery, London

Madonna of the Cherubim
Pinoteca di Brera, Milan

The cherubim in Genesis.

I talked about the first reference to cherubim in the bible in the section on the Old Testament, and commented on the discrepancy between the text and most images.  Genesis tells us that the Cherub was given the task of guarding the gate, not chasing them out with a sword, as in the fresco by Masaccio below left.  Why was entry to Paradise forbidden?   It was nothing to do with that ability with swords; Cherubim were learned angels whose job was to protect knowledge. Gold cherubim were placed at either end of the ark of the covenant to protect it, as described in Exodus 25 v . 16 - 22, and shown in the very rare French mosaic from c800 below. In Genesis, their function was not chasing out Adam and Eve, but protecting the Tree of Knowledge. The mosaic below shows this perfectly - the cherub is guarding the gate, while a lesser angel is doing the chasing out.   

Brancacci Chapel, Florence

Mosic from the Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily.

Oratory of Theodulf, Germigny-des-Prés

Of Wings and Wheels: A Synthetic Study of the Biblical Cherubim. Alice Wood.

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