Guardians, messengers, protectors…what are angels? In Angels: A History, David Albert Jones, Director of the Centre for Bioethics and Emerging Technologies at St Mary’s University College, explores the enduring power of angels over the human imagination. He argues that they teach us something about our own existence, whether or not we believe in theirs. In this excerpt from the book, Professor Jones talks about what different religious texts tells us about what angels look like.
Ancient Depictions of the Cherubim
The Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures include a very severe warning about carving images: ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath’ (Exodus 20: 4). Nevertheless the same book describes how to carve two cherubim with wings facing one another to overshadow the ‘mercy seat’ to sit on top of the ark (Exodus 25: 20–1). This is nicely ironic, as the ark is the box that holds the tablets on which are written the Ten Commandments— which say you should not make images.
When Solomon built a temple to house the ark, in the sanctuary he placed two cherubim, each 10 cubits high with a 10 cubit wingspan—that is, around 17.5 feet (5.3 metres) high and the same distance across (1 Kings 6: 24). The wings of the cherubim were outstretched, so that the tip of one touched the wall and the tip of the other touched the other cherub. Unfortunately the ark was later lost (as any film-goer will know!). The ark was taken or hidden or destroyed when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 586 BCE. When the Temple was rebuilt after the exile there were no ark and no giant cherubim. It is, therefore, very difficult to know what the cherubim looked like. Some have imagined that cherubim looked like the winged bulls (the ‘shedu’) of the Assyrians or like a sphinx or a griffin (there is a scholarly theory that the words cherubim and griffin are related, but this is disputed). This idea is also based on the role of the cherubim as guards of the sanctuary. In other ancient cultures the shedu, griffin, or sphinx has this role.
The book of Ezekiel describes the cherubim as having wings outstretched and with faces of a man, an eagle, an ox, and a lion (Ezekiel 1: 10; see also Ezekiel 10: 14). However, Ezekiel does not say the cherubim have the body of an animal. Furthermore, the imagery of Ezekiel is deliberately exaggerated and may not reflect the Temple as it was. The other biblical accounts do not mention animal body parts in relation to cherubim. The cherubim on top of the ark face one another, and their wings ‘overshadow’ the mercy seat. This posture does not have parallels with images of shedu or other animal guards and Jewish writers from the third century CE suggest that these cherubs had human form (though not necessarily a human face).
It is certain that there were carved cherubim above the ark and in the sanctuary of Solomon’s Temple before the exile (586 BCE), but unfortunately these were lost or destroyed centuries before Jesus was born, and no image of them remains. What is more, the descriptions in the Bible do not give a clear picture of what they looked like. According to Josephus, no one in his day knew what cherubim were supposed to look like. There is a break, then, between these ancient images of the cherubim and the images of angels painted by later artists.
Wings and Halos
The traditional depiction of angels has been shaped largely by Christian artists. This is in part because both in Judaism and in Islam there has been a reluctance to depict angels. Images of angels found in Islamic manuscripts from medieval Persia or in Ottoman culture, and the images of angels on Jewish amulets of the seventeenth century, are very much the exception and not the rule. The concern in both religions is that making sacred images can easily turn into worshipping images. The same concern over images has also led to some fierce disputes within Christianity. This flared up in the ‘iconoclast’ dispute in the eighth century in the Byzantine Empire and in the debate over statues and images in the sixteenth century in the Reformation in Britain and Germany. Thus in the East there are very few early icons that survived the iconoclast period, and in the West many statues, stained-glass windows and wall paintings were defaced, destroyed, or whitewashed. Nevertheless, the dominant forms of Christianity in East and West have allowed representational art, including sacred art. The history of depictions of angels is largely the history of Christian art and the art of those cultures shaped by Christianity. The earliest depictions of angels are from the third century CE and are not in paintings or mosaics but are carved on objects and especially on sarcophagi. These show angels as young men without wings or halos, reflecting the biblical accounts of the angels who appeared to Abraham (Genesis 18: 2) or those who appeared to the women at the tomb of Jesus (Mark 16: 5). However, this begins to change even in the fourth century, when angels start to be depicted with wings. The particular way that winged angels are depicted at this time seems to be influenced by contemporary pagan images of the goddess Nike and the god Eros. Nevertheless, the idea that angels have wings was already well established among Christian and Jews.
In the Bible both the cherubim (Exodus 25: 20) and the seraphim (Isaiah 6: 2) have wings, and the psalmist imagines God like a charioteer, riding a cherub, and flying ‘upon the wings of the wind’ (2 Samuel 22: 11; Psalm 18: 10; Psalm 104: 3). By the time of Jesus it became common to believe that not only cherubim and seraphim but all spirits had wings. For example, the early Christian writer Tertullian (c.160–220) wrote that ‘every spirit is winged, both angels and demons’. Similarly the Jewish Talmud describes both angels and demons as having wings with which they ‘float from one end of the world to the other’.
Two centuries later, the Quran reiterates the claim that all angels have wings. ‘Praise be to Allah . . . Whomade the angel messengers with wings—two, or three, or four (pairs)’ (35: 1)
Compare this with the six-winged seraphim described in Isaiah (6: 2). This is not to say that angels are limited to three or four pairs. A tradition going back to the Hadith (the recorded sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad) states that the archangels Gabriel and Michael each have 600 wings.
The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome has mosaics that date from the early fifth century. There are scenes of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus that include many angels. These angels are young men dressed in white Roman togas. They are instantly recognizable as angels to a twenty-first-century observer, and show the archetypal image of an angel with a white gown (on the white garment see, for example, Matthew 28: 3 and Mark 16: 5) with wings and a halo…
The standard image of an angel as a man with wings and usually also a halo has endured from the fifth century to the present day. It has been sufficiently common to be recognizable to Christians of different traditions in different cultures separated by many centuries. In the early Middle Ages one partial exception to this rule was the portrayal of ‘tetramorphic’ creatures inspired by the visions of Ezekiel and Revelation. These were sometimes portrayed as four separate creatures (often representing the four gospels) but sometimes were portrayed as a single four-headed creature. They occur both in the Byzantine East and in the Latin West and may represent cherubim or seraphim or may sometimes be imagined as a third kind of winged spiritual being. However, they became much less common after the Renaissance, and the human winged figure remains the dominant image.