The Christmas season gives rise to varied depictions of angelic beings. Unfortunately, none can adequately convey their awesome power. When the Bible pulls back the curtain allowing us to see into the spiritual dimension, however, we get a glimpse of the magnificence of the beings we glibly call angels.
“As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches going back and forth among the living creatures. The fire was bright, and out of the fire went lightning. And the living creatures ran back and forth, in appearance like a flash of lightning.”
One group of mighty angels not specifically mentioned in the Christmas story are cherubim, which is the plural of cherub (Ezek. 10). Their movements are instantaneous, darting with lightning speed in their service to Almighty God (Ezek. 1:19-21).
Ezekiel describes cherubim as formidable beings radiating intense brightness, moving and generating what appear to be flashes of lightening. Their bodies are described as similar to man, but with four faces oriented in opposing directions.
“Each one had four faces: the first face was the face of a cherub, the second face the face of a man, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle” (Ezek. 10:14).
With two sets of wings, hands and calf-like feet, how is it cherubim came to be recognized as baby-like creatures sporting dimply bodies and stubby wings? (cf. Ezek. 1:1-13).
The first mention of cherubim occurs shortly after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden when God stationed them with flaming sword at the entrance to guard the Tree of Life. Cherubim were most assuredly involved during the Nativity as part of the heavenly host who glorified and praised God.
In early Christian art, however, cherubim were often portrayed as bodiless heads with wings. Their spiritual nature reflected the incorporeal absence of a body. With heads representing their intellect and ability to communicate with God, their wings identified them with the divine or celestial.
Italian artists of the Quattrocento are primarily responsible for visual depictions we commonly associate with angels. In the 1400’s, Raphael borrowed and adapted a motif from Greek and Roman mythos applying it to the sacred in his widely-known rendition of cherubs in “The Sistine Madonna.”
Starting with the early Renaissance through the Baroque period and up to the present, artistic depictions of cherubs are erroneously interchanged with this motif known as putto. Taken from the Latin meaning little man, putti (pl.) are mischievous baby-like winged creatures associated with profane activities or erotic love in classical themes. This motif became so entrenched, that by the Baroque era, the only way to differentiate between cherubim and putti was the context of the art.
Hence, though universally accepted as a medium for creative expression, art isn’t necessarily the best way to convey biblical truth. As finite creatures, our ability to conceptualize angels is limited.
Cherubim are immensely powerful beings intimately connected to God who function as His ministering servants in accomplishing His direct will. Whether recognized as such in artistic depictions, Christians can rely on the veracity of the Bible for the foundation for our understanding!
This Christmas, don’t allow familiar perceptions of angels to undermine their vital role both in the Christmas story and the outworking of God’s plan for history. Use God’s Word to build your faith. And then, share the truth about angels!
1) Walking to church (c. 1853). (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: By George Henry Durrie/[PD-US, PD-Art]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
2) Cherub. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: Pixabay/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
3) Putto on building in Ptuj, Slovenia. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: By David Jones/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
4) The Guardian of Paradise (c. 1889). (Image used for illustrative purposes.) (Photo credit: By Franz von Stuck/[PD-U
5) Cherubim. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: By Unknown engraver/(Google Books)/[Public domain]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
6) Cherubic Heads. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: Pixabay)
7) Contemplative Putti (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Detail: The Sistine Madonna. By Rafael Sanzio de Urbino/[PD-US, PD-Art]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
8) Bodiless Cherub Heads (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: Pixabay)
Copyright © 2016 Charles E. McCracken, devotional comments only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Charles E. McCracken is an international Bible teacher, long-time friend of Israel and advocate for the Jewish people. Rev. McCracken authentically communicates biblical truth making his presentations relevant for those seeking to understand the significance of Israel and the church in Bible prophecy. He staunchly supports the nation of Israel and the Jewish people’s right to exist and live in peace.