Last Monday, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated the day of Archangel Michael. It was doubly interesting that the day fell on a Monday, which is, by default, a day the church remembers angels. While I was scrolling through the internet looking for interesting articles on the subject, I was reminded about how much I was inspired by iconographic imagery associated with angels.
Take, for example, this important scene from A Lamentation of Sirin:
It was a giant in the form of a man of light and fire. His eyes were suns, his teeth were moons. Six tapered wings of gold, lapis, emerald, ruby, silver, and topaz flickered in constant movement about his body. He had four faces turned in each direction—a man of searing beauty, an eagle, a lion, and a Sirin. As monstrous as such a creature should be, Voran could hardly keep from worshipping him right there on the field of battle, so beautiful he was. In his outstretched right hand, he held a sword of fire that was at once the sharpest metal and the hottest flame. In his left was a war hammer the size of a small mountain.
Iconographers use symbolic imagery to try to describe the indescribable ranks of angels (of which there are nine). My own “celestial hosts,” so to speak, are the Powers that inhabit higher levels of the world who sometimes help my characters. No, they’re not angels. It is, after all, a fantasy novel, even if grounded in an Orthodox cultural aesthetic. But the symbolic details that iconographers use are perfect launching points for the descriptions of my own Powers.
So today, I thought I’d share an excellent article from the wonderful Russian periodical Нескучный Сад (literally, “not-boring garden”), titled “How Iconographers Paint Angels.” Here is the link to the original Russian article.
How Iconographers Paint Angels
The first person who tried to systematically describe the angelic hierarch was a learned theologian and philosopher who lived in the 5th or 6th century. He signed his name as “St. Dionysius the Areopagite,” who was a 1st century bishop-martyr. St. Maximus the Confessor used these texts in his own works, and after him, all Orthodox hymnography and iconographic symbols of the angelic world rely almost exclusively on this so-called “Pseudo-Dionysius.”
In his short book “On the Celestial Hierarchies,” Dionysius comments on angelic imagery found in the Bible. These images are extremely varied, confusing both ancient and modern readers. Truly, what sort of meaning can we derive from images like chariots covered with eyes, or fiery thrones, or creatures with the hands of a man and the feet of a cow?
Dionysius answers this questions immediately: it is completely useless to try see these images as literal representations of the angels, to imagine that there are actual fiery chariots, or animate thrones and weapons, and other such things.
“All these hints of the names of angels are, so to speak, crude,” wrote Dionysius, even offering a specific term for them: “dissimilar similes.” They are all poetic symbols thorugh which the theological mind tries to approach a mystery indescribable to feeble human language. Dionysius does not shy away from the paradox:
It’s possible that we would not even think about this subject if the symbols were easily understandable to our minds, instead of amazing us with their dissimilar similes. We would then not be forced to refuse to ascribe any material qualities to the angels. Instead, we have no choice but to rise to the invisible reverently through the use of the visible.
Dionysius explains that the Scriptures clearly mention nine names or categories of angels. These nine are further subdivided into three ranks (from highest to lowest, depending on their relative closeness to the divine throne).
The highest rank of three includes the Cherubim, Seraphim, and Thrones.
In the visions of Prophet Ezekiel, Cherubim appear in such a bizarre from, that the prophet didn’t know what he was looking at. He saw a huge cloud and swirling fire, with light shining around it. From the midst of the fire he saw a creature made up of four different animals. Its form was that of a man, but it had four faces (human, lion, ox, and eagle). Its legs shone like brass. It had cow’s feet and human hands under wings. Under each of the four creatures was a single wheel “full of eyes.” (see Ezekiel 1:4-28)
Seraphim, in Hebrew, means “fiery.” This name indicates their “quickness and fieriness, their unswerving speed,” as well as their ability to light a fire of divine love in the hearts of people, dispelling any internal darkness. The Scriptures mention the Seraphim only once. They appeared to the Prophet Isaiah in the form of six-winged flying creatures that circled the throne of God. With two eyes they close their face, unable to look at the light of God. Two wings cover their feet, and with the last two they fly, constantly crying out to each other, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Sabaoth.” (See Isaiah 6:1-7)
This is a fairly concrete description, so Seraphim are generally more present in iconography than Cherabim. Thus, for example, we have this icon from the Church of the Transfiguration in Novgorod the Great from the 14th century.
However, the strange and mystical description of the Cherubim does not easily lend itself to iconography. According to Liudmila Schennikova, a historian:
In ancient times, painters tried to be very literal in their depictions of episodes from the Biblical text. So, the early iconographers literally painted the Cherubim with four faces and all the other difficult details. Such a depiction is called a “tetramorph” (creature with four forms, or faces).
The Combined Depiction
However, eventually the iconographic distinction between Cherubim and Seraphim disappeared. The general “angelic” form of a winged creature near the throne of God became more important than the specific differences between the Cherubim and Seraphim.
Thus, a combined version of both ranks became the iconographic norm. These angels have four or six wings, some of which are covered with eyes. They often have human hands and feet. Iconographers paint the face of these “combined angels” either above the wings or hidden in the midst of them. Sometimes, iconographers included wheels at their feet, such as in this fragment from an icon in Meteora, Greece.
At the same time, an even simpler depiction arose—angels without hands or feet, with four or six wings, and a human face. These depictions are often accompanied the text “Cherubim” or “Seraphim,” with no visible distinction between these two ranks of angels. Such icons usually do not indicate the actual “Seraphim” from the vision of Isaiah or the actual “Cherubim” from the vision of Ezekiel. They are, rather, a combined symbolic image of all angels that surround the divine Throne.
Iconographic depictions of the third rank of angels, the Thrones, are rarer. Their name, according to Dionysius, means that they are “completely separate from any attachment to the earth, constantly and firmly serving God with all their might.” Liudmila Schennikova has this to say about their iconographic depiction:
At first, fiery wheels with eyes on the rims were part of the depiction of Cherubim. However, these wheels eventually became a separate image indicating the third rank of angels, the Thrones. Tongues of fire flowing from Cherubinic wheels transformed into fiery wings, and the Thrones became winged. These angels are as the footstool of God, meaning that through them He accomplishes his justice.
The first depictions of a winged angel
The angels of the middle ranks have no iconographic depictions, because Scripture gives no visual cues. However, iconographers find it easiest to pain the “lowest angels,” the angels and archangels. This is because they revealed themselves to people in the clearest forms.
In early Christian art, angels are wingless youths. According to the historian of art Boris Mikhailov, by the second half of the third century, the familiar image of the flying angel had become standard. These early angels appear in the Roman catacombs of the time.
Generally, angels wear so-called “Apostolic” clothes. A tunic and a himation (similar to a cloak), often with two ornamented ribbons symbolizing their election and their royal dignity. A diadem-like ribbon ties their hair back. The ends of this ribbon, extending down to their ears, symbolize the angels constantly heeding the will of God.
What do angels hold in their hands?
A staff—the symbol of power, an important attribute of all angels.
A sphere or a mirror — mostly found in depictions of Archangels Michael or Gabriel. There are different interpretations. The sphere could be the created world (cosmos) or the seal of the Heavenly King. In Medieval icons, the sphere is usually transparent with the Chi Ro monogram. There is a Russian folk belief that the angels can see the will of God through the mirror they hold.
A censer or fan — These are found in depictions of the heavenly liturgy, at which the angels serve Christ, the bringer of Himself as Sacrifice.
A banner (labarum) — From the time of Constantine to the 13th century, the labarum with the Chi Rho was the war banner of the Empire. In the hand of an angel, the banner symbolizes the angels’ authority and power.
A trumpet—the symbol of sound and wind. These are mostly found in depictions of the Final Judgment, when the angels will sound the end of the world.
The instruments of the Passion of Christ— The Cross, the spear, the cup, the staff with the sponge. These are generally in the hands of Michael or Gabriel. Older icons also often show angels venerating the Cross and the instruments of the Passion.
Unrolled scrolls—these are usually words of welcome, hymns of praise, or instructions for those entering the church.
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