When we think of Angels, the images conjured are often quite similar, radiant winged figures that have many human traits. We see this imagery in classical art and modern depictions—so one would assume this is how Angels were portrayed in biblical and ancient texts, but that is far from the truth. But, what do angels look like, really?
Angels take more a spiritual form as opposed to a physical one. There is no real description of what Angel’s true form is, but there are some descriptions of the bodies they assume, and they are very strange. So, let’s look at some of the different types of angels.
In the 12th century, scholars divided the angels around God into categories based on a hierarchical system. In Christianity, this is referred to as the three spheres and the nine orders of angels, because it describes a three-tier system with three types of angels in each tier. But near the bottom of this Hierarchy are the Cherubim.
The book of Ezekiel describes them as having four faces, each one representing something different. The lion represented wild animals, the ox domesticated animals, the eagle represented birds and the human represented humanity.
The cherubim had long straight legs with hooves and two pairs of wings. You may also see them with regular feet and four pairs of wings. A much different appearance to the young plump cherubs we would associate with figures like Cupid that stem from Christian scholars such as Thomas Aquinas who characterised them as having a burning love for God.
The Hebrew Bible mentions the word Cherubim almost one hundred times, but their purpose is still fairly ambiguous. The general belief is that they exist to guard the garden of Eden, especially the tree of life. The cherubim having numerous faces have this almost Chimera feel but the human face is something more akin to a Sphynx.
Either way, something is unsettling about the appearance of the Cherubim.
The Seraphim are a type of angel that appears in Christianity, Judaism and Islam but their importance varies. In Judaism, they are middle of the road but in Christianity, they assume the highest rank possible just under God.
The book of Isiah describes them as having six wings,
“Above it stood the seraphim’s: each one had six wings; with twain, he covered his face, and with twain, he covered his feet, and with twain, he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” — Isaiah 6:2, 3
From this passage, we can gather that two of these six wings were used to cover their faces, two to cover their feet and the last two they used to fly. The second passage describes them almost as cheerleaders who fly around the throne of God spreading the word of his glory.
This description is not as detailed as the Cherubim, so all we know for sure is that the Seraphim were made up mostly of wings.
The book of Revelation only differs slightly describing their six wings as being full of eyes. In Islam, we see the term Seraph, which is used to describe certain Archangels who were born from celestial fire.
The term Angel derives from the Greek word Angelos, which is derived from the Hebrew word for messenger, Mal’ akh. The Malakim are God’s messengers who are the most human-like. They are ranked third out of the four.
They acted on God’s behalf in the Old Testament, as did the angel of death in the Passover account or Michael, the archangel who defends heaven.
They frequently served as messengers in the New Testament, such as Gabriel, who informed Mary of her immaculate pregnancy. When asked to visualise an angel, many people think of these named angels. Even though the Malakim resembled humans, there was no mention of their having wings in the Bible.
The first known Christian picture of an angel, dating from the mid-third century, lacked wings. It wasn’t until the late fourth century that artists began to reimagine angels with wings. According to some researchers, this was done to depict their sublime nature, even though artists were aware that scripture did not describe them as having wings.
Next, we have the Thrones or the Ophanim. These are about as far from a traditional-looking angel as one can get. In Christianity, the Ophanim were entities that acted as chariots or transportation for the Cherubim.
They were giant interlocking wheels with wings and eyes that would reside in the part of the cosmos where material form began to shape. Like the Seraphim, they also chant God’s glory whenever in his presence. In Hebrew, Ophanim refers to wheels of spheres.
The book of Enoch describes them as the many-eyed ones and places them in the same category of celestial beings as Cherubim and Seraphim. Their role here was much more than transportation, the Ophanim never sleep and forever guard the throne of God.
When Ezekiel has his vision of the great chariot, he describes all three of these angels as the guardians but given the strange nature of what he’s describing, some believe this was a hallucination. Others take this Ezekiel’s account as an encounter with UFOs. So, no one knows where they came from and why they look so strange.
The Virtues are a group of angels who don’t possess a physical body but have control over the elements. They are referred to as the shining ones because they appear as sparks of light. Their main role was to perform miracles for those who were deemed as deserving. They would be given orders from the angels above them and travel to Earth to perform these miracles. On earth, they take a human form.
There are several types of angels along with the Virtues whose primary form resembles a source of light.
Angels are celestial beings; they are neither male nor female and essentially, they can take whatever form they desire.
Is it a surprise that the Angels who spend all their time in the cosmos with God are the strangest and most unorthodox looking? No, not really, as if you’re talking about regions that are supposed to be outside of our comprehension then surely the beings who inhabit them would also look out of place, even if that does mean they resemble something you expect to see in a Lovecraftian horror or perhaps the writings of someone coming down off an acid trip.
It also makes sense for the Archangels and regular angels to be seen in a much more human light as they have the most human interaction.
The further back you delve into various religious texts the stranger angels appear to be. As later books were added and revised, the more human angels became the norm and maybe this was done to make things easier to understand. In reality, we may never know but it is still interesting to examine.
Art Credits: Raul Bottero, Kyle Pearson.