(Detail from Raphael's Sistine Madonna, 1513)
So when we say someone looks 'cherubic', we are referencing the above. We mean they look rosy-cheeked and sweet and innocent and maybe a little mischievous (and maybe a little creepy). If, however, we were referencing actual cherubim from the Bible, we'd be saying something altogether different. Just imagine if by 'cherubic' we had in mind the following vision from the prophet Ezekiel. At the opening of his book he sees a violent windstorm heading toward him, flashing both lightning and fire, and in the midst of all that he sees 'glowing metal'. This freakish meteorological setting then becomes populated in a terrifying way:
and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings... their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings... Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. They each had two wings spreading out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side; and each had two other wings covering its body... The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning. (Ezekiel 1:4-14)
Then Zeke sees that each of the four cherubim kind of rides on a 'a wheel intersecting a wheel'. But that's not nearly weird enough, so we are told one more thing about the wheels. 'Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.' The vision goes upward from there to describe in ever more evasive language (jewels and rainbows and more fire and lightning and 'glowing metal') merely the foot of the throne of Yahweh, the Living God, too wonderful for anything more than an awful glimpse.
This vision is revisited in chapter ten of the Book of Ezekiel where we are given one more crucial detail to complete the downright flesh-crawling appearance of these angelic beings:
Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels. (Ezekiel 10:12)
(Image by Dan Hillier)
Get all that?
* Each one has four faces (sometimes called a tetramorph), only one of which is human (the others providing horns, fangs, fur, and beak to the mix)
* Bodies and wings and wheels full of eyes
* Gleaming bronze hooves for feet
* Burning like coals of fire, shooting forth flames
* Flashing about like lightning
This cover art for the 2007 album of my band Voice of the Mysterons captures something of the biblical imagery.
(Painting by Jonathan Queen.)
Just as we saw the dragon-like seraphim flying above God's throne in Isaiah, so here we see the gryphon-like cherubim running the engine room of God's throne beneath. Above and below, God's majesty is flanked by monstrosity. Monsters and worship. Monsters and glory. Holiness and horror. Sacred terror. Do we get the picture yet? Evil is scary, but good is scarier. And, according to the Bible's storyline, the latter will overcome the former in the end. Halloween and Hope.