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Angel, in the Greek language, means “messenger” or more literally “bringer of tidings”. The Bible lists several classes, or ranks, of angels. According to the work of the philosopher (Pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite there are nine classes of angels:
I. Counselors: 1. Seraphim, 2. Cherubim, 3. Thrones.
II. Governors: 4. Virtues, 5. Dominions, 6. Powers.
III. Messengers: 7. Principalities, 8. Archangels, 9. Angels.
“The order of these denominations is not the same in all authorities: according to the Greek formula, St. Bernard, and the Legenda Aurea, the Cherubim precede the Seraphim, and in the hymn of St. Ambrose they have also the precedence-‘To Thee, Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry’, but the authority of St. Dionysius seems to be admitted as paramount, for, according to legend, he was the convert and intimate friend of St. Paul, and St. Paul, who had been transported to the seventh heaven, had made him acquainted with all he had there beheld.” 1
In ancient paintings glorifying the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, or the Virgin Mary, the various classes of angels are sometimes shown hovering above their heads. The angels closest to the person glorified are usually glowing red, symbolizing love. The subsequent circle of angels is usually blue, symbolizing the firmament.
The counselors are involved around the throne of God. They have little to no contact with humanity because they are disposed to serving God, in His presence. Being directly in His presence, they receive their power and glory directly from Him.
1. SERAPHIM - Seraphim are described in Isaiah 6:2 and are involved in perpetually showing their love of God. They fly around God’s throne, celebrating and praising Him. According to some traditions, the Archangel Uriel is their leader. The seraphim are said to have six wings; two wings cover their face, two wings cover their feet and two wings are used to fly. When portrayed, they are typically red in color and covered with numerous eyes. They are sometimes holding a scroll containing the words of Isaiah 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his words of Isaiah 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” The seraphim may hold candles and sometimes appear in the midst of many wheels.
2. CHERUBIM - Cherubim are described in Ezekiel 10. They are angels that both know and worship God. Legend tells us they are known for their divine wisdom.When portrayed, cherubim are painted in golden yellow and/or sapphire blue. They have either two or four wings and sometimes are seen standing on a winged wheel. In their hands they are usually holding a scroll or book, symbolizing their wisdom.
3. THRONES - The thrones are responsible for bearing up God’s throne. Legend tells us they are known for their divine justice. It is said that the thrones receive their power and glory directly from God, and that they pass on this power and glory to the second hierarchy of angels.
When portrayed in art, they are painted in red and are usually covered with numerous eyes. Thrones are occasionally shown with wheels. They are sometimes shown sitting on golden thrones and wearing the robes of judges. In their hands they hold either a staff or a tower symbolizing their judicial power.
Governors are the overseers of the stars and elements. Governors are portrayed as human in form
with crowns on their heads. They are clothed in long white tunics, golden girdles or sashes and green stoles. Governors have rings on their fingers and usually hold a cross-tipped scepter in their right hands. In their left hands is the monogram IC XC, meaning “Jesus Christ”. Sometimes governors are pictured carrying globes symbolizing their overseeing the heavens.
4. DOMINIONS - Dominions represent the power of God and His authority. Dominions are usually crowned and carry a sword, scepter, cross, or orb: all symbols of power.
5. VIRTUES - Virtues are angels of great courage. Virtues are portrayed as clad in brilliant armor and carry various war instruments such as swords, spears and battle-axes. Virtues are sometimes shown carrying a variety of items from our Lord’s death on the cross. These include the cross, whip, spear, white lilies and even red roses.
6. POWERS - Powers are our protectors. Powers are dressed in brilliant armor and carry various weapons of war. These weapons include flaming swords, batons, and chains (used to bind up Satan and his demons). At times, powers are depicted with their chained up foes.
It is through the third hierarchy that God executes
His will upon the earth. These angels are the points of contact between Heaven and earth. Messengers are dressed in full armor and are human in form. They carry various weapons of war such as swords, javelins, spears and lances.
7. PRINCIPALITIES (Princedoms) - Principalities are the overseers of the nations and are the protectors of the nations’ leaders. Principalities also minister to humanity in general.
Principalities are portrayed in human form. They have wings and dress in armor. In their hands they may carry a scepter, cross, palm leaves, vial or lilies, all symbols of their interaction with humanity.
8. ARCHANGELS - Archangels are the most powerful angels created by God. (It is thought that Satan, before his fall, was an archangel.) Archangels have wings and human bodies and are clad in armor. They carry either swords or trumpets. They guard the innocent and the just.
How many archangels there are is often disputed. The Protestant Scriptures speak of one, Michael, or two depending on the classification of Gabriel.
Revelation 8:2 mentions seven angels standing before the throne. Some scholars believe these to be seven archangels. Legend tells us the names of the three additional archangels: Jophiel, Chamuel and Zadkiel. (Notice that every archangel’s name ends in “el” meaning “in God”.) These seven angels will blow the seven trumpets during the last days. In the descriptions that follow all seven archangels have been included; however, the information for Jophiel, Chamuel and Zadkiel is taken from tradition and carries absolutely no authority in any orthodox Christian church.
CHAMUEL (one who sees God) – Tradition tells us that Chamuel was one of the seven archangels. He was the angel who comforted Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The items that identify Chamuel are the cup and staff.
GABRIEL (God is my strength) – Gabriel is the messenger of God. The Bible tells of three instances where Gabriel brought a Heavenly message. The first instance was the bringing of two messages for Daniel to help him interpret dreams (Daniel 8:15-17 & 9:21-22). The second instance was an appearance to Zacharias (Luke 1:19). Gabriel proclaimed to him the coming birth of John the Baptist to he and his wife Elizabeth. The third instance was his appearance to the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26). He proclaimed to her that although she had never been with a man, she was with child. This child would be the Son of God. The third visit is called “the Annunciation”.
In art, Gabriel is adorned in white and has beautiful, multi-colored wings. The items used to represent Gabriel are the lily, scepter and sometimes a scroll bearing the message he is delivering.
JOPHIEL (the beauty of God) – Tradition tells us that Jophiel was one of the seven archangels. He is the angel who drove Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Jophiel is said to guard the “Tree of Knowledge”. He protects and helps those seeking knowledge. The item Jophiel carries is the flaming sword.
MICHAEL (like unto God) – Michael is said to be the captain of the archangels and the leader of the angelic host. He is often thought of in militaristic ways and is the defender and guardian of souls. He is the protector of the Jewish nation (Daniel 12:1). He is the angel who overthrew Satan in Heaven (Revelation 12:7-9). Michael is the patron saint of the church militant. Some scholars believe that he will carry the banner of the cross on judgment day. He is sometimes called the “banner bearer of Heaven”.
When portrayed in art, Michael is often young and beautiful but stern and powerful. Early representations have him wearing a white robe with multi-colored wings. Later artwork replaces the plain robe with splendid armor, including mail, shield and helmet. A popular pose is Michael standing on the head or body of a defeated Satan with his spear or sword held aloft, ready to strike a death blow to the enemy of God. The items that Michael carries are the scepter, lance, sword and scales, symbolizing his great power and authority.
RAPHAEL (the medicine of God) - Mentioned in the Old Testament Apocryphal book of Tobit, Raphael is the chief of the guarding angels. He is the guardian of the young and watches over the pilgrim and traveler. When displayed in art, Raphael wears traveler’s attire with sandals, walking staff and water bottle or gourd. As a traveler his wings are not shown. When he is being portrayed as a guardian angel, he will have a sword in his hand. Often Raphael is portrayed with a young man. This would be Tobias from the story of Tobit. The Tobit story was very popular with artists of the middle ages.
URIEL (the light of God) – Uriel is an angel mentioned in several Old Testament Apocrypha books, including Enoch and Esdras. He is also mentioned in the New Testament Apocryphal book the Apocalypse of Peter. When a fourth archangel is needed in art to stand at each of the four compass directions, Uriel is the fourth, standing with Michael, Gabriel and Ralphael. The item Uriel carries is a scroll or book symbolizing his wisdom.
ZADKIEL (righteousness of God) – An angel found in tradition only, Zadkiel is the archangel of mercy. He is thought to be the angel that held back Abraham’s hand from killing Isaac (Genesis 22). (Some traditions believe it was Michael). The item Zadkiel carries is the knife.
9. ANGELS - Angels are the messengers of God. When portrayed in art, they are always beardless, are sexless, have wings and are barefooted. Angels are used by God for a wide variety of purposes.
The following is a list of things angels have been seen carrying or doing in art and architecture: palm branch, scroll, parchment or book (messenger); sword (archangel); musical instruments (praising God); palm branch, sprig of olive leaves (bringer of victory/peace); placing a wreath of laurel onto a person (bringing heavenly honor); oak leaf wreath (strength); leaves (immortality); cypress leaves (mourning); lily (purity, virginity, or the Annunciation); sword or flaming sword (God’s judgment); blunted sword (justice and mercy); pair of scales (justice); hands folded in prayer (intercession); kneeling before equilateral triangle (worship of the Trinity); right hand extended with open palm (guardian).
1. Jameson, A., “Sacred and Legendary Art, Vol. 1,” (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1911), p. 44-45.