What comes to mind when you hear the word “cherub”? Our church has a few, and some are not quite what you might expect.
The beings shown in our round stained-glass windows – crafted by Nicola D’Ascenzo in 1910 – are a good fit with the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art, which observes that: “In art, cherubim and seraphim are often represented as chubby children with wings, sometimes only a head and two wings. Because cherubim are referred to as ‘burning coals of fire’ (Ezek 1:13), they are often coloured red, symbolizing burning love, while seraphim may be blue, the colour of heaven, but it often occurs the other way round…” But that’s only one idea.
Cherubim are types of angels. The word angel comes from Latin for “messenger.” The roots of the word cherubim are unclear, but it may be related to “blessing” or “approaching.” Beings called cherubim are mentioned in the Old Testament, as guarding the Tree of Life in Genesis; and in Exodus, as guardians of the Mercy-Seat in Solomon’s Temple. They appear in the Vision of Ezekiel and in the Apocalypse. When a fifth-century Greek monk named Dionysius proposed a “celestial hierarchy” — which was later accepted by St. Thomas Aquinas (who imagined Satan as a fallen Cherub) and used by Dante in his works – he placed the cherubim and seraphim in the highest order of angels, closest to God. But what do they look like? We can only guess!
The original cherubim of Jewish tradition are both fierce and solemn. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “The prophet Ezekiel describes the cherubim as a tetrad of living creatures, each having four faces—of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a man—the stature and hands of a man, the feet of a calf, and four wings. Two of the wings extended upward, meeting above and sustaining the throne of God; while the other two stretched downward and covered the creatures themselves… and they were full of eyes ‘like burning coals of fire.’” These imposing characters eventually supplied the artistic symbols for the four gospel-writing evangelists of Christianity – the eagle, winged lion, winged ox and winged man shown on the four pillars supporting our dome!
How did “cherub” come to refer both to scary winged creatures and sweet, winged children? Angelic beings are made of energy and don’t actually have bodies, so any representation is symbolic — and symbols can change with time and circumstance. In the early 1400s, when Italian Sculptor Donatello saw Eros and Cupid — spirits of love and desire in classical mythology – depicted as cheeky, winged babies on ancient Greek and Roman funerary art, he was inspired to create charming child angels to embody the Christian spirit of God’s love. These figures were called “putto,” plural “putti” (from the Latin for “boy” or “child“), and they became a popular theme in art through the Renaissance. Often grouped closely around sacred figures in paintings, their arrangement suggested an important position in the angelic hierarchy. The English use of the word “cherub” to describe these characters appears to have evolved over time: the word originally signified the fierce cherubim of Ezekiel. Cherub was also occasionally used to describe someone with a red face. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the adjective “cherubic” as meaning “like a child angel,” seems to date from the 1800s.
Today, whether they are “blessing” or “approaching,” cherub messengers bring gifts of continuity and connection to our church — in art evolved from Old Testament tradition that adorns our four supporting pillars, and Renaissance-style putti represented in our windows. Two post-Victorian winged-child sculptures — perched at the back of our church, near the doors to the Baptistry and the Choir — are quite possibly modeled on the youngest child of architect Henry Dagit or sculptor Adolfo de Nesti’s own baby son, born in 1908. And high in the choir loft, if you listen closely enough, perhaps you’ll hear ghost echoes from recent generations of “choir babies” – the young children of our choir members – warbling their own cherubic notes to our song.
Color OUR Collections!
Launched by The New York Academy of Medicine Library in 2016, #ColorOurCollections is an annual coloring festival on social media during which libraries, museums, archives and other cultural institutions around the world share free coloring content featuring images from their collections.
In past years, our SFDS Parish History Archives has contributed stained-glass windows and other church details to color, and 1920s parish bulletin advertising art. This year’s parish coloring book celebrates parish organizations and activities of yesteryear. Check out all the new offerings for 2021 – from SFDS to Drexel University to the Vatican Libraries and beyond at https://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/
Here’s our 2021 coloring book:http://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2021/01/sfds-2021-coloring-parish-activiities.pdf