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September 28, 2001 Issue
Foundations of Faith

So which angels have only eyes and six wings?

Images make visible the invisible world of angelic host

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

Oct. 2 is the Feast of the Guardian Angels. We all know something about guardian angels -- but how much do we know about other types of angels?

For instance, which angels have six wings? Which are represented as wheels with eyes? How many archangels are there?

Many angels -- archangels, seraphim, cherubim -- are mentioned in the Bible. While none of us can really know what angels are -- since they belong to the unseen world of creation -- we know something of what angels do. "Angels are spiritual creatures who glorify God without ceasing and who serve his saving plans for other creatures" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 350).

How do angels go about that work? By the time Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604) wrote on the topic, the works of the "choirs of angels" had been clearly delineated. Numbering the celestial choirs was originally credited to St. Denis the Areopagite, thought to be a contemporary of the apostles. However, scholars now believe his De Caelestis Hierarchia, (On the Celestial Hierarchy) dates only to the late fifth century. Either way, Denis' nine choirs of angels had been accepted as accurate by Gregory's time.

The nine choirs of angels contain three triads, each with specific tasks. Some tasks are revealed in Scripture, others are inferred from Scripture and embellished by tradition. In art, angels carry symbols or wear clothes denoting their duties.


The first triad includes the Angels of Presence, those around God's throne.

Seraphim: These guardians of God's throne are described by Isaiah (6:1-7) as having six wings, two pairs each covering their faces and feet and the final pair for flight. Seraphim are sometimes represented as six wings with eyes. They constantly praise God, crying, "Holy, holy, holy!" That cry is the basis of our Sanctus at Mass. Since a seraph cleansed Isaiah's lips with an ember, seraphim are also called "the fiery ones," and depicted in red robes or with red wings.

Cherubim: Unlike the sometimes bodiless seraphim, cherubim appear more human. (They, however, are not the cute cherub figures seen at Christmas.) Cherubim guard God's glory, which they carry on their wings. Sometimes represented with four wings, they may also hold flaming swords, since one of their number protects Eden (Gn 3:24). They are also portrayed in blue or gold and standing on wheels. This comes from Ezekiel's vision, where cherubim seem to move with wheels. The same vision describes them with four faces -- lion, man, ox and eagle (Ez 1:5-14; 10:1-22). Representations of cherubim were said to adorn the golden mercy seat covering the Ark of the Covenant in Solomon's temple (Ex 25:18-22).

Thrones: Sometimes cherubim are confused with thrones, also represented by wheels. However, when shown as wheels, thrones have no bodies, but only wings and eyes. Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism notes that Jewish legends say 70 thrones kneel at God's throne. In art and heraldry, their color is green and they hold scales representing justice. Paul mentions them in Col 1:16.


The second triad of the heavenly choirs governs nature.

Dominions or dominations: Also noted in the Letter to the Colossians, dominions control the stars and planets. In heraldry, they wear crowns and carry scepters or orbs to represent God's majesty and power.

Virtues: Virtue is a name most often used for actions, not beings. However, angelic virtues are said to be agents of God's miracles on earth. To symbolize this in heraldry, they carry the sacred Host. Sometimes they carry flowers -- white lilies of purity or red roses for Christ's passion -- or censers, symbolizing prayer. Tradition also says the two men standing with the apostles at Ascension (Acts 1:10-11) were virtues.

Powers: Powers are also called "authorities" (1Pt 3: 22 and Col 1:16). Their power is used to thwart the devil and other evil spirits. In art, they are shown fully armored, holding swords. Sometimes, they also carry garlands of flowers for their victories over demons.


The third triad of angels is the messenger triad. They are said to most often interact with humans, unlike the other triads.

Principalities: These protect worldly powers and religion. Mentioned in the epistles (Col 1:16, Eph 3:10), they watch over leaders, inspiring them to do good works. In heraldry, they wear crowns and carry swords or scepters to direct God's commands. As protectors, principalities wear chain mail and helmets. It is possible that they are among those mentioned as "angels of the seven churches" in the first chapters of the Book of Revelation.

Archangels: Three archangels -- some sources say there are seven in all -- are well-known from Bible stories: Michael, Raphael and Gabriel. They serve as divine ambassadors, warrior chiefs and heralds. In art, they may appear in armor with shields and a sword always pointed upwards. Michael is often shown slaying a dragon, a reminder of his role in the battle that drove the fallen angels from heaven (Rv 12:7). Gabriel often holds a lily representing his place as the Angel of the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-37). And Raphael is shown in travel garb and carrying a fish from his role as Tobiah's guide and protector (Book of Tobit).

Angels: These are known to protect the innocent, hence their companion role as guardian angels. They are also members of the heavenly choir. Thus, in heraldry, they wear choir vestments or carry musical instruments.

(Sources: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible; A Handbook of Symbols of Christian Art; Catholic Online; "The Heraldry of Sacred Music;" Catechism of the Catholic Church; The Evangelist Online; The Catholic Encyclopedia; the Knights of Columbus web site; The Harper Encyclopedia of Catholicism.)

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