Raanan Eichler, «Cherub: A History of Interpretation», Vol. 96 (2015) 26-38
The cherub is a type of creature mentioned some 90 times in the Hebrew Bible, where it is portrayed as a predominant motif in Israelite iconography. This paper surveys the attempts to determine the form of the cherub, in both textual and iconographic sources, from the fourth century to the twentyfirst. The cherub has been interpreted as a winged human (child or adult), a bird, a winged bovine, a griffin, a winged sphinx, and a composite creature in general. The last two identifications, which prevail in contemporary scholarship, are rejected, and a path to a correct identification is proposed.
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28 RAANAN EICHLER
creatures which men have seen” (Ant. 3.6.5). Of the sculptures over
the ark in the Jerusalem temple he wrote that “nobody can tell, or even
conjecture, what was the shape of these cherubim” (Ant. 8.3.3).
II. Winged Human
The first recorded attempt to identify the form of the cherub was
made by R. Abbahu of Caesarea (c. 300), who employed a midrashic
reading of bwrk as aybrk , which can be translated from Aramaic as
“like a lad”, to assert that the cherub resembles a child (b. Ḥag. 13b,
Sukkah 5b). Some skepticism regarding this identification is
recorded under the names of R. Abbahu’s Babylonian contempo-
raries, R. Papa (b. Ḥag. ad loc.) and Abaye (b. Sukkah ad loc.), but
no alternative view is presented in the Talmud.
What prompted this identification were probably the erotes and
cupids, the boys, often with wings, that personified amorousness in
Greco-Roman art. These figures, which “were omnipresent in later
Hellenistic, Roman and Christian art” 2, adorned the main entrance of
the Capernaum Synagogue 3 at around the same period in which
R. Abbahu flourished and would likely have been familiar in his
circles. This conclusion can also explain the existence of several pe-
culiar Talmudic homilies attributing an erotic aspect to the cherubim
of the Jerusalem temple (b. Yoma 54a-b).
Midrash Hagadol, a medieval compilation of Jewish lore, con-
tains an unprovenanced comment on Exod 25,18 asserting that the
cherub resembles a human in all respects except that it has the wings
of a bird. The anonymous exegete, unlike R. Abbahu, did not specify
an age and presumably had in mind an adult. As evidence for his
view he cited Ezek 1,10, which states that the primary face of
Ezekiel’s four-faced “living beings” (twyx) was that of a human, and
E.R. GOODENOUGH, Pagan Symbols in Judaism II (vol. 8 of Jewish
Symbols of the Greco-Roman Period; New York 1958) 3-5.
H. KOHL – C. WATZINGER, Antike Synagogen in Galilaea (Leipzig 1916)
12-13, figs. 17-18; online: http://sammlungen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/freimann/con-
tent/pageview/3778653 [cited 15 June 2014]. The publishers of the find stated
that the bodies of the erotes were hewn off, leaving the wings. Indeed, the bodies are
indiscernible in the photograph and drawing that they provided. Their assumption
that the creatures were originally erotes is justified because erotes are the only
creatures in the art of the period that hold wreaths in the manner depicted.