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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CHERUB: A HISTORY OF INTERPRETATION 29
Isa 6,2, which declares that Isaiah’s seraphim (~yprf) had wings 4.
Similarly, David Kimhi (c. 1160-1235) and Gersonides (1288-1344)
maintained that the cherubim of the laver stands take the form “of a
human, except that they have wings”, with Gersonides also alluding to
Ezek 1,10 5. Regarding other cherubim, both Kimhi and Gersonides
followed the Talmud in specifying that they have the faces of boys 6.
The identification of cherubim as winged humans, whether
adults or children, found early expression in Jewish and Christian
visual art. An unprovenanced seal in the British Museum depicts
an oblong rectangle surmounted on either end by inward-facing,
winged, humanoid herms of unclear age, and marked with what is
apparently a misspelling of the word tetragrammaton 7. The image
is adapted from the “Altar of Rome and Augustus” at Lyon, which
was depicted in a similar manner on Augustan and Tiberian coins.
The design suggests that the seal was engraved when these coins
were current, i.e. the first century CE, and the inscription points to
a Jewish origin. Many scholars have identified the picture as rep-
resenting, in addition to the Lyon altar, the biblical ark with its two
cherubim, which are said in the tabernacle account to have been
arranged in the same position (Exod 25,17-21 = 37,6-9 + 40,20) 8. In
a recent treatment, however, Jeffrey Spier rejects this idea as fan-
M. MARGULIES (ed.), Midrash Haggadol on the Pentateuch. Exodus
(Jerusalem 1956) [Hebrew] 580.
Commentaries on 1 Kgs 7,29, in M. COHEN (ed.), Mikra’ot Gedolot
‘Haketer’. Kings I & II (Ramat-Gan 1995) [Hebrew] 55, 57.
Kimhi: commentary on 2 Chr 3,10, in e.g. Miqra’ot Gedolot (New York
1946) [Hebrew] V, 280. Gersonides: commentary on Gen 3,24, in M. COHEN
(ed.), Mikra’ot Gedolot ‘Haketer’. Genesis. Part I (Ramat-Gan 1997)
[Hebrew] 57; on Exod 25,18, in ID., Mikra’ot Gedolot ‘Haketer’. Exodus.
Part II (Ramat-Gan 2007) [Hebrew] 73; on 1 Kgs 6,23, in ID., Kings, 43.
C.W. KING, The Gnostics and Their Remains. Ancient and Mediaeval
(London 1887) pl. H fig. 2; online: https://archive.org/stream/gnosticsandtheir
00kinguoft#page/n507/mode/2up [cited 15 June 2014].
KING, Gnostics, 441-442; C. BONNER, Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly
Graeco-Egyptian (Ann Arbor, MI 1950) 29; E.R. GOODENOUGH, Jewish Sym-
bols in the Greco-Roman Period. Vol. 2: The Archaeological Evidence from
the Diaspora (New York 1953) 241-242; ID., Vol. 4: The Problem of Method
(New York 1954) 133; M. SMITH, “Old Testament Motifs in the Iconography
of the British Museum’s Magical Gems”, Coins, Culture and History in the
Ancient World. Numismatic and Other Studies in Honor of Bluma L. Trell
(eds. L. CASSON – M. PRICE) (Detroit, MI 1981) 187-194 at 190.