We are in Jerusalem at last—or at least we are in an apartment in a suburb on a hill overlooking a freeway. We have not yet seen the old city. It’s raining today, and I just added illustrations to a blog post I wrote in 2010. You can read it here: Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.
What did the keruvim on top of the ark look like? This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, only mentions their wings and faces, and says they must be hammered out of the same piece of solid gold as the lid. Other descriptions in the Torah are also sparse, though Ezekiel mentions calves’ hooves and says each keruv in his vision had four faces, only one of which was human.
Keruvim were probably similar to the guardian figures sculpted by other cultures in the Ancient Near East: hybrid beasts featuring the legs of lions or oxen, the wings of birds, and the faces of humans. So I used one of my own photos from the beginning of our journey, when we visited the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York City and saw a pair of guardian figures from a Neo-Assyrian king’s palace. Here is a close-up of one of the stone sculptures.
The word keruv became “cherub” in English. And over two millennia of Christian art, depictions of cherubs have undergone a strange metamorphosis. Only their wings and their human faces have been retained.
One artistic approach was to infantilize cherubs, portraying them as small chubby boys or toddlers with wings too stubby for flying. In the Renaissance they were conflated with Roman putti, chubby winged boys associated with Cupid. The cherubs on Valentine’s Day cards are actually putti.
Cherubs often appeared on painted ceilings surrounding someone rising into heaven, or trailing after God as part of a heavenly retinue. Having lost their former roles as guardians of gates or steeds for mystical chariots, these cherubs are merely decorative.
The alternative way to depict cherubs in Renaissance and Baroque art was to reduce them to floating faces with token wings on the side (sometimes in place of ears, sometimes below the ears), but no bodies at all. Was this a way to erase anything corporeal, not to mention bestial, from Christian symbols associated with heaven?