Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art

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Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art

By John Vinycomb

Celestial Beings - Cherubim and Seraphim in Heraldry

"On cherubim and seraphim
 Full royally he rode."
"What, always dreaming over heavenly things,
 Like angel heads in stone with pigeon wings."
                         Cowper, "Conversation."

In heraldry A Cherub (plural Cherubim) is always represented as the head of an infant between a pair 
of wings, usually termed a "cherub's head."

A Seraph (plural Seraphim), in like manner, is always depicted as the head of a child, but with three pairs of wings; 
A Seraph's Head.
the two uppermost and the two lowermost are contrarily crossed, or in saltire; the two middle-most are displayed.

Clavering, of Callaby Castle, Northumberland, bears for crest a cherub's head with wings erect. Motto: cœlos volens.

On funereal achievements, setting forth the rank and circumstance of the deceased, it is usual to place over the lozenge-shaped shield containing arms of a woman, whether spinster, wife, or widow, a cherub's head, and knots or bows of ribbon in place of crests, helmets, or its mantlings, which, according to heraldic law, cannot be borne by any 
Arms—Azure a chevron argent between three cherubs’ heads of the last.
woman, sovereign princesses only excepted.

In representing the cherubim by infants’ winged heads, the early painters meant them to be emblematic of a pure spirit glowing with love and intelligence, the head the seat of the soul, and the wings attribute of swiftness and spirit alone retained.

The body or limbs of the cherub and seraph are never shown in heraldry, for what reason it is difficult to say, unless it be from the ambiguity of the descriptions in the sacred writings and consequent difficulty of representing them. The heralds adopted the figure of speech termed synecdoche, which adopts a part to represent the whole.

Sir Joshua Reynolds has embodied the modern conception in his exquisite painting of cherubs’ heads, Portrait Studies of Frances Isabella Ker, daughter of Lord William Gordon, now in the National Collection. It represents five infants’ heads with wings, indifferent positions, floating among clouds. This idea of the cherub seems to have found ready acceptance with poets and painters. Shakespeare sings:

          "Look how the floor of heaven
 Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
 There's not the smallest orb which thou beholdest
 But in his motion like an angel sings,
 Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubim—
 Such harmony is in immortal souls:
 But while this muddy vesture of decay
 Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it."

Many of the painters of the period of the Renaissance represented the cherub similarly to those in Reynolds’ picture. They were also in the habit of introducing into their pictures of sacred subjects nude youthful winged figures, "celestial loves," sporting in clouds around the principal figure or figures, or assisting in some act that is being done. Thus Spenser invests "The Queen of Beauty and of Love the Mother" with a troop of these little loves, "Cupid, their elder brother."

"And all about her neck and shoulders flew
 A flock of little loves, and sports and joys
 With nimble wings of gold and purple hue;
 Whose shapes seemed not like to terrestrial boys,
 But like to angels playing heavenly toys."
               Faerie Queen, Book x. cant. x. p. 153.

These must not, however, be confounded with the cherub and seraph of Scripture. It was a thoroughly pagan idea, borrowed from classic mythology, and unworthy of Christian Art. It soon degenerated into "earthly loves" and "cupids," or amorini as they were termed and as we now understand them.



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