Angel, in the Greek language, means “messenger” or more literally “bringer of tidings”. The Bible lists several classes, or ranks, of angels. According to the work of the philosopher (Pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite there are nine classes of angels:
I. Counselors: 1. Seraphim, 2. Cherubim, 3. Thrones. II. Governors: 4. Virtues, 5. Dominions, 6. Powers. III. Messengers: 7. Principalities, 8. Archangels, 9. Angels.
“The order of these denominations is not the same in all authorities: according to the Greek formula, St. Bernard, and the Legenda Aurea, the Cherubim precede the Seraphim, and in the hymn of St. Ambrose they have also the precedence-‘To Thee, Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry’, but the authority of St. Dionysius seems to be admitted as paramount, for, according to legend, he was the convert and intimate friend of St. Paul, and St. Paul, who had been transported to the seventh heaven, had made him acquainted with all he had there beheld.” 1
In ancient paintings glorifying the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, or the Virgin Mary, the various classes of angels are sometimes shown hovering above their heads. The words of Isaiah 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” The seraphim may hold candles and sometimes appear in the midst of many wheels.
2. CHERUBIM - Cherubim are described in Ezekiel 10. They are angels that both know and worship God. Legend tells us they are known for their divine wisdom. When portrayed, cherubim are painted in golden yellow and/or sapphire blue. They have either two or four wings and sometimes are seen standing on a winged wheel. In their hands they are usually holding a scroll or book, symbolizing their wisdom.
3. THRONES - The thrones are responsible for bearing up God’s throne. Legend tells us they are known for their divine justice. It is said that the thrones receive their power and glory directly from God, and that they pass on this power and glory to the second hierarchy of angels.
When portrayed in art, they are painted in red and are usually covered with numerous eyes. Thrones are occasionally shown with wheels. They are sometimes shown sitting on golden thrones and wearing the robes of judges. In their hands they hold either a staff or a tower symbolizing their judicial power.
Governors are the overseers of the stars and elements. Governors are portrayed as human in formwith crowns on their heads. They are clothed in long white tunics, golden girdles or sashes and green stoles. Governors have rings on their fingers and usually hold a cross-tipped scepter in their right hands. In their left hands is the monogram IC XC, meaning “Jesus Christ”. Sometimes governors are pictured carrying globes symbolizing their overseeing the heavens.
4. DOMINIONS - Dominions represent the power of God and His authority. Dominions are usually crowned and carry a sword, scepter, cross, or orb: all symbols of power.
5. VIRTUES - Virtues are angels of great courage. Virtues are portrayed as clad in brilliant armor and carry various war instruments such as swords, spears and battle-axes. Virtues are sometimes shown carrying a variety of items from our Lord’s death on the cross. These include the cross, whip, spear, white lilies and even red roses.
6. POWERS - Powers are our protectors. Powers are dressed in brilliant armor and carry various weapons of war. These weapons include flaming swords, batons, and chains (used to bind up Satan and his demons). At times, powers are depicted with their chained up foes.
It is through the third hierarchy that God executes His will upon the earth. These angels are the points of contact between Heaven and earth. Messengers are dressed in full armor and are human in form. They carry various weapons of war such as swords, javelins, spears and lances.
7. PRINCIPALITIES (Princedoms) - Principalities are the overseers of the nations and are the protectors of the nations’ leaders. Principalities also minister to humanity in general.
Principalities are portrayed in human form. They have wings and dress in armor. In their hands they may carry a scepter, cross, palm leaves, vial or lilies, all symbols of their interaction with humanity.
8. ARCHANGELS - Archangels are the most powerful angels created by God. (It is thought that Satan, before his fall, was an archangel.) Archangels have wings and human bodies and are clad in armor. They carry either swords or trumpets. They guard the innocent and the just.
How many archangels there are is often disputed. The Protestant Scriptures speak of one, Michael, or two depending on the classification of Gabriel.
Revelation 8:2 mentions seven angels standing before the throne. Some scholars believe these to be seven archangels. Legend tells us the names of the three additional archangels: Jophiel, Chamuel and Zadkiel. (Notice that every archangel’s name ends in “el” meaning “in God”.) These seven angels will blow the seven trumpets during the last days. In the descriptions that follow all seven archangels have been included; however, the information for Jophiel, Chamuel and Zadkiel is taken from tradition and carries absolutely no authority in any orthodox Christian church.
9. ANGELS - Angels are the messengers of God. When portrayed in art, they are always beardless, are sexless, have wings and are barefooted. Angels are used by God for a wide variety of purpos es.
The following is a list of things angels have been seen carrying or doing in art and architecture: palm branch, scroll, parchment or book (messenger); sword (archangel); musical instruments (praising God); palm branch, sprig of olive leaves (bringer of victory/peace); placing a wreath of laurel onto a person (bringing heavenly honor); oak leaf wreath (strength); leaves (immortality); cypress leaves (mourning); lily (purity, virginity, or the Annunciation); sword or flaming sword (God’s judgment); blunted sword (justice and mercy); pair of scales (justice); hands folded in prayer (intercession); kneeling before equilateral triangle (worship of the Trinity); right hand extended with open palm (guardian).