You never know quite what to expect when a box of old engravings is brought down from the prints department for digitisation – that’s what makes it so interesting. The prints can depict anything from bland pastoral scenes to salacious classical carry-ons or gory biblical fire-and-brimstoning; all in a day’s work.
This print above turned up at the last session I volunteered at – the wheels with eyes, disembodied hand and hovering winged multi-headed creatures seemed odd, to say the least, so I thought I’d try and find out a bit more about it all.
The type below the print is a biblical quote from Isiah 6, a chapter which has “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (all quotes will be from the King James Bible) and describes “seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.”
Isaiah 6:6 then has one of the sepaphims flying and having a live coal in his hand, which “he laid it upon my mouth”. The picture seems to have a scroll rather than a coal being put near a mouth, but the description of the seraphims seemed to possibly identify what the creatures were. But there was no mention of wheels bedecked with eyes.
The top of the frame also has a biblical quote, but this one is Ezekiel 1, so off I went there and it was much more promising.
Ezekiel has four living creatures with “the likeness of a man. 1:5 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. 1:6 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. 1:10”
This seemed more like it, especially as these creatures have wheels complete with eyes beside them:
“behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures. 1:15 As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. 1:18 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. 1:19″
Ezekiel 10 appears to have the same creatures, with four faces, wings, wheels within wheels, and an even more generous allocation of eyes:
“And as for their appearances, they four had one likeness, as if a wheel had been in the midst of a wheel. 10:10 And their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels, were full of eyes round about, even the wheels that they four had. 10:12″
Ezekiel then says “and I knew that they were the cherubims. 10:20″
So these seem to me more likely to be Cherubim rather than Isiah’s Seraphim. Cherubim is the plural of Cherub, which are not at all the chubby babies wafting about on mini clouds (these are putti) but are instead some sort of heavenly creatures which occupy the second highest sphere in the Christian angelic hierarchy (Seraphim are in the first). Cherub means ‘to be near’ or ‘near ones’ so they are close to God and seem to have a sort of servant/ bodyguard function.
Incidentally, it was from Ezekiel’s description of the four faces, the ox, the man, the lion and the eagle, that the symbols for the four evangelists were later adopted.
That seemed to solve some of the mystery of the fantastical subject matter, so I figured it was worth finding out a bit more about the print and the artist. Below the frame, in small writing are two names, one on the left one on the right. Usually, the name on the left is the original artist’s and that on the right is the engraver or craftsman who printed the image and that seems to be the case here.
On the left, it says ‘B. Picart. del’. The ‘del.’ means ‘drawn by’, so Bernard Picart is the artist who did the original drawing.
On the right, it says ‘Phil. Andr. Kilian, Sc. A.V.’ The Sc. denotes ‘engraved by’, so Philipp Andrew Kilian is the engraver. A. V. stands for Augusta Vindelicorum, which means it was published in Augsburg Germany. (Isn’t the internet only marvelous!)
Picart (b.1673) was an engraver and artist who worked on a lot of book and biblical illustrations. He is known chiefly for his 1723 tome The ceremonies and religious customs of the various nations of the known world. This was a widely distributed, early enlightenment encyclopaedia of religious life which aimed to describe the origins beliefs and rites of the religions of the then known world. It has been described as “a milestone in information gathering”, and even as “the book that changed Europe”. Here are some examples of his work.
Picart, Bernard. The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Several Known Nations of the World, London: Charles du Bosc, 1731-1739
Picart, Bernard. ‘Puzza, or the “the Chinese Cybele,” sitting on a lotus flower’; from The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World; Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
Kilian, b. 1714 was one of a famous family of Augsburg engravers, and he did, amongst other things, 130 engravings for some monumental collection of illustrated Bible stories. So my assumption is that Picard did an engraving or drawing of this Cherubim scene, and then later, Kilian copied it or did his version of it for another publication. I haven’t however been able to find our image in online collections of Kilian’s biblical illustrations.
Doing a bit of research on this has been interesting – typing such word combinations as ‘eyes, wheels and winged creatures’ into Google leads you down some very weird and wonderful paths indeed; I have to admit to spending far more time than I should have with shimmering auras, vibrating orbs and whispering angels. I also found a somewhat less than convincing explanation of Ezekiel 10 in a book that billed itself as ‘possibly the most extensive literary work scrutinizing extra-terrestrial intervention and biblical scripture ever compiled’, which went into astonishing detail regarding the interior furnishing of the Cherubim spacecraft. Belief can be an odd thing.
Mind you, we came across the print on the day of hurricane Ophelia, when the sky above the Courtauld was an unearthly yellow and people were standing in the strangely still courtyard, quietly staring up as if waiting for something to appear – spaceships, disembodied hands, even churning ‘dreadful’ wheels with staring eyes perhaps.