Winged Lions & Talking Eagles in Scripture & Liturgy

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Fr. Joseph Gleason

Winged lions, flying oxen, & talking eagles, singing the praises of God with angelic voices, have played important roles in the life of the Church for thousands of years.

These magnificent creatures populate both the Old Testament and the New, as well as the Sunday morning liturgy itself. And for countless centuries, they have been popular subjects of exquisite Christian artwork, both ancient and modern.

Winged lion at cathedral of St. Mark the Evangelist


Nine Orders of Angels

In order to better understand these wondrous creatures, we first need to consider the Church's teaching regarding angels. St. Dionysios the Areopagite was a disciple of the apostle Paul (Acts 17:34), and he wrote a book about angels called On the Celestial Hierarchy. Numerous early Church Fathers recognize him as the genuine author of this amazing book. In it, he describes nine orders of angelic beings:

  1. Seraphim
  2. Cherubim
  3. Thrones
  4. Dominations or Lordships
  5. Virtues
  6. Powers or Authorities
  7. Principalities or Rulers
  8. Archangels
  9. Angels

Seraphim and Cherubim are at the highest ranks, serving near the very throne of God. Archangels and angels are at the lowest ranks, usually working more directly on behalf of men. Lower still are humans, whom God made to be "a little lower than the angels" (Psalm 8:5)

Far higher than men and angels, higher still than principalities, powers, or archangels, we encounter the mighty Seraphim and Cherubim. Dwelling so near the very throne of God, the glory of their countenance would reduce any mortal man to fear and trembling.

Church mosaic of an eagle holding a book of Scripture

Winged Lions, Bulls, & Eagles

In the Old Testament, the holy prophet Ezekiel received an unforgettable vision of these heavenly creatures, and their majestic appearance was far beyond ordinary expectation:

"And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north . . . out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. . . ."

"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. Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies." (Ezekiel 1:4-11)

"Then the glory of the Lord went up from the cherub, and stood over the threshold of the house; and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the Lord's glory. And the sound of the cherubims' wings was heard even to the outer court, as the voice of the Almighty God when he speaketh. . . . And every one had four faces: the first face was the face of a cherub, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle." (Ezekiel 10:4-14)

When comparing these two passages from the book of Ezekiel, we can see a difference in how the faces of these magnificent creatures are described. Both passages agree that they have faces of eagles, lions, and men. But whereas the first passage describes "the face of an ox", the second passage identifies it as "the face of a cherub".

Ancient Church fresco of a winged bull holding a biblical scroll

Trusting that the prophet Ezekiel was not contradicting himself, it becomes apparent that the face of a cherub must resemble the face of an ox. At least in some cases, that is what a real cherub looks like.

Minotaurs, satyrs, fauns, centaurs, and griffins are often considered mere fantasy, nothing more than curious products of creative imaginations. Instead, what if such mythical beasts are remnants of collective memories from the distant past, when human beings actually beheld animal faces on angelic bodies, speaking the language of men?

According to the Bible, and according to the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church, it seems this may be exactly the case.

Orthodox icon of a Tetramorph in Meteora, Greece

In the New Testament, the apostle John receives a vision of heaven, where he sees these magnificent creatures continually praising the holiness of God:

"After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven . . .  And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, 'Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.' And . . . those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever" (Revelation 4:1-9)

John's vision is similar to Ezekiel's, and there are also some differences. While Ezekiel saw creatures with four faces, John saw four separate winged beasts. This could mean that there are different types of Cherubim, some with four faces, and some with one face. Or it could mean that Cherubim have the ability to appear in various forms, depending on the circumstances. Either way, they consistently have the appearance of winged lions, oxen, eagles, and men.

This explains why, throughout the millennia, Christian artists have represented the holy Cherubim in various ways. Sometimes they are represented as a tetramorph (a single angel with four faces), and sometimes they are represented as four separate creatures.

Winged ox, lion, man & eagle from Ezekiel 1, Ezekiel 10, & Revelation 4

Winged Creatures & Four Gospels

Since the time of the Early Church, Orthodox Christian Saints have associated these four winged creatures with the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John:

The majority of Saints have associated St. Matthew with the winged man, St. Mark with the winged lion, St. Luke with the winged calf, and St. John with the talking eagle

This Russian Orthodox icon shows all four evangelists, side by side with the appropriate winged creatures:

Angel, Lion, Ox, & Eagle with Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke & John

These are some of the reasons that have been given for these particular associations:

  • Matthew is represented as the winged man, because his Gospel begins with the human genealogy of Jesus.
  • Mark is represented as the winged lion, because his Gospel begins with John the Baptist and his “voice crying out in the wilderness”. In the Middle East, the lion is a prominent animal in the wilderness, crying out with a great roar.
  • Luke is the winged calf, because the calf is a sacrificial animal. Luke's Gospel begins with the priest Zacharias in the Temple — the designated location for sacrifices. Luke also relates the story of the Prodigal Son, and so his Gospel is the only one which mentions a calf.
  • John is represented as an eagle, because John’s Gospel begins with a soaring overview of the Incarnation: “In the beginning was the Word…”

The four creatures have also been associated with Christ Himself, focusing on four key aspects of His earthly ministry:

  • Man — Christ's incarnation
  • Calf — Christ's sacrificial death
  • Lion — Christ's triumph over death and hell
  • Eagle — Christ's ascension into heaven 

Symbols of the Four Evangelists in the 8th century Book of Kells

Wood carving representing the Four Evangelists

Winged Serpents and Pagan gods

We have been focusing on lions, oxen, and eagles, but these are not the only talking animals (e.g. Balaam's donkey), nor are these the only intelligent creatures with animal faces. The highest ranking angels of all — Seraphim — may actually look like winged serpents, and it is possible that Lucifer himself was originally created with just such an appearance. For more information on this topic, read Luke Wilson's article, What are the Seraphim, and was the devil one of them? Also, take a look at the video, Why the Villain of Eden was a Serpent.

Since many holy angels have appeared as sentient creatures with animal heads and human voices, it is reasonable to believe that fallen angels have done likewise. If so, this may help explain why so many false religions have involved the worship of "gods" that appear as animals. If some of the holy angels have the face of a cow, and the voice of a man, then perhaps some of the demons do as well. Thus there was Moloch worship and other forms of sacred cow worship in ancient times, and the Hindu worship of Kamadhenu today. Ancient Egyptians worshipped the serpent god Apophis and the lion-headed god Maahes. Pagan gods have also appeared with the heads of birds, such as Horus (falcon) and Zeus (eagle).

Of course, pagan gods are nothing more than demons, and demons are merely fallen angels. According to Holy Scripture, it is apparent that many holy angels have an animal-like appearance, so it is not surprising to consider that fallen angels may have retained such forms.

Some people have suggested that pagan gods take animal forms because they want men to debase themselves by worshiping lowly beasts of the earth, which lack intelligence and the ability to speak. Perhaps in certain cases this has been true.

However, we need to remember that a vastly different reason is just as likely — God has created many angels with the appearance of lions, bulls, eagles, and other animals. Indeed, when God created the animals themselves, He may have done so simply as a reflection of these holy and exalted angels which inhabit the heavens. When men have witnessed such angels, they were not seeing something lowly and debased. Rather, they were beholding intelligent beings which have approached the very throne of God.

In pagan religions, these men were still committing idolatry by worshiping the creature rather than the Creator. However, it may be that the demons were not tempting men to worship that which is debased and lowly, but instead were tempting them to worship highly intelligent creatures who had been greatly exalted, shining with angelic splendor.

11th century liturgical book cover for the four Gospels

Winged Creatures Throughout Scripture

In a normal book, a person's description is usually only given once or twice. It's not necessary to repeat it over and over. Once you have read their description, you get a mental picture of them. From that point on, you only need to see the person's name. Whenever you see it, you instantly get a picture in your mind corresponding with the earlier description.

Similarly, the Bible rarely describes the holy Seraphim and Cherubim. Descriptions are only provided a handful of times, and that is enough. Afterwards, every time you see the word "Cherubim" in Scripture, you can get a mental picture.

The holy Cherubim are referenced by name in more than a dozen books of Holy Scripture, including Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and the New Testament book of Hebrews. They are mentioned over 60 times in the Bible, at prominent places such as the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24), the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-22), the Temple Veil (Exodus 26:1), and Solomon's Temple (1 Kings 6:23-35).

When we read these many passages of Scripture, we should not merely read the word "Cherubim" and then move on. If we have read the Bible's description of the Cherubim, then we can better form mental pictures of these various historical events. Then we start to realize just how many points of biblical history may have involved the presence of intelligent angelic creatures bearing the heads of beasts and the voices of men.

8th century Lindisfarne Gospels: St. Luke portrait page

Winged Creatures in the Divine Liturgy

Now let us turn our attention to the Divine Liturgy, celebrated every Sunday morning in the Orthodox Church. After the Gospel reading, and immediately before the Great Entrance, the Cherubic Hymn is sung:

"Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim, and who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, now lay aside all earthly care, that we may receive the King of all, invisibly attended by the angelic orders. Alleluia."

The worshipers singing this hymn are people who "mystically represent the Cherubim". At this point in the liturgy, the people are representing magnificent angelic beings who have the faces of lions, bulls, men, and eagles.

The way they imitate the Cherubim is by singing the "thrice-holy hymn", beginning with the words, "Holy, holy, holy," patterned after the angelic praise of God found in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4.

Immediately after this hymn is sung, the Great Entrance begins, where the priest brings out bread and wine before the people, carries it into the altar area, and then places it upon the holy altar.

Christ in glory, surrounded by the four winged creatures

A little later in the liturgy, the priest prays the following prayer, directly referencing the Cherubim, Seraphim, and the thrice-holy hymn:

It is proper and right to sing to you, to bless you, to praise you, to give thanks to you, to worship you in every place of your dominion. For you are God inexpressible, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing, ever the same; you and your only-begotten Son and your Holy Spirit. You brought us from non-being into being, and when we fell you raised us up again, and left nothing undone until you brought us up to heaven and bestowed on us your kingdom to come.

For all these things we give thanks to you and your only-begotten Son and your Holy Spirit, and for all the benefits known and unknown, seen and unseen, that have been granted to us. We give thanks to you also for this liturgy which you are pleased to accept from our hands, though thousands of Archangels and myriads of Angels attend you, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring aloft on their wings, singing, exclaiming, crying out, and saying the triumphant hymn:

"Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna to you in the highest."

Besides the obvious references to the Cherubim, Seraphim, and the triumphant hymn of "Holy, holy, holy," it is also important to understand the history of the words, "singing, exclaiming, crying out, and saying". As Fr. Matthew-Peter Butrie has pointed out, the liturgy was originally sung in Greek, and unfortunately most English translations of this section have obscured the underlying references to animal-like sounds made by the four faces of the Cherubim:

The . . . mistake is not to know the history of the four participles and miss their reference to the four faces of the cherubim from Ezekiel 1, of lion, ox, eagle, and man. Unfortunately there is still little literature about this, but the four participles denote the sounds that the four faces make: the lion—roaring (άδοντα), the ox—lowing (βοώντα), the eagle—crying (κεκραγότα), and man—saying (λέγοντα). The second and third verbs are actually onomatopoeis, imitating the sounds of the respective animals. The four participles being the sounds of the four faces is in a text traditionally attributed to the liturgical commentary of St. Ghermanos of Constantinople (PG 98:429D), even if the text does confuse the sound of the lion with the one of the eagle. The text associates the verbs not only with the four animal faces of the angelic powers but also with the four evangelists. By the tenth century these extended links evangelist-cherubic face are portrayed extensively in iconography with the corresponding participles of the anaphora, especially in the churches of Cappadocia, but also in illuminated manuscripts.

This cherubic-face meaning of the four participles must have been well-known in the Greek speaking world through the nineteenth century because in the 1850 introduction to his famous A History of the Holy Eastern Church, Rev. John Mason Neale notes that

"the Constantinopolitan ritualists explain that of S. Chrysostom, of the four Evangelists: άδοντα, singing (like the eagle,) βοώντα, bellowing (as the ox,) κεκραγότα, crying (as the lion), λέγοντα, speaking (as the man.) And this seems a more natural explanation than another, which represents the four quarters of the globe as referred to in these words."

The confusion between the lion and the eagle could be inherited from the text attributed to St. Ghermanos.

The translation we propose reflects this now forgotten tradition, patristic and iconographic, of the cherubic-face meaning of the four participles: "roaring, lowing aloud, crying out, and saying the triumphant hymn." . . . English translation should reflect the four animal sounds one way or another.

Ieratikon: According to the Simonopetra Tradition, Vol. IV Notes. Cherubim Press. Pages 170-171.

Before the very throne of God, all four faces of the holy Cherubim are continuously singing praise: 

  • The lion is roaring, "Holy, holy, holy"
  • The bull is lowing, "Holy, holy, holy"
  • The eagle is crying out, "Holy, holy, holy"
  • The man is saying, "Holy, holy, holy"

And every Sunday morning, in every Divine Liturgy, worshipers across the world represent these magnificent winged creatures, who speak the language of men with the voices of animals.

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