At the very core of Ezekiel’s visionary experiences, the first described in Ezekiel 1 and the second in Ezekiel 10, is the appearance of the four cherubim and the wheels of God’s chariot throne. These features come to represent Ezekiel’s visions in this stained-glass window panel in the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris.
Built as the royal chapel of the residence for the Kings of France, the Sainte-Chapelle was commissioned by King Louis IX around 1238 to house the precious relics he had recently acquired. A literally brilliant feat of Gothic engineering, the walls of the upper chapel are almost completely given over to vibrant stained glass, creating a cage of colour and light that tells the story of Christian salvation history from Genesis to the Last Judgement.
Near the East end of the chapel, an entire window is dedicated to the book of Ezekiel. The panel is just one of thirty scenes that form a rich and carefully constructed narrative, designed to be meditated upon by the king but also enjoyed by the poorest inhabitants of medieval Paris (Cohen 2015: 148).
Ezekiel stands in the centre of this quatrefoil-shaped panel with a book in his left hand that probably contains his prophecy. He looks upon the four cherubim, who appear here as the winged symbols of the Evangelists: John as an eagle, Mark as a lion, Luke as an ox, and Matthew as an angel. This depiction had become common as Christian tradition read the cherubim via the book of Revelation (4:7). Above and behind him are waves of blue that disappear into the top of the frame, representing the firmament that appears ‘something like a sapphire’ (Ezekiel 10:1).
While the composition of the scene is simple, some details show its medieval makers grappling with the complexity of the description of the wheels, which were ‘as if a wheel were within a wheel’ 1:16; 10:10). Depicted twice in the panel, they are visualized as multicoloured concentric circles on the left and as a vertical line of four overlapping circles above Ezekiel’s raised right hand.
Cohen, Meredith. 2015. The Sainte-Chapelle and the Construction of Sacral Monarchy: Royal Architecture in Thirteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge)
‘The Book of Ezekiel, Sainte-Chapelle’, The Medieval Stained Glass Photographic Archive. Available: http://www.therosewindow.com/pilot/StChapelle/w10-scan-Frame.htm [accessed 3 March 2020]
10 Then I looked, and behold, on the firmament that was over the heads of the cherubim there appeared above them something like a sapphire, in form resembling a throne. 2And he said to the man clothed in linen, “Go in among the whirling wheels underneath the cherubim; fill your hands with burning coals from between the cherubim, and scatter them over the city.”
And he went in before my eyes. 3Now the cherubim were standing on the south side of the house, when the man went in; and a cloud filled the inner court. 4And the glory of the Lord went up from the cherubim to the threshold of the house; and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the glory of the Lord. 5And the sound of the wings of the cherubim was heard as far as the outer court, like the voice of God Almighty when he speaks.
6 And when he commanded the man clothed in linen, “Take fire from between the whirling wheels, from between the cherubim,” he went in and stood beside a wheel. 7And a cherub stretched forth his hand from between the cherubim to the fire that was between the cherubim, and took some of it, and put it into the hands of the man clothed in linen, who took it and went out. 8The cherubim appeared to have the form of a human hand under their wings.
9 And I looked, and behold, there were four wheels beside the cherubim, one beside each cherub; and the appearance of the wheels was like sparkling chrysolite. 10And as for their appearance, the four had the same likeness, as if a wheel were within a wheel. 11When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went, but in whatever direction the front wheel faced the others followed without turning as they went. 12And their rims, and their spokes, and the wheels were full of eyes round about—the wheels that the four of them had. 13As for the wheels, they were called in my hearing the whirling wheels. 14And every one had four faces: the first face was the face of the 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.
15 And the cherubim mounted up. These were the living creatures that I saw by the river Chebar. 16And when the cherubim went, the wheels went beside them; and when the cherubim lifted up their wings to mount up from the earth, the wheels did not turn from beside them. 17When they stood still, these stood still, and when they mounted up, these mounted up with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in them.
18 Then the glory of the Lord went forth from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. 19And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth in my sight as they went forth, with the wheels beside them; and they stood at the door of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them.
20 These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the river Chebar; and I knew that they were cherubim. 21Each had four faces, and each four wings, and underneath their wings the semblance of human hands. 22And as for the likeness of their faces, they were the very faces whose appearance I had seen by the river Chebar. They went every one straight forward.