The wheels of Ezekiel do not only represent one man’s visionary experience; they signify the entirety of Scripture (perfecta sacre scripture). So wrote Henricus de Carreto in the dedication of his manuscript, the De Rotis Ezechielis (‘On the Wheels of Ezekiel’), of which only two copies exist. This image is found in the original copy of the manuscript: a lengthy theological text illustrated with twenty-five diagrams.These show the wheels in various stages of movement and different degrees of scale, to guide the reader through their multiple layers of symbolism.
This particular image is one of the first in the series and depicts Ezekiel’s visionary experience in astounding detail, bringing the strangeness of the descriptions to life before the readers’ eyes. Taking the description of the wheels as its model, each wheel has the four faces of the four creatures (Ezekiel 10:14) and all have eyes (v.12). Framing the wheels are the cherubim, who have ‘the form of a human hand under their wings’ (v.8).
By following the biblical description exactly, the image maker’s intention was evidently to capture the vision as precisely as possible, with the consequence that both the schematic structures as well as the figures upon them were laden with scriptural meaning.
Described as like wheels within wheels (cf. 10:10), the potential of the wheels to be represented as concentric circles made them a fitting foundation upon which to represent the complex-yet-simple wholeness of the scriptural canon. Through them, Henricus attempted to picture their detailed description whilst explicating their theological and cosmological significance, discussed at length in the patristic texts that were in circulation during the Middle Ages (Dow 1957: 273–79).
Yet the schematism of a diagram, however geometrically constructed, cannot tame the unsettling strangeness of this theophany, whose energy also radiates from the page. As Origen exclaimed: ‘what could be more glorious and exalted than these things?’ (Commentary on The Gospel of John 6.23).
Dow, Helen. 1957. ‘The Rose-Window’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 20.3: 248–97
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.