The visualization of Ezekiel’s visions of the chariot throne demands a powerful imagination. It is fantastical and bordering upon contradictory in its description of natural phenomena and cherubim, and even more so in its account of the wheels.
Their appearance were ‘as if a wheel were within a wheel’ (Ezekiel 10:10), they moved ‘in any of their four directions without turning as they went’ (v.11), and their rims were ‘full of eyes’ (v.12). The interrelation of the wheels and their movement required visualization beyond two-dimensional representation, challenging their illustrators to experiment with a variety of circular forms.
The three depictions of Ezekiel’s visionary experience, all in different media, demonstrate the diversity of representational strategies used by medieval and early modern artists to capture the appearance of the wheels. Despite their variety, all of them reveal an impetus to visualize a complicated, moving, three-dimensional structure upon a two-dimensional plane.
The stained glass panel shows two different methods of picturing the wheels: the first as multicoloured concentric circles, and the second in a smaller and less obvious grisaille window fragment, placed above Ezekiel’s extended right hand, as if he is presenting them to the viewer. In this smaller depiction, the wheels form a vertical line of interlinked circles, echoing the columns of roundels that form the whole of the Ezekiel window.
In the manuscript illuminations of the De Rotis, the wheels provide the structural foundation for the diagrams. In this particular image, the four wheels are arranged within a diamond formation. Tied together by golden lines, their interconnectedness is emphasized by their eyes, all of which look toward the wheel they are linked to. The diagram is then repeated three more times on separate pages, though in each case the diamond structure has been rotated ninety degrees, showing the movement of the wheels as described in Ezekiel 10:11 (Stones 2014: 143–50).
In the printed German Bible, the wheels become a three-dimensional structure, not dissimilar from the scientific instruments used at that time. Faced with the same issues as the makers of astronomical diagrams and models that illustrated the structure and movement of the cosmological spheres through circular rings, it is not surprising that this later image looks like an armillary sphere (a model of the universe in which a framework of concentric rings represents the movement of celestial bodies around the earth). Looking closely, it becomes something of an impossible object, entangling the viewer’s gaze within its overlapping rims and spokes.
Placed in chronological order—from stained glass to manuscript diagram to woodcut print—these works show a growing awareness of three-dimensional space: from simplified circles that engage one another in different ways, to repeated schematic structures whose slight variation implies movement, to the use of perspective. Like Ezekiel’s reports of his mystical visions, these visualisations become increasingly complex.
Yet it is not only the complicated descriptions of wheels within wheels that make Ezekiel’s visions so difficult to represent. Their interpretative history in Christian tradition makes them part of a dense typological network that draws different stories from the Old and New Testaments into relationship in order to reveal further and potentially deeper meanings.
All three of the artworks are part of larger visual programmes. The print portrays most of the book of Ezekiel within a collection of images that covers the entire Bible, while the panel of stained glass is a snapshot from the book of Ezekiel, which makes just one window in an entire building of images that tell the story of Christian salvation history.
Meanwhile, the diagrams of the De Rotis focus on the descriptions of the wheels in such detail that they become symbols of the entirety of Christian Scripture. Through the diagrams, Henricus and the illuminators who worked on his text unlock a further theological meaning of the wheels, the typological and cosmological implications of which are explored in patristic commentaries on Ezekiel. According to Jerome, the four wheels were analogous to the Evangelists and to various fours within the natural world—the elements, seasons, and cardinal directions—demonstrating how Scripture informed humankind’s understanding of the world (Dow 1957: 274). In Henricus’s manuscript the wheels are a biblical instrument, used to demonstrate the many layers and interconnectedness of Scripture.
Bergeron-Foote, Ariane. 2016. ‘The Wheel of Ezekiel: The Preeminence of the Face of the Lion’, Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books: 1–9
Christman, Angela. 2005. What did Ezekiel See? (Leiden: Brill)
Dow, Helen. 1957. ‘The Rose-Window’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 20.3: 248–97
Neuss, Wilhelm. 1912. Das Buch Ezechiel in Theologie und Kunst bis zum Ende des xii. Jahrhunderts, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Gemälde in der Kirche zu Schwarzrheindorf (Münster)
Stones, Alison. 2014. Gothic Manuscripts 1260–1320, Part 2, vol. 1 (London: Harvey Miller)
‘The Book of Ezekiel, Sainte Chapelle’, The Medieval Stained Glass Photographic Archive. Available: http://www.therosewindow.com/pilot/StChapelle/w10-scan-Frame.htm [accessed 03 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.