Questions From Readers
▪ Angels are spirits, without material bodies, so why do you show them in illustrations as having wings? Is this just religious tradition?
We usually depict angels with wings because of the symbolic descriptions found in the Bible.
You are correct in saying that spirit creatures do not have material bodies with literal wings—nor faces, hands, feet, or other body parts. Yet, on occasion, when angels appeared to God’s servants, they must have looked like normal men, for they were mistaken for such.—Genesis 18:2, 22; 19:1; Judges 6:11-22.
Sometimes, however, humans received visions of angels and described them. The prophet Ezekiel saw “four living creatures,” and in a later vision, he identified these as angels of the rank known as cherubs. (Ezekiel 1:5; 9:3; 10:3) Each of these angels had four wings, which showed their ability to respond swiftly in any direction to God’s commands. “They would not turn when they went; they would go each one straight forward . . . To wherever the spirit would incline to go, they would go. They would not turn as they went.”—Ezekiel 1:6, 9, 12.
But angels seen in vision did not always look the same. The angelic creatures called seraphs that Isaiah saw had six wings. (Isaiah 6:1, 2) There were even differences between Ezekiel’s visions. In the first, the angels had feet, hands under each of four wings, and four faces (like the face of a man, a lion, a bull, and an eagle). In his next vision, one of the faces was like that of a cherub rather than a bull, perhaps to indicate the great power of cherubs. In a yet later vision of the decorations of a symbolic temple, Ezekiel saw cherubs that had but two faces, one of a man and the other of a lion. (Ezekiel 1:5-11; 10:7-17; 41:18, 19) In the Most Holy of the tabernacle, as well as the temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem, there were cherubs having two wings. These were on the gold lid of the chest called the ark of the covenant. The two gold cherubs faced each other, and both had two wings extending over the Ark. (Exodus 25:10-22; 37:6-9) Above the Ark (and its lid) in Solomon’s temple stood two larger gold-covered cherubs, each having two outstretched wings.—1 Kings 8:6-8; 1 Chronicles 28:18; 2 Chronicles 5:7, 8.
Josephus wrote: “As for [those] cherubim themselves, no one can say or imagine what they looked like.” Thus, some scholars and artists base their depiction of angels (particularly cherubs) on so-called ancient Near Eastern prototypes of gods in the form of winged animals. But a more reliable guide is Ezekiel’s comment that those he saw “had the likeness of earthling man.” (Ezekiel 1:5) So when heavenly angels are illustrated in our publications, we generally depict them as essentially human in form. We show them with wings because of the numerous Biblical descriptions of various angels as having wings and because of comments about angels’ “flying.”—Revelation 14:6; Psalm 18:10.
Finally, page 288 of Revelation—Its Grand Climax At Hand! portrays a winged heavenly creature, having a crown on his head and a key in his hand. This is a graphic representation of Revelation 20:1: “I saw an angel coming down out of heaven with the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand.” We understand this angel with the key to be the glorified Jesus Christ. The illustration shows him with wings to accord with the fact that angels seen in vision usually had wings.