Saint Archangel Michael - The Angels - Antique Russian icons
Angels are messengers of God. In the Eastern Church the angels are closer to God than the saints, they are divine from the beginning. In art they are depicted with wings that symbolize their quick obedience, with a halo, staff and palm branches. The Eastern Church divided the angels into a supernatural hierarchy, similar to the hierarchical order at the Byzantine imperial court. At the top are eight archangels. Scripture names three: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. The first two can be found most frequently on depictions of the Eastern Church.
The name Michael comes from Hebrew and means: Who is God? Michael is the leader of the angels and is therefore equipped with sword, lance and cross for the fight against the diabolical forces. On some icons he holds the soul scales in his hand (he weighs souls) and blows the horn to proclaim the Last Judgment.
The name Gabriel means strength of God. Michael is the angel of the final decision, i.e. the end, while Gabriel is the angel of the beginning and becoming, of birth. He was the angel who announced the birth of Jesus to Mary. While Michael usually appears in knightly clothing, Gabriel usually wears a simple robe. His attribute is the lily as a symbol of purity, but often also the staff of the cross or the scepter, symbols of heavenly power.
The fact that the two archangels Michael and Gabriel are often depicted in intercessory gestures on the iconostasis - but also on individual icons - to the right and left of the Deesis, the main image, shows their importance.
Images from the early Byzantine period show angels of great, unearthly beauty, with soft, even, expressive features; Gold threads run through the hair, and the headband is adorned with a gemstone. In the 12th and 13th centuries, and even later, the angels take on a threatening character and are depicted as gigantic figures.
The name Raffael means: God heals. Raphael is the angel of salvation and redemption. As a trinity, the three archangels symbolize the Holy Trinity: Michael - God the Father, Raphael - Son of God and Gabriel - Holy Spirit. Often they also hold a ball with the letters IC (Jesus Christ) in their hands.
Cherubim and Seraphim - both are known from the Old Testament - are two of the nine angel choirs that are often found as a whole choir or as individual icons on icons, which then represent the entirety of the angels. The cherubim are the angels of wisdom; they have four wings. In the early days they were only shown as heads with wings, later in full shape, often in blue.
The seraph, the "ember fan", is a symbol of the light and embers of the divine fire. It has six wings: it covers its face with two wings, its feet with two and flies with two. Seraphim are mostly shown in red.