“Intertwined”: on the Cherubs Series of Drawings

Exhibition: Miriam Gamburd / Text: Alec Mishory.

History & Theory: Protocols“, Bezalel // Issue No. 28
Illustration: A Dialogue between Text and Picture
July 2013

Jewish mythology talks about angels: strange, mysterious creatures. We are familiar with their images through verbal descriptions in the Bible and its commentaries. Angels are usually described as creatures with human characteristics, with wings attached to their shoulders. In general, one may assume that angels serve as mediators between the worldly meaning us, humans, and god. Cherubs are winged creatures with faces of either young men or children.

The mere existence of Cherubs embarrassed Jewish thinkers throughout history, especially those who supported the Jewish concept of monotheism. In spite of the alleged contradiction between the Second Commandment prohibition against the making of graven images, the cherubs’ placement in the holy of holies in the Jerusalem Temple, their visual depictions are known throughout the centuries old tradition of Jewish art. They are depicted in medieval illuminated manuscripts, on Bible initial pages – and more. Jewish – as well as non-Jewish artists – were fascinated with portraying their mysterious image in the following centires until this very day.

Jewish intellectuals of the 2nd until the 5th centuries, whose discussions are documented in the Mishna and Talmud differ greatly from those who interpreted the visual shape of the cherubs in the middle ages to the present. The discussions and arguments of the Talmud Jewish intellectuals teach us that the cherubs, placed on top of the Holy Ark, symbolize the love of god to the people of Israel and that such love is compared with the love of the human male to the female.

R. Kattina said: Whenever Israel came up to Jerusalem during the three Pilgrim Festivals, the curtain would be removed for them and the Cherubim were shown to them, whose bodies were intertwisted with one another, and they would be thus addressed: Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman. (The Babylonian Talmud, Yoma Tractate, Chapter 5) .

A thousand years later, Shlomo ben Itzhak, a Jewish intellectual of the 11th century repeated the Talmudic concept of the cherubs and argued that the cherubs “…Cleaved to one another, holding and embracing each other as the male embraces the female.”

Through the written documentation of their discussions in the Talmud, Jewish intellectuals tried to explain how these winged creatures looked like, However, verbal description and visual depiction differ greatly since there is a great gap that separates the two descriptive phenomena.

While the first is ambivalent and more abstract, enabling readers to formulate their individual associations of the creatures’ image, visual depictions of cherubs by Jewish artists, based on such interpretations as that by Shlomo Itzhak, would surely be regarded as blasphemous. A verbal description of nude angels was totally accepted, even by the most conservative, with no objection whatsoever. Indeed, their depiction in the visual arts, which makes a clear, specific, focused interpretation, would not be easily accepted by conservative eyes.

Miriam Gamburd dared to endow a visual aspect to the various Jewish intellectuals’ interpretations; if these sages were given the chance to observe her drawings, they would have been dumbfounded when confronted with such visual concretizations of the cherubs as they themselves envisioned them.

How can one give visual expression to a phrase that determines that the cherubs were “intertwined” or “cleaved to one another”? Gamburd comments on the physical proximity between the cherubic pair, as expressed in the interpretation of sages of the past, in a series of studies in which she sketches how this proximity could have occurred in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple. Her drawings show a diverse range of couplings between the two cherubs. In one of them, the female cherub sits on the lap of the male cherub, while each has its arms around the other. In another drawing, their bodies form an X; their legs and back are turned away, and their loin area alone is united. In a third drawing, the male cherub stands on tiptoe with the entire weight of his body, holding the female cherub in his arms while they join one another at the loins.

The cherubs’ wings exercised Gamburd as well. In architectural design- like drawings, she examines the relationship of the wings with the space that enfolds them. In others, they are described as drooping, rising or, in a closely cross-hatched drawing, they are blurred, giving us a sense of motion.

Of the studies that she dedicated to cherub-related erotica, Gamburd said that

Illustrating the sacred words through drawing, a medium rooted in the Hellenic era and in the Renaissance, is nothing if not an attempt “to translate into Greek” – a loaded and risky task”.

The fascinating way in which Gamburd refers visually to the Jewish sages’ verbal descriptions of the cherubs’ images (written more than a thousand years ago), brings us back to a different way of thinking, to a modern exciting concept of unimpeded renovations; her works present us with contemporary interpretations, completely freed from conservative coercion of the Israeli Orthodox clerical establishment.

Excerpts from the Sources:

Slides 1,2,3,10 R. Kattina said: Whenever Israel came up to the Festival, the curtain would be removed for them and the cherubim were shown to them, whose bodies were intertwined, and they would be thus addressed: Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman (Yoma 54a).

And indeed the essence of the two cherubim alludes to the Shechina. They are the cause and the effect, male and female, therefore the cherubim were a monolith of one body consisting of two shapes. They were facing one another and God was between them. (Sefer Hayei HaOlam Haba, Abulafia).

Ravina said in the name of Shmuel: The cherubim stood by a miracle; for it is said, (Kings I 6:24) ‘And five cubits was the one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the other wing of the cherub, from the uttermost part of the one wing unto the uttermost part of the other were ten cubits’ (Baba Batra 99a).

Slides 5,6 Thereupon the Prophet said to Israel: This is the evil impulse of idolatry, as it is said, (Zachariah 5:8) ‘And he said, this is wickedness’. As they took hold of him a hair of his came out, he raised his voice and it was audible four hundred parasangs. Thereupon they said: How shall we act [how shall we kill him]? Perhaps, God forbid, they might have mercy upon him from heaven! — The prophet said to them: Cast him into a leaden pot, covering its opening with lead. Because lead absorbs the voice, as it is said, (Zachariah 5:8) ‘And he said this is wickedness. And he cast her down into the midst of the ‘ephah’, and he cast the weight of lead upon the mouth thereof.’ They said: Since this is a time of Grace, let us pray for mercy for the Tempter to evil. They prayed for mercy, and he was handed over to them. He said to them: Realize that if you kill him, the world will come to its end. They imprisoned him for three days, then they looked for a fresh egg in the whole land of Israel and could not find one. Thereupon they said: What shall we do now? If we kill him the world would then come to its end. Shall we beg for half-mercy? They do not grant ‘halves’ in heaven. They put out his eyes and let him go” (Yoma 69b).

Slide 7 When R. Ishmael son of R. Jose and R. Eleazar son of R. Shimon met, one could pass through with a yoke of oxen under them and not touch them (Baba Mezi’a 84a).

Slide 8 R. Joseph learnt: (Exodus 21:10) ‘Her flesh’ implies the closeness of flesh, that he must not treat her in the manner of the Persians who perform their conjugal duties in their clothes (Ketubot 48a).

Slide 9 R. Yochanan said: When the serpent came unto Eve he infused filth into her. If that be so [the same should apply] also to Israel! — When Israel stood at Sinai that filth was eliminated, but the filth of idolaters, who did not stand at Sinai, did not cease (Avoda Zarah 22b).

Slides 11,12 Raba once sent a present to Bar-Sheshak on a heathen feast-day, saying, ‘I know that he does not worship idols’; but on paying him a visit, he found him sitting up to his neck in a bath of rosewater while naked harlots were standing before him. [Bar-Sheshak] said to him, ‘Have you anything like this in the World to Come?’ He replied, ‘We have much finer than this.’ He asked, ‘Is there anything finer than this?’ (Avoda Zarah 65a).

Slide 13 R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab’s bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: One would think that Abba’s mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, for it is not derech eretz [decent behavior]. He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn (Brachot 62a).

Slides 14,15 For this is the likeness of Lilith, unlike a goat whose likeness does not resemble the face of man (Tosfot, Nidah 24).

All of those years in which Adam was in expulsion he begot spirits, ghosts, and she-devils, as it is said (Genesis 5:3) ‘And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, before he begot a son in his own likeness, after his image’ (Iruvin 18b).