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Giotto - Legend of St Francis - -19- - Stigmatization of St Francis

St. Francis' vision of a seraph (fresco attributed to Giotto)

A seraph (pl. seraphim; Hebrew: שְׂרָפִים śərāfîm, singular שָׂרָף śārāf; Latin: seraphi[m], singular seraph[us]; Greek: σεραφείμ) is a type of celestial being in Judaism and Christianity. Literally "burning ones", the word is normally a synonym for serpents when used in the Hebrew Bible, but they are mentioned in the Book of Isaiah as fiery six-winged beings attending on God. They appear again as celestial beings in an influential Hellenistic work, the Book of Enoch, and a little later in the Book of Revelation. They occupy the fifth of ten ranks of the hierarchy of angels in medieval and modern Judaism, and the highest rank in the Christian angelic hierarchy.

Origins and development

Seraphim, literally "burning ones", is the plural of "seraph", more properly sarap. The word sarap/seraphim appears three times in the Torah (Numbers 21:6-8, Deuteronomy 8:15) and four times in the Book of Isaiah (6:2-6, 14:29, 30:6). In Numbers and Deuteronomy the "seraphim" are serpents - the association of serpents as "burning ones" is possibly due to the burning sensation of the poison. [1] Isaiah also uses the word in close association with words to describes snakes (nahash, the generic word for snakes, in 14:29, and efeh, viper, in 30:6).

Isaiah's vision of seraphim in the First Temple in Jerusalem is the sole instance in the Hebrew Bible of the word being used to describe celestial beings: there the winged "seraphim" attend God and have human attributes:[2] "... I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and His train filled the Hekhal (sanctuary). Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew." (Isaiah 6:1–3) In Isaiah's vision the seraphim cry continually to each other, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory" (verses 2-3) before carrying out an act of purification for the prophet (verses 6-7). It is possible that these are winged snake-beings, but given that the word "seraphim" is not attached as an adjective or modifier to other snake-words ("nahash," etc.), as is the case in every other occurrence of the word, it is more probable that they are variants of the "fiery" lesser deities making up God's divine court.[3]

"Seraphim" appear in the 2nd century B.C. Book of Enoch[4] where they are designated as drakones (δράκονες "serpents"), and are mentioned, in conjunction with the cherubim as the heavenly creatures standing nearest to the throne of God. In the late 1st century A.D. Book of Revelation (iv. 4-8) they are described as being forever in God's presence and praising Him constantly: "Day and night with out ceasing they sing: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.'" They appear also in the Christian Gnostic text On the Origin of the World, described as "dragon-shaped angels".[5]

In Judaism

The 12th century scholar Maimonides placed the seraphim in the fifth of ten ranks of angels in his exposition of the Jewish angelic hierarchy, and they are part of the angelarchy of modern Orthodox Judaism, and Isaiah's vision is repeated several times in daily Jewish services, including at Kedushah prayer as part of the repetition of the Amidah, and in several other prayers as well. Conservative Judaism retains the traditional belief in angels, including references in the liturgy, although a literal belief in angels is by no means universal. Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism generally do not believe in angels, although they may retain references for metaphorical purposes. There are taken by some to be part of the Merkabah.

In Christianity

Seraphim - Petites Heures de Jean de Berry

Seraphim surround the divine throne in this illustration from the Petites Heures de Jean de Berry, a 14th-century illuminated manuscript.

In medieval Christian theology, the Seraphim belong to the highest choir of the Christian angelic hierarchy. They are the caretakers of God's throne, continuously singing "holy, holy, holy". Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in his Celestial Hierarchy (vii), helped fix the fiery nature of seraphim in the medieval imagination. It is here that the Seraphim are described as being concerned with keeping Divinity in perfect order, and not limited to chanting the trisagion. Taking his cue from writings in the Rabbinic tradition, the author gave an etymology for the Seraphim as "those who kindle or make hot":

"The name seraphim clearly indicates their ceaseless and eternal revolution about Divine Principles, their heat and keenness, the exuberance of their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, and their elevative and energetic assimilation of those below, kindling them and firing them to their own heat, and wholly purifying them by a burning and all-consuming flame; and by the unhidden, unquenchable, changeless, radiant and enlightening power, dispelling and destroying the shadows of darkness"[6]

Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae offers a description of the nature of the Seraphim:

"The name 'Seraphim' does not come from charity only, but from the excess of charity, expressed by the word ardor or fire. Hence Dionysius (Coel. Hier. vii) expounds the name 'Seraphim' according to the properties of fire, containing an excess of heat. Now in fire we may consider three things.
"First, the movement which is upwards and continuous. This signifies that they are borne inflexibly towards God.
"Secondly, the active force which is 'heat,' which is not found in fire simply, but exists with a certain sharpness, as being of most penetrating action, and reaching even to the smallest things, and as it were, with superabundant fervor; whereby is signified the action of these angels, exercised powerfully upon those who are subject to them, rousing them to a like fervor, and cleansing them wholly by their heat.
"Thirdly we consider in fire the quality of clarity, or brightness; which signifies that these angels have in themselves an inextinguishable light, and that they also perfectly enlighten others."

The seraphim took on a mystic role in Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man (1487), the epitome of Renaissance humanism. Pico took the fiery Seraphim—"they burn with the fire of charity"—as the highest models of human aspiration: "impatient of any second place, let us emulate dignity and glory. And, if we will it, we shall be inferior to them in nothing", the young Pico announced, in the first flush of optimistic confidence in the human capacity that is the coinage of the Renaissance. "In the light of intelligence, meditating upon the Creator in His work, and the work in its Creator, we shall be resplendent with the light of the Cherubim. If we burn with love for the Creator only, his consuming fire will quickly transform us into the flaming likeness of the Seraphim."

Bonaventure, a Franciscan theologian who was a contemporary of Aquinas, uses the six wings of the seraph as an important analogical construct in his mystical work The Journey of the Mind to God.

As they were developed in Christian theology, seraphim are beings of pure light and have direct communication with God.

References

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