Within the cultural context of medieval Christianity, the term “seraph” generally referred to the highest “order” of angels. A seraph, thus, would be an angel whose “position” in the heavenly realm would be “closest” to God. This hierarchical understanding of seraphim as the angelic creatures nearest to God appears to be derived from a work by an anonymous 5th or 6th century Syrian Christian who wrote under the name of Dionysius (in order to associate his work with the disciple of Paul known as Dionysius the Areopagite [see Acts 17:34]). This pseudonymous author had a hierarchical understanding of the created world whereby the “energy” of God flowed “down” through the celestial hierarchy and back “up” through the ecclesiastical hierarchy, thereby providing the framework and capacity for human beings to experience directly the bliss of the divine presence in mystical encounter. Taking various biblical terms that might refer to angelic beings, Pseudo-Dionysius formalized the notion of the nine choirs (or ranks) of angels, with the seraphim constituting the highest rank.
The biblical source for the notion of a seraph undoubtedly is found in the story of Isaiah’s visionary call to become a prophet (Is. 6:1-13). In this story Isaiah is taken up from Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem into the heavenly court of the Divine King, whose council is composed of the fiery, six-winged seraphim. Precisely what these beings are supposed to represent is not easy to determine. Within the context of the ancient near-eastern world of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the chief deity was often depicted with a fearsome entourage of winged, half-beast (bull, lion, or horse) and half-human creatures. These attendants served and guarded the entrance to the sanctuary of the deity. In other contexts, these beings are called cherubim (whom Pseudo-Dionysius places as the second rank of angels). In this story, then, the seraphim are probably to be understood as awesome (fiery) creatures who attend and guard the High God, Yahweh. Their six wings symbolize the appropriate responses to the divine presence: with one pair they shield their faces from the Heavenly King’s majestic glory, with a second pair they hide their nakedness from the divine holiness, and with the third they go about their appointed tasks. In a moment of ecstasy, Isaiah sees this heavenly court, God seated on his throne with his seraphic attendants ¯ something no one is supposed to see.
All this has significance for the Franciscan tradition because of Francis’ stigmata. According to the account presented by Bonaventure in his Legenda Major, a seraph appeared to Francis while he was praying on Mount Laverna. This account is memorably depicted in some of the great artistic masterpieces of Western art. Within this seraphic vision Francis saw the crucified figure of Jesus. Through this visionary experience, the story continues, Francis received wounds on his hands, feet, and side in imitation of the wounds of Jesus as he died on the cross. Bonaventure interpreted these stigmata (or marks of the crucifixion) as physical signs of the kind of spiritual transformation that had taken place in Francis’ life: he had truly become another Christ.
Subsequently, Bonaventure used the image of a six-winged seraph, as he meditated on the life of Francis, as a “pattern” for structuring his Itinerarium mentis in Deum. Further, the character of Bonaventure’s theology led many medievals to see in his work the effort of a theologian who was very close to God, in the sense that they came to understand his work as manifesting marks of mysticism, much as Francis’ life did. This moved them to dub him with the nickname, “the seraphic doctor” — the teacher who is close to God. And this, finally, explains why the official seal of St. Bonaventure University bears a likeness of a seraph at its core.
Photographs courtesy of Fr. James Vacco.