In A Nutshell
Biblical lore tells a variety of different stories about the angels that serve as God’s messengers, as conduits between the mortal and the divine, and as personal guardians. There’s actually an established three-tier hierarchy of angels, consisting of three different types of angels in each tier. Each has their own distinct purpose, their own role to play and, in some cases, their own strange, strange appearance. The Seraphim, the Cherubim, and the Thrones make up the first tier, the Dominions, the Virtues, and the Powers the second tier, and the Principalities, the Archangels, and the Angels in the lowest tier.
The Whole Bushel
Note: The following distinctions are largely those employed and developed by members of the Catholic faith.
Regardless of our beliefs, we probably all have the same mental image of the Christian angel. Beautiful, divine, with big white wings and probably surrounded by some sort of supernatural light. There’s actually an entire hierarchy of angels, though, each with a different purpose.
At the top of the angelic hierarchy are the Seraphim. These six-winged angels (one pair to fly with, one pair to cover their feet, and one pair to cover their faces) are the closest to God, and burn with fire and light as suggested by their name, which is Hebrew for “flaming.”
The Cherubim also hold a position in the top tier of the hierarchy, and it’s these angels that are usually depicted as little, infant-like, innocent figures in Renaissance paintings. But the Biblical descriptions of the Cherubim are quite different, and different books of the Bible are at odds with each other as to what they look like. They always glow with the light of knowledge, as they’re the ones that are the most enlightened of the angels and pass that knowledge on to others. Sometimes they have many, many eyes, and according to Ezechiel there are four Cherubim, each with unbending knees, brass-shod hooves, four arms, wings on each arm, and four faces: human, eagle, lion, and ox.
The Thrones are the third part of the top tier in the Hierarchy, and perhaps the most vaguely described. Occasionally they are defined as being the closest to God instead of the Seraphim, and these angels are God-bearing in function if not in name. They also act as a conduit between God and Earth, funneling divine grace to help guide mortal beings.
The middle tier is made up of the Dominions, the Virtues, and the Powers. The Dominions rank above all the other angels not in the tier above them, and guide both those divine beings they outrank and the mortal beings on Earth. The Virtues are the ones that work miracles, tell the future, heal the sick, and endow mankind with patience and the inner strength to fight earthly battles. The Powers are the angels that fight Satan and his demons, protect people who have been targeted by evil, and help them overcome temptation.
And the lowest tier in the hierarchy includes the Principalities, the Archangels, and the Angels. The Principalities are made up of a group of angels, with each one assigned to overseeing a country, nation, land, or race of people. They’re essentially middle management, making sure that only worthy people are given earthly power, that they rule with God in mind ahead of themselves, and that they’re guided to a peaceful reign. The Archangels are the heralds, making announcements and revealing prophecies that mankind needs to know. And the Angels are what we usually think of as guardian angels, watching over individual people who believe in God and help where it’s needed.
Then, of course, there’s the evil angels. The devil himself is defined as an angel that has fallen from grace, and it’s said often in the New Testament that he took other angels with him when he left the grace of God. Oddly, in some Greek texts the ideas of a fallen angel and a demon are surprisingly complex. Some Greek writers describe humans as having good demons as their protectors, while it’s the evil demons that being chaos and havoc to the world.
Show Me The Proof
New Advent: Angel (Catholic Encyclopedia on Angels)
The Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
The Holy Angels