You probably already have a Christmas card or holiday decoration with at least one of these images on it.
We’ve all seen them, especially during the Christmas season: cute baby angels, carrying garlands of flowers or fruit, or playing music. Sometimes we call them “cherubs.”
However, those childlike angels are not traditionally Christian, nor do they represent any of the nine choirs of angels. We can thank the Renaissance Period and its artists — especially the 15th century Florentine sculptor Donatello — for their popularity today.
The Renaissance Period help bridge the Middle Ages to the modern era. It emphasized a return to classical art, philosophy, science and literature, especially those from ancient Greece and various Middle Eastern countries.
Looking at artifacts from ancient Greece and Rome, you find winged children figures carved on various buildings and monuments. They are called putto in Italian, from the Latin word putos (child), the Persian puca (child) and the Sanskrit word putra (boy child). Today, putto in Italian means a winged toddler of either gender.
In ancient Greece, winged children often followrd one of the lesser gods: especially Cupid (Eros) or Venus (Aphrodite) and the god of revelry, Bacchus (Dionysus). They also accompanied the woodland god, Pan. In ancient Persia, winged children often represented various spirits, similar to what are now called “djinn” (genies).
In most cultures of the ancient world, winged children in art generally represented life and energy. Ancient Romans, influenced by both Greek culture and the culture of the Etruscans which preceded them in Italy, used putti in art and on buildings to uphold garlands and triumphal wreaths.
Putti vanished from representations during the early Christian period and throughout the Middle Ages. They reappeared in Renaissance Period art, sometimes depicted with the Virgin Mary. By the Baroque Period (16th to 17th centuries), they begsn to symbolize various religious themes, especially relating to the notion of heaven and the spiritual presence of God.
Some of the more well-known putti can be seen in St. Peter’s Basilica, most of which was constructed in the 16th century (during the Renaissance Period); the church was dedicated in 1616. The holy water fonts in the basilica are upheld by giant putti carved in white marble.
Today, people often refer to what are really putti as “cherubs,” which modern dictionaries now define as “a winged child or a type of small angel shown in art.” However, while cherubs may be correctly defined as children, they should never be confused with the cherubim of the angelic host. Cherubim are entirely different creatures.
In Christian tradition — and supported by Jewish teachings — there are nine choirs of angels. These are ranked in three groups: the angels of presence, the angels of government and the angels of protection.
The cherubim are found in the first group: called the angels of presence. These angels are sometimes called “councilors,” because they attend God in much the same way as council members attend a royal court.
The angels of presence spend their entire existence worshiping in God’s presence. Besides the cherubim, angels of presence include seraphim and thrones.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, these first three choirs of angels focus on the primary reason for which all angels were created: to worship God and contemplate the mystery of the Trinity. Aquinas wrote that “the superior angels posses a more universal knowledge of the truth” than angels in two lower triads. Because their focus is on God, these angels of presence interact with humans and other parts of the physical world far less than the other angels.
When true cherubim are referred to in ancient tradition, descriptions show them carrying God’s glory upon their wings and as having four faces. This comes from the vision of Ezekiel (1:5-14; 10:1-22) who saw the cherubim bearing God on their wings. These angels each had four wings and four faces — one each of a lion, man, ox and eagle — and moved about as if on wheels.
When Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, one of the cherubim appeared to bar their way to the tree of life, holding “a fiery revolving sword.” The cherubim also guarded the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:18-22) in the Temple in Jerusalem,. Their outstretched wings spread forward over the Ark to form a throne for God. (This was sometimes called “the Mercy Seat.”)
In religious art, cherubim often appear with four wings and fiery swords and sometimes standing on wheels. They also appear with the Ark of the Covenant. Less often, they have four faces.
None of these images quite fits as nicely on Christmas cards as childlike angels, but they remind us of our call to focus upon the things of heaven during this Advent season.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Britanica.com; “Summa Theologica”; Catholic Online at catholic.org; “Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible”; “A Handbook of Symbols of Christian Art”; saintaquinas.com; rosaryworkshop.com; etymonline.org; rosaryworkshop.com; and The Ringling Museum of Art at Pringlingdocents.org.