by Barbara van Look, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and Beads®

Some people call them "cupids," some call them "cherubs" and the truly pedantic call them "putti." Whatever name they're given, they look the same: chubby-cheeked children with wings.

"Cherub" is a Hebrew word meaning mighty or blessed, with the plural being "cherubim" (although this is commonly written as "cherubs" or "cherubims" in English translations). "Putti" is the plural form of the Italian word "putto," which means boy or child.

These roly-poly figures may look identical, but their different names reveal a great divide between them. They are commonly seen twice a year: around Valentine's Day and during the Christmas season. Each appearance reveals the complicated and varied history of the modern "cherub." The playful putti (especially Cupid himself) are connected to Valentine's Day, while the charming cherubim are part of the Christmas season.


Art historian Juan Carlos Martinez explains it this way: "Originally, Cherubs and Putti had distinctly different roles, with the former being sacred, and the latter profane [non-sacred]. That is Cherubs (Cherubim)…are angels, occupying the highest angelic orders in heaven." Meanwhile, he says, "Putti arise from Greco-Roman classical mythos (i.e., non-Christian). They are associated with Eros [Cupid] as well as with Erato, the muse of lyric and love poetry."

This divide started to blur during the Renaissance when artists began looking back at the art of ancient Greece and Rome, then recycling and repurposing the symbols they found there. Artists such as Donatello, Giotto, Raphael and Michelangelo used the pudgy putti interchangeably with the chubby cherubim.

They were sometimes depicted as heads with wings, to show that they were spirits, incorporeal (that is, literally, without a body), yet clearly intelligent and connected to the spirit world. Other depictions showed children acting in unchildlike ways such as wearing armor to stand in protection over other figures, racing chariots, playing harps, gambling and so on. Their actions hinted at the sacred--or non-sacred--theme of the art piece and let you know whether they were cherubim or putti.


Cherubim were used in religious paintings to symbolize purity and the presence of divinity. Used in art with metaphorical or mythological themes, the putti were far less innocent: they were frequently symbols of fertility and erotic love.

After the Renaissance, artists during the Baroque period blurred the lines even more. By the time the Victorian age rolled around, the line was almost completely abolished. The Victorian love of sentimentality had made the pudgy putti and the chubby cherub almost interchangeable, with both sporting little white loincloths to match their wings.

Still, the most famous cherubs--besides the little cupid on our modern-day Valentines--are the two at the bottom of Raphael's Sistine Madonna. They have been featured and sold as collectibles since the early 20th century, as well as on postage stamps, postcards, t-shirts and wrapping paper. They have become so iconic, they have inspired a number of stories about their origin. One tale says that the woman Raphael was using as his model for the Madonna would bring her two children with her, and they would stand and watch him paint their mother. He was so struck by how they looked that he painted them in. Another story says that Raphael was inspired by two children he saw on the street, who were looking wistfully into a bakery.

You can add the charm of the cherub (or the pleasure of the putti) to jewelry lines using a selection of drops, links, charms and components. Add a cherubic charm to angel designs, or create pieces using plenty of putti to inspire love. Use Omni-Gel™ or resin to place Raphael's famous cherubs on jewelry or home décor items. You can play along the edge of the difference between these adorable sometimes innocent, sometimes mischievous little beings.

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