Cherubs and Cupids: Fictional Angels of Love

Baby Angels with Bows and Arrows in Art Differ from Real Cherubim Angels

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The fresco "The Triumph of Galatea" by Raphael, painted 1512-1514. Getty Images

Cute baby angels with chubby cheeks and little wings who use bows and arrows to cause people to fall in love may be romantic, but they're not real. Known as either cherubs or cupids, these characters that are so popular in art (especially around Valentine's Day) are actually nothing like the real angels with a similar name: cherubim. Just as falling in love can be confusing, so is the history of how cherubs and cupids came to be confused with actual angels.

Cupid Represents Love in Ancient Mythology

It all started with Cupid, the god of love from ancient Roman mythology (similar to Eros, the Greek mythological god of love). Cupid (the son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love) was often depicted in art as a young man with a bow, ready to shoot arrows at people to cause them to fall in love with others. Cupid was mischievous, taking pleasure in playing tricks on people to toy with their emotions.

Renaissance Artists Create Putti and Cupid's Appearance Changes

During the Renaissance, artists began to expand the ways they illustrated all sorts of subjects, including love. The famous Italian painter Raphael and other artists of that era created characters called "putti" to represent the presence of pure love around people. These characters looked like male babies or toddlers, and they often sported wings like angels.

Cupid's appearance in art changed around this same time, so that instead of being portrayed as a young man, he was depicted as a baby or young child, like the putti.

Soon artists began illustrating Cupid with angelic wings, as well.

The Meaning of the Word "Cherub" Expands

Meanwhile, people began referring to the images of putti and Cupid as "cherubs" because of their association with the glorious feeling of being in love, and the Bible says that real cherubim angels protect God's glory.

The impression of purity evoked by the baby angels in art also reminded people of God's pure love, which the cherubim guard as part of his heavenly glory.

So the word "cherub" began to refer not just to a biblical angel of the cherubim rank, but also to an image of either Cupid or putti in art.

As Different as Night and Day

The irony is that the cherubs of popular art and the cherubs of historical religious texts like the Bible couldn't be more different creatures.

For starters, their appearances are completely different. While the cherubs and cupids of popular art look like chubby babies, biblical cherubim show up as fiercely strong, exotic creatures with multiple faces, wings, and eyes. Cherubs and cupids are often depicted as floating on clouds, but cherubim in the Bible appear surrounded by the fiery light of God's glory.

There's also a sharp contrast between how serious their activities are. Cherubs and cupids simply have fun, playing tricks and making people feel warm and fuzzy with their cute and playful antics. But cherubim angels are masters of tough love. They will do what's best -- God's will -- whether people like it or not. While cherubs and cupids aren't bothered by sin, cherubim are seriously committed to seeing people grow closer to God by turning away from sin and accessing God's mercy to move forward.

Fictional cherubs and cupids can be lots of fun, but they lack any real power. Real cherubim angels have awesome power at their disposal, but they may use it in ways that challenge humans.