One of the oddest elements in Western art has got to be the presence of enormous numbers of flying babies.
Seriously. If you were suddenly introduced to the corpus of Western art with no prior knowledge whatsoever, wouldn’t you think it odd that infants are floating all over the place?
Art, like anything else, goes through fads, and on two occasions for periods of several centuries, it was the Thing to cram your paintings with adorable, chubby-cheeked toddlers who, unaccountably, can fly.
The sweet-faced tots are usually referred to as “putti,” pronounced “poo-tee,” which will make the less mature among us giggle. (It’s OK–even those not giggling are thinking the same thing.) “Putti” is the plural of “putto,” an Italian word for “boy” or “child.”
They originated in Roman art, usually in association with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Cupid, Aphrodite’s son, is the prototypical putti aiming his arrow of love at unwitting mortals. It’s important to remember that in Roman mythology, this was not a good thing. Being struck by Cupid’s arrow meant being overcome by sudden, irrational passion–the exact opposite of the restrained, sober, rational existence espoused by Roman culture. Being under the onslaught of love meant you were out of control, and being Roman was all about being in control.
Anyway, as well as Cupid, Aphrodite was often accompanied by other Babies of Love. In fact, they were not really babies at all–they weren’t human. They were mischievous spirits pulling the strings behind the scenes to promote erotic love. An apt comparison would be to the fairies in Shakespeares’ Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. This is explains why sometimes the babies are oddly–disturbingly–sexual.
With the rediscovery of Greek and Roman art in the High Renaissance, so too came the rediscovery of putti–and immediate confusion with cherubs. Cherubs have a completely different origin–they are angels, described in the Bible as the spiritual beings closest to God. Medieval and early Renaissance art had frequently portrayed angels in and around biblical scenes.
(Extra credit fact: the plural of “cherub” is usually “cherubim,” however the gamboling babies are known as “cherubs.” I have no explanation for this, except to say that “cherubim” usually refers to the angelic host and “cherubs” the painted babies. To call several putti-like figures “cherubim” would sound pretentious and not follow general practice.)
Soon cherubs came to resemble putti and were popping up all over the place. At some point any visual difference between the two disappeared, and the only way to tell a putti from a cherub is by the setting. If you’re looking at religious art, the adorable kiddos are cherubs; if a secular scene, they’re putti. And really, even that level of differentiation would only matter to the biggest art history sticklers.
Some putti are more successful than others. Sometimes, yes, they’re adorable.
Other times? Other times. you have to wonder if the artist had ever SEEN an actual baby. (I’m looking at you, Michelangelo.)
Some art historians excuse the odd appearance of putti by claiming the artists were trying to paint tiny spiritual being, not babies, and failed to hit the mark. Maybe. Maybe they had, in fact, never seen a baby.
Putti and cherubs fell out of favor in Western art with the rise of Realism, except in Christmas cards and a particular strain of religious art so sappy it makes your teeth hurt to look at it. It’s hard to imagine a revival. We’re just too ironic these days for frolicking, winged infants.
But you have to admit–sometimes they’re cute.