- n. A winged creature represented over 90 times in the Bible as attending on God, later seen as the second highest order of angels, ranked above thrones and below seraphim.
Cherub as an English word first came about during the 14th century, borrowed directly from the Latin cherub, itself from the Greek cheroub, with its roots ultimately with the Hebrew כרוב (kerubh). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this Hebrew word might be related to the Akkadian karubu (“gracious, one who blesses”), which was used to describe the “bull-colossus.”
Cherubim (not cherubs, and certainly not cherubims) are one of the higher orders of angels; it was a cherub that guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword in the creation story of the Bible. Though Biblical descriptions of angels vary wildly, cherubim are often described as a combination of eagles, lions, and men, and always with a multitude of eyes.
Some modern scholars have attempted to trace the Hebrew conception of cherubim back to the Phoenician Lammasu, mythological man/lion beings which the Israelites could have absorbed and reinterpreted while they were a small part of the larger Canaanite region. Some also suggest that the prominence of the wings in this creature influenced the importance of wings to the angelic archetype in later Christian canon.
Regardless, cherubim were always pretty badass—that is, until the Renaissance, when Italian artists (Donatello is often regarded is the trendsetter in this regard) revived the classical putti, small, naked, winged babies. Since putti (pl. of putto, an Italian word from the Latin putus, or “little man”) are 2nd-century Greco-Roman, and therefore pagan, they were products of secular art. They are, after all, beings of Eros, made to facilitate erotic love. Cherubim, by contrast, would necessarily be some kind of facilitators of religious love between Man and God. For whatever reason, it was not long before these two beings were depicted substantially the same way and simply called different things depending on the nature of the work.
But this is hardly fair. Let me give you a helpful example.
|Cherub||Not a cherub|