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Cherubs in the Sistine Madonna

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Did you ever wonder who painted these angelic cherubs that we see so often adorning giftware, advertisements and home décor? Well, you may be surprised to learn that the creator of this popular motif is not a present-day artist but instead, a Renaissance painter. The winged darlings were painted around 1512 by Raphaello Salvio, otherwise known as simply Raphael, and they are only a small part of a much larger painting known as the Sistine Madonna. You can see Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, by clicking here.

It is believed that the Sistine Madonna was intended to decorate the tomb of Pope Julius II. The painting features the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child flanked by Saints Sixtus and Barbara. The two cherubs appear at the bottom of the painting. Visible only from above the neck, they lean against a horizontal balustrade. Their wings appear to be more like those of a butterfly than those of a bird. They seem calmly aware of the scene above them; their gestures indicate both expectation and patience, coupled with a benevolent innocence.

But speaking of cherubs, it is hard to say if these adorable onlookers are actually cherubs in the strictest sense of the word. What I mean is that there is often confusion between cherubs, putti, angels, and cupids. Technically speaking, cherubs are angels of the second sphere, the “Cherabim.” You see, in medieval times, Christian theologians believed in an “angelic hierarchy” in which nine types of angels were grouped into three spheres, or angelic choirs. Each sphere knew God in a different way. The Cherabim are the second highest order of angels and belonged to the first sphere. They are the guardians of the light of the heavens. The Cherabim protect the throne of God and they have perfect knowledge of Him. According to Old Testament scripture, the Cherabim have four faces: man, ox, lion, and eagle. They have eight wings which are covered with eyes and they have the feet of an ox!

So according to Christian theology, there are many types of angels and Cherubim are only one of these types. To make the matter even more confusing, the common “angel” is placed in the angelic hierarchy as the lowest order of angels, directly below archangels. They are the angels that are most familiar to human beings and most involved with the earthly realm. Angels were thought to have no physical form, so how were artists to portray them? Typically, artists relied on written works for guidance, primarily the Bible and the Apocrypha. But other works such as Dante’s Divine Comedy and later, Milton’s Paradise Lost provided vivid imagery of angels that was also helpful to artists. Angels of the third sphere were therefore usually portrayed as androgynous adults or non-sexual male adults.

The “halo,” a ring of light surrounding a person, has been used by artists for centuries to denote holy personages of various religions or even leaders and heroes. The halo is first seen in Christian art sometime in the fourth century in images of Christ. Although there are many types and locations of halos, a plain, round, golden halo surrounding the head was most often used by artists when rendering angels.

Before the fourth century, all angels were generally shown wingless. In Christian art of the medieval and Byzantine periods, cherubs were commonly portrayed as merely a face with wings. But by the end of the Renaissance, emphasis on the classics as well as a newfound eroticism allowed cherubs to evolve into more sensual figures. They were often portrayed as “putti,” the plump and childlike male figures seen in both religious and mythological art. Cherubs were portrayed either nude or only slightly clothed with flowers or perhaps wisps of clouds. And they possessed wings, sometimes those of a bird but also sometimes, those of a butterfly.

Cherubs must be distinguished from cupids. Cupid was the Roman god of love also known as Eros by the Greeks. Therefore, while cherubs are spiritual creatures, Cupid is a sensual creature. Throughout the ages, Cupid is depicted most often as a male adolescent with wings, carrying a bow and quiver of arrows that represent the power of love. Cupid is sometimes also shown blindfolded to illustrate that love is blind.

So getting back to the issue of the identity of the two images at the bottom of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, although they do not have halos, they are most likely cherubs, judging by their wings and their childish faces. But whatever they may be, few would argue that their presence in the Sistine Madonna adds to its beauty and appeal.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
   You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at