Illustrated Architecture Dictionary

Putto
(Plural: putti; pronounced POO toh and POO tee)

A nude, chubby child figure, often with wings, frequently appearing in both mythological and religious paintings and sculpture, especially of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Derived from personifications of love, or Eros figures, in Greek and Roman art, putti came to be used to portray cherubim in Italian paintings of the 15th century, especially those of the Madonna and Child. With the revival of classical mythological subjects in the late 15th century, Cupid was commonly represented as a putto, and numbers of anonymous putti were frequently depicted in attendance on various immortals.

Originally, Cherubs and Putti had distinctly different roles, with the former being sacred, and the latter, profane. That is, Cherubs and Seraphs (Cherubim, Seraphim) are Angels, occupying the highest angelic orders in Heaven and are thus the closest to God. On the other hand, Putti, arise from Greco-Roman classical mythos (i.e., non-Christian). They are associated with Eros/Cupid as well as with the Muse, Erato; the muse of lyric and love poetry.

Cherubs (and Seraphs) were often depicted simply (and creepily) as winged heads This was done to show that they are incorporeal -- literally; without a body -- yet intelligent and thus, Divine. In paintings, they usually accompanied any of the Holy Trinity, as well as, later, the Madonna.

By the time the Baroque Era came about, which might arguably have been the high point for Cherubim and Putti, both of these little beings were usually being depicted in the same way. Which one they were, simply depended upon the theme of the painting or sculpture: If religious (sacred) -- they were Cherubs. If secular or mythic (profane) -- they were Putti.

- Juan Carlos Martinez (April 2011)

Examples from Buffalo architecture: Other examples:

Photos and their arrangement © 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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