It suddenly occurred to me to wonder how, why, and when the mighty Biblical cherub was reduced to a synonym of the silly little putto. I still don’t know the answer to that, because when I checked the OED (1889 entry) I was distracted by the long and complicated history of the word and its confusion of forms:
Old English and Middle English cherubin, Middle English and modern cherub; derived (through French, Latin, Greek) from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, where k’rūb, plural k’rūbīm, are used as explained below. […] From Hebrew the word was adopted without translation by the LXX as χερούβ, χερουβίμ (-ίν, -είν), also in the N.T., Hebrews ix. 5, and by the Vulgate as cherūb, cherūbīn, cherūbīm (the latter in the Clementine text). As the plural was popularly much better known than the sing. (e.g. in the Te Deum), the Romanic forms were all fashioned on cherubin, viz. Italian cherubino, plural –i, Spanish querubin, -es, Portuguese querubin, cherubin, French cherubin, plural –s.
The earliest English instances are of cerubin, cherubin, taken over from ecclesiastical Latin apparently as a foreign word, and treated implicitly as a singular, sometimes as a proper name, at other times as a collective. From the Middle English period, the popular forms were, as in French, cherubin singular, cherubins plural. Cherubin survived in popular use to the 18th cent.; but in the Bible translations, cherub was introduced from the Vulgate by Wyclif, was kept up by the 16th cent. translators, and gradually drove cherubin into the position of an illiterate form. In the plural, cherubins is found from the 13th cent.; and although in MSS. of the earlier Wyclifite version, cherubyn is more frequent (after the Vulgate), the later version has always cherubins; this was retained in ordinary use till the 17th cent. But in the 16th cent., acquaintance with the Hebrew led Bible translators to substitute cherubims: this occurs only once in Coverdale, but always in the Bishops’ Bible and version of 1611. From the beginning of the 17th cent., cherubim began to be preferred by scholars (e.g. Milton) to cherubims, and has gradually taken its place; the Revised Version of 1881–5 has adopted it. A native plural cherubs arose early in the 16th cent.; in Tyndale, Coverdale and later versions (but not in that of 1611) it occurs beside cherubins, -ims; it is now the ordinary individual plural, the Biblical cherubim being more or less collective.
Briefly then, cherubin, cherubins are the original English forms, as still in French. But, in the process of Biblical translation, cherubin has been supplanted by cherub; and cherubins has been ‘improved’ successively to cherubims, cherubim; while, concurrently, cherub has been popularly fitted with a new plural cherubs.
The foreign form of the plural, coupled with the vagueness of the meaning in many passages, led to curious grammatical treatment even in MSS. of the LXX: here the Hebrew singular and plural are normally reproduced as χερούβ, χερουβίμ (the latter taken in Gen. iii. 24 as a neuter plural, as it is in Hebrew ix. 5), yet in Ps. xviii. 10 […] and in 2 Chron. iii. 11, the Hebrew singular k’rūb (of the Masoretic text) is represented by χερουβίμ, treated as a neuter singular (ἐπὶ τῷ χερουβίμ, τοῦ χερουβὶμ τοῦ ἑτέρου). In the former case the Vulgate follows the LXX with cherubim. Since, in the Latin, there is, in many passages, nothing to show the number of cherubin, it is no cause of surprise that readers often took it as singular, and it is actually used as a singular (masculine or neuter) in many mediæval Latin hymns and litanies.
The history of the sense, or notion attached to the word, lies outside English, though English use reflects all its varieties. In the Old Testament the cherubim are ‘living creatures’ with two or four wings, but the accounts of their form are not consistent: cf. the earlier notices with those of Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. i, x). They first appear in Genesis iii. 24, as guardians of the tree of life. This name was also given to the two images overlaid with gold placed with wings expanded over the mercy-seat in the Jewish tabernacle and temple, over which the shekinah or symbol of the divine presence was manifested. A frequent expression for the Divine Being was ‘he that dwelleth (or sitteth) between (or on) the cherubim’. Psalm xviii. 10 (also contained in 2 Sam. xxii. 11) says of Jehovah ‘He rode upon a cherub (LXX. cherubim), and did fly’. It is in connection with this class of passages that the word first appears in English, and it is difficult to know exactly how the word was construed or used. The inclusion of the cherubim among angels appears to belong to Christian Mysticism. According to the 4th cent. work attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the heavenly beings are divided into three hierarchies, each containing three orders or choirs, viz. (according to the received order) seraphim, cherubim, thrones; dominions, virtues (δυνάμεις), powers; principalities, archangels, angels. Cherubim were thus made the second of the nine orders, having the special attribute of knowledge and contemplation of divine things. Their angelic character is that which chiefly prevails in later notions and in Christian art.
What a mess!
In Byron’s wonderful 1821 dramatic poem Cain, Cain’s sister-wife Adah nicely distinguishes the orders thus: “I have heard it said/ The seraphs love most—cherubim know most—/ And this [Lucifer] should be a cherub—since he loves not.” Does anyone still read Cain, which was so popular in the nineteenth century? They should; it reminds me of the novels of Olaf Stapledon in its exhilarating sweep of ideas and vision of the universe. This passage is pure science fiction, with Lucifer’s response reminiscent of James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (Lucifer is carrying Cain through space, farther and farther from Earth):
Lucifer. Point me out the site
Cain. How should I? As we move
Like sunbeams onward, it grows small and smaller.
And as it waxes little, and then less,
Gathers a halo round it, like the light
Which shone the roundest of the stars, when I
Beheld them from the skirts of Paradise;
Methinks they both as we recede from them,
Appear to join the innumerable stars
Which are around us; and as we move on
Increase their myriads.
Lucifer. And if there should be
Worlds greater than thine own, inhabited
By greater things, and they themselves far more
In number than the dust of thy dull earth,
Though multiplied to animated atoms,
All living, and all doom’d to death, and wretched,
What wouldst thou think?