Cupid, the mythological god of love and desire, has fascinated and inspired artists since antiquity. While Valentine’s Day gets its title from its eponymic saint, the holiday’s universal mascot is the cheeky matchmaking cherub. However, depictions of Cupid in classical art date back thousands of years, and his story is far more complex than the saccharine image we have of him today.

In Greek mythology, Cupid (Latin for “passionate desire”) is portrayed as Eros, the son of the love goddess Venus (Aphrodite in Roman mythology). The identity of his father remains unresolved. In some variations of the myth, the father is the god of war Mars, but in others, it’s Mercury, the god of merchants, travelers, thieves, and tricksters. Plato’s Symposium made him the child of Penia (the personification of poverty and need) and Poros (“plenty” in Greek), conceived at a feast to celebrate Venus’s birthday. Cicero claimed that there were three Cupids, born to three different Venuses and different fathers.

Bobbin with Eros ( 470-450 BCE), red-figure pottery at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France (via Wikimedia Commons)

In ancient Greek art, Eros is usually depicted as a slender, winged adolescent boy, often carrying a wreath of victory. In some of the depictions, he also holds a lyre, a hare, or a whip. On Greek pottery, Eros usually appears at weddings and other romantic scenes, sometimes hovering above protagonists like Paris and Helen of Troy.

It is only later in Roman art, during the Hellenistic period, that Eros began to be portrayed as a mischievous, chubby baby, under his new name: “Cupid.” It was at this time that he acquired his famous bow and arrow. According to the myth, anyone who was shot by one of Cupid’s arrows — whether mortal or deity — would be filled with uncontrollable desire.

Sleeping Eros (2nd century BC) at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, via Wikimedia Commons)

Cupid had two arrows, or one arrow with two different tips, depending on the myth. These have starkly different consequences: A gold arrow would instantly fill you with love and desire towards a certain person, but a leaden (or silver) arrow would make you fall out of love immediately.

In some depictions in Roman art, Cupid appears blindfolded, shooting his arrows indiscriminately. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare offers an explanation to Cupid’s blindness via the character Helena, who says: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; And therefore is wing’d cupid painted blind.”

Titian’s “Venus Blindfolding Cupid” (1565 ) at Galleria Borghese in  Rome, Italy (via Wikimedia Commons)

In Titian’s 1565 painting “Venus Blindfolding Cupid,” the goddess is seen wrapping a cloth around her baby’s eyes. Her other winged child, Anteros (the god of family love), is peeking over her shoulder.

In the Middle Ages, Christianity gave Cupid a more angelic character, distancing him from the primordial aspects of love and desire. But if we go back to the myth of the abduction of Psyche, a mortal, we find that Cupid experienced his fair share of love’s cruelty.

 Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier, “Cupid in a Tree” (1795/1805) (via Wikimedia Commons)
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “L’Amour et Psyché, enfants” (1890) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s how the story went:

There was a king with three beautiful daughters, but the youngest, Psyche, was blessed with unparalleled beauty. Venus, who was the standard bearer of beauty at the time, felt threatened by the young damsel, so she ordered Cupid to shoot the girl with an arrow that would make her fall in love with a multi-headed monster.

Cupid complied, but when he saw Psyche, he was dazzled by her beauty and dropped the arrow to the ground, hitting his own foot. He instantly fell in love.

Meanwhile, Psyche’s parents grew concerned that no one had asked to marry their beautiful daughter. They consulted with an oracle, who told them that their daughter was destined to marry a monster. They were instructed to depart from Psyche for good and leave her tied on a mountain top as a sacrifice to the creature.

Gerard Francois Pascal Simon, “Psyche and Cupid” (also known as “Psyche Receiving Cupid’s First Kiss”) (1798) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Instead of a monster, Cupid showed up. He lifted her up and carried her to a magical palace, where she lived a life of luxury. Still torn between his loyalty to his mother, Venus, and his love for Psyche, Cupid dictated a condition for the relationship: Psyche could never look at him.

In her mind, Psyche thought she was married to a generous monster. But when she told her older sisters, who were as jealous of her beauty as Venus was, about her lavish lifestyle, they convinced her to try to kill the monster before it eventually devours her.

Psyche grabbed a candle and knife and approached Cupid while he was sleeping. When she gazed upon him, she learned that she was married to a handsome young man instead of a hideous monster. Shocked, she accidentally dripped melted wax from the candle on Cupid’s shoulder, waking him from his sleep.

Simon Vouet, “Psyché et l’amour” (1626–29) (via Wikimedia Commons

Cupid did not respond kindly. He chastised her and flew away, and the opulent palace immediately disappeared, leaving Psyche alone in the dark.

Hoping to win Cupid’s love back, Psyche turned to Venus for help, proving to be a terrible mistake. Still envious of the young mortal’s beauty, Venus gave Psyche a series of impossible tasks, the most challenging of which was to descend to the underworld to retrieve a box of Persephone’s beauty ointment.

Antonio Canova, “Cupid and Psyche” (1794) (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Psyche braved the dangers of the underworld and found the box. Tempted, she opened the box and fell dead, fulfilling Venus’s original plot. Cupid couldn’t bear her death, so he struck her with a golden arrow to revive and marry her. According to another version, Zeus intervened, making Psyche immortal so that the two lovers can finally be together.

Eventually, Venus reluctantly accepted the matrimony. The young couple had a baby girl named Voluptas in Latin, Hedone in Greek, or Pleasure in English.

So when you see those dreamy images of roaming cherubs on Valentine’s cards, remember this: Cupid’s happiness was earned through pain and suffering. To quote, once again, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

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