Cupid and Psyche: Eternal Lovers
The story of Cupid and Psyche, an ancient Greek myth, is a theme that has been expressed countless times in art in the last three centuries. Despite the strong influence of Christianity in Western Europe, the fascination with classical Greek literature and culture enjoyed a spectacular revival toward the end of the Renaissance in the mid-1600s. Although the Enlightenment, a movement away from faith and toward reason, led to a philosophical reaction against mythology, the dramatic appeal of the classics persisted and became a significant theme during the Romantic period which took place between the mid-1700s and the late 1800s. Several noteworthy artists who brought the story of Cupid and Psyche to life in paintings during this time period were Francois Gerard, Jacque-Louis David, William Bouguereau, and Edward Burne-Jones. The theme was also prevalent in the work of sculptor Antonio Canova. Although most art historians might agree that these artists do not belong to the same art movements, they have each chosen the story of Cupid and Psyche as a way to express themselves and to delight those who view their art.
The tale of Cupid and Psyche is essentially a folktale that appears to have originated with the Greek poet Apuleius in the second century. Like most folktales, the details of the story vary but the main elements remain constant. Psyche is the daughter of a king and queen. By the time Psyche reaches marriageable age, she is so beautiful that she invokes the jealousy of Venus, the Greek goddess of beauty and love. In an effort to punish her rival, Venus calls upon her son Cupid with the task of causing Psyche love a low and base being. But when Cupid sees the beautiful Psyche, he instantly falls in love with her himself and cannot complete the task his mother asks of him.
In the meantime, Psyche’s parents, unaware of Cupid’s love for their daughter, lament the fact that as lovely as she is, Psyche has no suitors. In desperation they consult an oracle who tells them that Psyche’s destiny is not to marry a mortal man but instead, a monster. The oracle tells them to take Psyche to a deserted mountaintop where the creature will claim her. Grief-stricken, her parents obey the oracle and send Psyche toward her destiny.
When Psyche arrives at the desolate mountaintop, she is transported to a magical place where all her physical needs are met. Here, she is claimed by her husband but she is not allowed to see him. During the darkness of each night, the monster comes to Psyche and they enjoy overwhelming passion but before the dawn’s light, he leaves her. For a while Psyche, accepts this arrangement but after a time, she demands to see her husband. She is refused. So one night, Psyche prepares a lamp that she hides from him and in the dark of the night she brings it out and casts its soft light upon her husband!
Who she sees is not a monster but the beautiful young god, Cupid. Just then, a drop of hot oil from the lamp falls on Cupid’s shoulder and wounds him. Startled, he spreads his downy white wings and flies away. Psyche, in an attempt to follow him, stumbles and falls unconscious. When she awakens, she finds herself in a barren land. She searches for her husband but can find him nowhere. Learning of what has transpired, Venus finds Psyche and in her re-awakened jealousy, sets up a series of impossible tasks for Psyche to perform. Psyche manages to accomplish the tasks but only with the assistance of some sympathetic gods who sense her distress.
In the meantime, Cupid recovers from his wound and desperate with longing for Psyche, he appeals to Zeus, king of the gods, to accept his true love as one of them. Zeus agrees. Cupid finds Psyche and offers her the food of the gods, ambrosia, whereupon Psyche becomes immortal and the two travel to the heavens to enjoy eternity together.
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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 www.dianablake.net.