Valentine's Day is such an important time of the year. While many call it a commercial scam created to profit off of hopeless romantics, others continues to consider this day as a celebration of love and romance. Of course, it’s also become a date to let our passions run amok in a sensuous amorous act better known as sex. Leaving the core essence of the celebration aside, let’s analyze the symbols and icons we use to commemorate this special festivity. We fill everything with heart shaped white, red, and pink ornaments, but there's another buddy we are familiar with. Enter Cupid, that little winged baby with a bow and arrow willing to hit two lovers with his powerful weapon. Cupid for the Romans, Eros for the Greeks, is the god of physical and passionate love. This mischievous creature that without any warning just strikes directly into our hearts is the son of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, and Ares, god of war. Thus, this deity embodies love achieved through weaponry, the primeval instincts of human beings all in one. And from that cute baby we see printed in balloons, and all sorts of merchandising, came the term eroticism, the one that kindles our passions and feelings, the contemplation of desire and sensuality.
When we think about erotic art, we automatically picture two human beings naked holding each other in an embrace, or even the lovely image of a woman posing seductively before us. However, in this case, we’ll explore the essence of the term. These paintings revolve around this mythic figure that has so much importance in our everyday life so, in a way, they shed new light on the concept of eroticism.
Sleeping Cupid (1608) - Caravaggio
With Caravaggio’s eeriness, we see here one of the most common depictions of Eros. He’s sleeping profoundly with one of his hands grabbing his most powerful weapon: his bow and arrow. This scene became a trope in art. The sleeping Cupid lying with his weapons represents the abandonment of the carnal passions, the surrender of Eros to physical love. It’s thought that the painting was commissioned by Fra Francesco dell’Antella, who wanted a reminder of the vow of chastity he had made.
Cupid and Psyche (1639-1640) - Anthony Van Dyck
Eros’ romance with Psyche is the ultimate love story. Psyche was the daughter of a powerful king, and as it happens in these stories, she was the most beautiful woman on earth. Her beauty was such that people worshiped her instead of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. Being offended and jealous of the young princess, the goddess set her a lot of difficult tasks she knew she would fail. However, Psyche fulfilled each of them, except for the last and most dangerous one: traveling to the Hades to take a small portion of Persephone’s beauty hidden in a small chest. Although she did get the chest, her curiosity was greater than her will to fulfill the task. So she opened the box only to discover that there was no beauty inside, but a terrible sleeping curse. In this painting we can see the moment when Eros is about to wake her. Psyche became the representation of the human soul and, in terms of iconography, her sleeping is the depiction of early beauty.
Psyche et L'Amour (1889) - William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Bouguereau presents us with another episode of this love story, the moment Eros finally takes Psyche to the Olympus as his wife. Here we can see his hand pointing to the heavens as he lifts his beloved wife. More than representing the myth, Bouguereau takes the religious interpretation the myth was given and this particular episode is the allegory of the human soul (Psyche) going to heaven. Cupid, or Eros, then became an Angel guiding the soul to the eternal life. He stopped being the representation of the physical and passionate love and became the embodiment of divine love.
Cupid and Psyche (1628-1630) - Orazio Gentileschi
Father of the so-called "Female Caravaggio", Artemisia Gentileschi, the painter presents one of the most humanized depictions of the god. Before the set of tasks Aphrodite gave to Psyche, she attempted other punishments for the beautiful woman. One of them was ordering his son Eros to strike one of his arrows on her heart to make her fall in love with the most horrible and grossest being on earth. But little did she know that Eros had already fallen in love with her. To spare his beloved from that terrible doom, he took her to his chambers in the heavens. She wanted so see that mysterious lover who had abducted her, so she lit a lamp to see his face. That’s the scene Orazio Gentileschi depicted. We can see in Eros’ face the vulnerability and fear of rejection we all experience sometimes.
Eros isn't only the representation of passion and drives because of his parents. It wasn't just a matter of birth. His story with Psyche puts him in the same position he had forced onto others, and the fact that he was able to experience all those emotions brings him closer to the most common and characteristic human sensations: lust and passion.
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