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Monday, September 18, 2017


Cupid always has wings, rides a dolphin, lingers in trees, and is usually naked.
It's not uncommon that when someone mentions Cupid, the first image we bring to mind is that of cute, chubby, little flying toddlers, flitting around the mythological or valentine worlds, armed with bows and arrows, zipping them off randomly at whom they please. Of course, it should be added that it is uncommon for people today to mention Cupid in the first place. Yet he (Cupid is always male) is without doubt the most identifiable figure in all of mythology. Cupid is Roman, by the way, his Greek identity being Eros, while his Canadian-American persona is Justin Bieber.

Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All), 1602-03, Caravaggio

I mentioned the pop heartthrob in jest, but in fact, his image is much more closely akin to the numerous paintings of Cupid that have accumulated in the major museums all over the world than the cute little valentine putto (top) we usually associate with the son of Venus and Mars (his parentage is actually somewhat debatable). Vulcan and Mercury have also been mentioned as his fathers. In art, Cupid often appears in multiples as the Amores, or amorini later in art history, the equivalent of the Greek Erotes. Eros was a relatively minor figure in Greek art, but Cupids are a frequent motif of both Roman art and later Western art of the classical tradition. In the 15th century, the iconography of Cupid starts to become indistinguishable from the putto.

Cupid Shoots an Arrow at the Lover, 14th century Italian
In Classical Greek art Eros is generally portrayed as a slender winged youth. However during the Hellenistic period, he gradually came to be portrayed as a chubby boy. During this time also, he acquired the bow and arrow which represent his source of power. Anyone, even a deity, who is shot by Cupid's arrow is filled with uncontrollable desire. In myths, Cupid is a minor character who serves mostly to set the plot in motion. He is a main character only in the tale of Cupid and Psyche. When wounded by his own weapon, he experiences the ordeal of love. His tradition is rich in poetic themes and visual scenarios, such as "Love conquers all" and the retaliatory punishment or torture of Cupid.

From the iconic to the virtually unknown, artists for centuries have found Cupid to be a socially acceptable use of nudity and relatively subtle eroticism (and sometimes not so subtle).
Although not as common in sculpture as in painting, by the late 18th and 19th-centuries numerous marble sculptors such as Johann Christian Lotsch, Edme Bouchardon, Filippo Tagliolin (below), Antonio Canova and others were producing freestanding winged boys which now, and perhaps then as well, have come to be favorites of the gay community. Most were not cute little putto.

It might be well to note that with sculpture, it's sometimes easy to mistake a Cupid for an angel. The main differences being, angels seldom sport bows an arrows and are usually not depicted quite as nude as Cupid.
Romans identified with their Cupid the Greek Eros and the legends concerning him. In the Christian era, Cupid is usually depicted as an angel, a chubby, winged boy stripped of his bow and arrows. Sometimes the ancients represented Cupid as riding on a lion or a dolphin, or sometimes as breaking the thunderbolts of Jupiter, which were all ways of signifying his power. Cupid is usually spoken of as blind, or blindfolded. As such, he figures in a large num­ber of legends. His name frequently occurs in literature, and, as seen above, he has always been a favorite subject with sculptors and painters.

Cupid Sharpening his Arrows,
1798, Robert Lefèvre
One of my favorite Cupid stories is the tale of Cupid the honey thief. The child-god is stung by bees when he steals honey from their hive. He cries and runs to his mother Venus, complaining that so small a creature shouldn't cause such painful wounds. Venus laughs, and points out with poetic justice that he too is small, and yet delivers the sting of love. The story was first told about Eros in the Idylls of Theocritus (3rd century BC). It was retold numerous times in both art and poetry during the Renais-sance by Edmund Spenser and furnished subject matter for at least twenty works by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop. The German poet and classicist Karl Philipp Conz framed the tale as Schadenfreude (taking pleasure in someone else's pain) in a poem by the same title. In another version by a German writer, the incident prompts Cupid to turn himself into a bee.

Cupid the Honey Thief,
1514, Albrecht Durer,


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