The depiction of love is an immortal subject matter that has inspired artists for centuries. The Venetian neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) depicts one of the most romantic of fables from classical Roman mythology, as the subject of his sculpture; the love affair between Psyche, a beautiful mortal, and Cupid, the god of love, in a two figure grouping.
Photo: Jerusha Green
Psyche was condemned to sleep for eternity by the goddess Venus (Cupid’s mother) who was jealous of Psyche’s beauty and imposed a series of challenges on Psyche before she and Cupid could marry. The scene represents the moment in the version of the fable by Apuleius, written in the 2nd century AD, when Cupid revives a dying Psyche with a kiss in a vision of love overcoming death.
Cupid and Psyche stare straight into each other’s eyes in what appears to be a private moment, as, whilst we are free to walk around the sculpture and see it at different angles, the figures do not acknowledge the spectator in any way. Cupid and Psyche are wholly absorbed in one another and united with their arms wrapped securely around each other. Psyche’s arms frame Cupid’s head, whilst Cupid gently cradles Psyche’s head and body. Thus, it is not difficult to picture them together as a single self-contained entity rather than two forms.
A unified composition is created through the repetition of forms for example in the bend of the figures’ elbows. Although the curves created by the limbs and their bodies also create a sense of drama to heighten the passion between the figures, the poses imply both rest and energy between the couple using a combination of curving and horizontal and vertical lines. The sculpture is placed on a low relief marble plinth that is raised above ground level slightly, perhaps in order to make their passion accessible, tangible and relatable to us spectators.
Despite the linear, austere qualities and lack of facial expressions, the couple’s bodily poses deliver a great sense of intimacy. The white crystalline marble was likely chosen for its pure connotations and supports the sculpture’s true love theme, showing the sincerity and fragility of their love in that moment. This love story has influenced, been retold and adapted by poets, artists and writers.
Canova has fully captured the affection of the couple, creating a romantic and tender scene, as a result from the material used and the intimate positioning of the figures. Whilst love is very personal and differs for every person, the struggle Cupid and Psyche endure in order to be together, against the odds and their eventual union, reinforces the ideal that love is powerful enough to overcome all obstacles… or at least crazy mother-in-laws!