The Fable of Cupid and Psyche at Castel Sant'Angelo

The fable of Cupid and Psyche is the subject of a new exhibit at the Castel Sant'Angelo that opened this past Friday. I was particularly looking forward to this exhibit because I love anything that has a theme. Don't get me wrong, retrospective exhibitions on some of the world's greatest artists, like Tintoretto, Guercino and Dalì are enthralling, but it's nice to change things up and see a show like this that illustrates a story through works of art that span the centuries.

  Cupid and Psyche Kiss , 2nd half of 2nd century AD, Capitoline Museums, Rome

Cupid and Psyche Kiss, 2nd half of 2nd century AD, Capitoline Museums, Rome

The fable of Cupid and Psyche (Amore e Psiche in Italian) first appears in L'asino d'oro (The Golden Ass) written by Lucius Apuleius in the 2nd century AD, although the tale existed in oral tradition much earlier, as some of the works in this exhibit prove.

  Psyche Discovers Cupid , Jacopo Zucchi, Galleria Borghese, Rome

Psyche Discovers Cupid, Jacopo Zucchi, Galleria Borghese, Rome

The story begins as an old woman recounts the tale of Cupid and Psyche to a young woman. This introductory scene is depicted in the tapestry below.

  An Old Woman Narrates the Tale of Cupid and Psyche , French School, 1750 ca, Palazzo del Quirinale, Roma

An Old Woman Narrates the Tale of Cupid and Psyche, French School, 1750 ca, Palazzo del Quirinale, Roma

Psyche (whose name means either 'soul' or 'butterfly') is the youngest of three daughters of a king. (Although Psyche is sometimes depicted with butterfly wings, she is a mortal.) Although all three sisters are lovely, Psyche is the most beautiful by far, and people come from distant lands just for the pleasure of admiring her beauty. As you can imagine, this causes Venus, the goddess of beauty, to become enraged with jealousy.

 Porcelain jasper medal depicting  Psyche , Josiah Wedgwood, Late 18th century. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Porcelain jasper medal depicting Psyche, Josiah Wedgwood, Late 18th century. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Venus cannot bear the thought that a mere mortal should be more admired than her, so she convinces her son Cupid to visit the girl while she is sleeping and pierce her with his arrow, planning to arrange for a hideous monster to be the first thing Psyche sees (and therefore falls in love with) upon awakening.

  Cupid and Psyche , Limoges, Mid-16th century, National Renaissance Museum, Ecouen

Cupid and Psyche, Limoges, Mid-16th century, National Renaissance Museum, Ecouen

Cupid makes himself invisible as he sets about his task, but just as he is about to pierce Psyche with his arrow, she wakes up and even though he is invisible, she looks straight into his eyes. Distracted by her beauty, he accidentally pierces himself instead and falls deeply in love with her. Unable to complete his mission, he returns to Venus and tells her what happened. Venus is furious and curses Psyche so that no man will ever propose to her.

Cupid is so distraught that he neglects his duty of causing mortals to fall in love. No one is marrying or mating, not even the animals! In order to get the world back to rights again, Venus gives in and allows Cupid to marry Psyche.

Meanwhile, because of Venus' curse, poor beautiful Psyche has had no offers of marriage, and after consulting an oracle, her father the king reluctantly abandons her on a mountaintop where is to be married to a mysterious being. Once there, the Zephyrs, spirits of the west wind, carry her off to a sumptuous palace in a paradise-like setting.

  Psyche Transported by Zephyrs , John Gibson, Mid-19th century, Palazzo Corsini, Rome

Psyche Transported by Zephyrs, John Gibson, Mid-19th century, Palazzo Corsini, Rome

After being waited on by invisible servants, Psyche retires for the night. Cupid at last arrives, but he does not want Psyche to know who he is, not yet, so he only visits her at night, under the cover of darkness. As the weeks pass, Psyche longs to know what her husband looks like, but Cupid forbids it. Despite her luxurious surroundings, Psyche soon becomes lonely and Cupid allows her sisters to come visit her. Envious of her magnificent palace, they try to convince her that her husband is a vicious snake who will devour her before long. Overcome by curiosity and dread, one night she brings a lamp (and a knife, just in case) into their bedroom while her mysterious husband sleeps.

  Psyche Discovers Cupid , Simon Vouet, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon

Psyche Discovers Cupid, Simon Vouet, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon

Just as she sees him for the first time, she just happens to scratch herself on one of his arrows and is overcome with desire for him. As she covers him with kisses, a bit of oil from her lamp falls on him and awakens him (as if all the kisses wouldn't have). Furious at her for disobeying him, he flees into the night.

  Cupid Abandons Psyche , Joseph Heinz, National German Museum, Nuremberg

Cupid Abandons Psyche, Joseph Heinz, National German Museum, Nuremberg

Psyche is now left alone and very much in love. She decides to go in search of her husband, visiting the temples of both Ceres and Juno. Both tell her there is only one goddess who can help her: Venus. The naive girl takes their advice and begs Venus to tell her where she can find Cupid. Venus has still not gotten over her jealousy of Psyche, so she gives her a series of impossible (and dangerous) tasks.

  Psyche abandoned , Giovanni Cappelli, Galleria Museo e Medagliere Estens, Modena

Psyche abandoned, Giovanni Cappelli, Galleria Museo e Medagliere Estens, Modena

After Psyche has successfully (and safely) completed all three tasks, aided every time by helpful animals and gods along the way, the furious Venus sets her on a quest that she could not possibly complete. She sends her to the Underworld to bring back a portion of Proserpina's beauty (apparently Venus had lost some of her own by stressing over the lovelorn Cupid).

  Winged   Psyche , 2nd century AD, Capitoline Museums, Rome

Winged Psyche, 2nd century AD, Capitoline Museums, Rome

Just as Psyche is about to commit suicide (the only way she can think of to reach the Underworld), the very tower she is about to throw herself off of speaks to her, telling her not only the route to reach the Underworld alive and how to get back, but also how to get past the three-headed dog, Cerberus (not to be confused with Fluffy: he likes music; Cerberus is appeased with a piece of cake) as well as other tricks of surviving the fire swamp, I mean, the Underworld (oops, wrong fairy tale).

  Psyche tormented in the Underworld,  300 AD, National Archeological Museum, Napoli

Psyche tormented in the Underworld, 300 AD, National Archeological Museum, Napoli

Psyche has a hard time in the Underworld, as the reliefs on this ancient sarcophagus show, but she eventually survives, with a bottle full of beauty to show for her efforts. On her way to bring her trophy to Venus, she figures it can't hurt to pilfer a little beauty for herself, but when she opens it up, she finds that the bottle actually contains overpowering slumber. She collapses.

  Cupid R  evives the Fainted Psyche,  Bertel Thorvaldsen, Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagan

Cupid Revives the Fainted Psyche, Bertel Thorvaldsen, Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagan

Cupid, who in the mean time has forgiven her and realized he cannot live without her, rushes to her side to revive her, but quickly flies off again before she sees him. He hurries to Mount Olympus where he entreats Jupiter to allow thme to be together eternally. Jupiter agrees to Cupid's plea and Psyche is brought to Mount Olympus where the two lovers' wedding is celebrated with a banquet, and the bride is granted immortality.

  Cupid and Psyche Embrace , Early 1st century BC, Archeological Museum, Pella

Cupid and Psyche Embrace, Early 1st century BC, Archeological Museum, Pella

So like all good fairy tales, it ends happily, except for one thing: how would you like to have Venus as a mother-in-law?

All of these gorgeous works, spanning 21 centuries and in such varied mediums as marble, terracotta, ceramic, tapestry, jewelry and oil, are all on display (along with numerous others) at this marvelous new exhibit.

While this exhibit may be temporary, you can see glorious works of art depicting these two young lovers at Villa Farnesina any time! 

All images are provided courtesy of Studio Begnini Press Office and may not be reproduced.