The Coming of Cupid: Will you be my Valentine?

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), A Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros (c 1880), oil on canvas, 81.6 × 57.8 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons. William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), A Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros (c 1880), oil on canvas, 81.6 × 57.8 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Of all the modern festivals, that of Saint Valentine today, 14 February, is the most pagan of all. Branded with a saint’s name, we know next to nothing about the saint, and in 1969 his name was removed from the General Roman Calendar, which determines the saints who are generally celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church.

In any case, if you are fortunate enough to have received a card today from your ‘Valentine’, it won’t bear any image associated with Saint Valentine, but will almost certainly show at least one rather obese baby bearing a bow and arrow: the ever-popular Cupid, and modern representation of a thoroughly pagan god known to the Greeks as Eros, to the Etruscans as Turnu son of Turan, and to the Romans as Cupid. This article looks at where today’s Cupid came from.

Eros is, amazingly, one of the most senior of the Greek pantheon, according to one of the oldest literary sources, Hesiod. He was created fourth, after Chaos, Gaia (the earth), and Tartarus (Hades, the underworld).

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‘Painter of London’, Eros (c 470-450 BCE), Attic red-figure bobbin, diameter 11.8 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The oldest visual art showing Eros depicts him as a winged young man, as shown on this Attic red-figure bobbin from about 470-450 BCE. The only other Greek gods generally shown with wings are the goddess of victory, Nike, and the god of death, Thanatos, although the later Etruscans seem to have been more generous in equipping other gods with wings.

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‘Ascoli Satriano’ painter, Eros (c 340-320 BCE), Red-Figure Plate, diameter 24.5 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

This Red-Figure Plate from about 340-320 BCE shows another common image, of Eros complete with large wings placing a wreath on the cippus, or pillar, in front of him.

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‘Rhomboid Group’, Cupids Attending a Woman (c 330-310 BCE), Red-Figure Bell-Krater from Campania, Italy, height 38.4 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Nor was Eros limited to being a single figure: this Red-Figure Bell-Krater (c 330-310 BCE) from Campania, Italy, shows two Cupids attending a single woman. They appear to be dressing her. Once (or twice) again, Eros is shown as a young man.

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‘White Saccos’ painter, Eros (c 320 BCE), Apulian red-figure Oinochoe, Antikensammlung Kiel, Kiel, Germany. Image by Marcus Cyron, via Wikimedia Commons.

This more detailed depiction of Eros on an Apulian red-figure Oinochoe from the same period (c 320 BCE) shows magnificent detail in the wings. Eros here holds a mace, with which he presumably knocked his victims senseless in order to get them to fall in love.

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(Pompeiian artist), Venus and the Punishment of Cupid (detail) (c 30 BCE), mural from Casa dell’Amore in Pompeii, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

At some stage in Etruscan (pre-Roman) times, with the development of first Turnu then Cupid, the god has become a child, the son of Venus, the goddess of love. This detail from the beautiful mural from Pompeii’s Casa dell’Amore Punito (the House of the Punished Cupid) (c 30 BCE) shows Venus and the Punishment of Cupid. As the mischievous god of erotic love and lust, there are several myths in which Cupid gets into trouble, thus plenty of reasons for his mother to need to admonish or punish him.

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Unknown artist, Mosaic of Love (c 275 CE), mosaic, Cástulo, Linares, Spain. Image by Ángel M. Felicísimo from Mérida, España, via Wikimedia Commons.

The spectacular Mosaic of Love in Cástulo, Spain, from about 275 CE, shows half a dozen little scenes of Cupid in its semicircles. In each he appears with his bow and arrow, attributes which he appears to have acquired during Roman times. Ovid and other Roman authors frequently refer to him shooting his arrows at those who he will put in love, and sometimes using lead arrows which do the exact opposite: the myth of Apollo and Daphne is a good example.

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Piero della Francesca (1420–1492), Cupid Blindfolded (1452-66), fresco, Basilica di San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Piero della Francesca’s fresco showing Cupid Blindfolded (1452-66) illustrates the ancient and long-lived saying the love is blind, while conforming to the Roman concept of an infant archer with spectacular wings.

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi), Primavera (Spring) (detail) (c 1482), tempera on panel, 202 x 314 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi), Primavera (Spring) (detail) (c 1482), tempera on panel, 202 x 314 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

This is maintained by Botticelli in the Cupid shown at the top of his Primavera (Spring) (c 1482).

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Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) (1490–1576), The Worship of Venus (1518-19), oil on canvas, 172 x 175 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

If you thought that two Cupids were overdoing it, Titian’s The Worship of Venus (1518-19) shows a convention of winged infants. But only one, at the lower right corner, is armed with his bow and arrow, and a true Cupid. The others, who seem to be up to all sorts of mischief, are more properly amorini, (singular amorino), Cupid’s helpers. These are also termed putto (singular) and putti (plural), but however cherubic they might appear, they remain distinct from cherubim, which are sacred creatures derived from the Old Testament of the Bible, and may attend Christian saints, and others.

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Angelo Bronzino (1503–1572), An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (Allegory of Lust) (c 1545), oil on wood, 146.1 x 116.2 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid, or Allegory of Lust, from about 1545, shows the real Cupid kissing his mother Venus in a worryingly erotic way, with a putti watching, and Father Time behind.

It was, perhaps inevitably, Caravaggio who painted the most shocking Cupid of the modern era: a homoerotic (if not pederastic) interpretation of the old saying ‘love conquers all’, or Amor Vincit Omnia (1601-2).

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Giovanni Baglione (1566–1643), Sacred and Profane Love (The Victory of Sacred Love over Profane Love) (c 1602), oil on canvas, 240 x 143 cm, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Caravaggio’s patron’s brother was a Cardinal, and was shocked by Caravaggio’s work and his brother’s apparent delight in it. The Cardinal commissioned Giovanni Baglione to paint a response, in his Sacred and Profane Love (The Victory of Sacred Love over Profane Love) of about 1602. This shows Caravaggio’s naked boy at the lower right, and a devil with Caravaggio’s face at the lower left corner, being dominated by the ‘true’ winged figure of Cupid, supposedly of sacred love.

Other artists tackled the same subject, ignoring the fact that, throughout Greek, Etruscan, and Roman mythology and religion, Eros/Turnu/Cupid had only ever represented erotic and physical love.

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Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Rinaldo and Armida (c 1630), oil on canvas, 82.2 x 109.2 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

By now the meaning of Cupid in a painting was clear, and fairly universal. In Poussin’s narrative painting of Rinaldo and Armida (c 1630), the winged Cupid plays a key role in preventing Armida from murdering Rinaldo, as she originally intended, and he induces her to fall in love with him instead.

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Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) The Empire of Flora (detail) (1631), oil on canvas, 131 × 181 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Desden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

As with many other artists, Poussin sometimes showed Cupid without his wings, as here in The Empire of Flora (1631), where he does rest on a quiver.

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Pierre Mignard (1612–1695), Time Clipping Cupid’s Wings (1694), oil on canvas, 66 x 54 cm, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO. Wikimedia Commons.

But it remains more usual for Cupid/Eros to be shown with fine wings and his archery kit, as in Mignard’s superb Time Clipping Cupid’s Wings (1694).

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Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734) The Punishment of Cupid (1706-07), oil on canvas, 285 × 285 cm, Palazzo Marucelli-Fenzi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

A few artists did still show Cupid/Eros in his original form, as a winged young man. My favourite painting of that is Ricci’s dizzying ceiling showing The Punishment of Cupid (1706-7).

This also turns out to be an allegory of sacred and profane love. At its centre, Cupid is blindfolded, and his quiver about to empty its arrows to earth below. His mother Venus looks on from a group of goddesses below. Tearing feathers from Cupid’s wing is Anteros, who represents sacred love. The putto to the right carries a torch, an attribute of Cupid, but its flame has gone out, as profane love is also transient.

In classical mythological terms, this is a curious and contradictory painting. Anteros was Eros/Cupid’s half-brother in Greek myth, and a childhood companion. He was the god of returned (requited) love, and the complement of Eros/Cupid rather than a competitor. He was more typically depicted as a young man with the wings of a butterly, and bearing a golden club or leaden arrows.

You are probably already very familiar with one of the few statues of Anteros: Alfred Gilbert’s famous Anteros (1893) stands on top of the Shaftesbury Memorial in London’s Piccadilly Circus. More usually and incorrectly believed to show Eros, it has the distinctive butterfly wings of Anteros, and wields a bow and arrows.

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François Boucher (1703–1770) (workshop), Cupid Disarmed (1751), oil on canvas, 134 × 86.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Once painting became Rococo, Cupids were to be found on almost every canvas. Boucher’s workshop, for example, produced Cupid Disarmed in 1751. Gone are his large and colourful wings, leaving remants with which even a god would find hard to get airborne.

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Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus (1788), oil on canvas, 127.5 x 101 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

Cupid’s mischief became more overtly risqué too: Sir Joshua Reynolds shows him about to undress his mother in Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus (1788).

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William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), A Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros (c 1880), oil on canvas, 81.6 × 57.8 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

It took the likes of Bouguereau to ready the bubbly-haired child for his popularity in the nineteenth century. Instead of including a Cupid on every canvas, Bouguereau seems to have made him a protagonist at every opportunity, as in his A Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros (c 1880).

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John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829–1908), Love and the Maiden (1877), tempera, gold paint and gold leaf on canvas, 86.4 cm × 50.8 cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

A few artists tried to keep to the classical god: John Roddam Spencer Stanhope has no time for infants (or nudity) in his Love and the Maiden (1877).

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Lovis Corinth (1858–1925) Homeric Laughter (1909), oil on canvas, 98 × 120 cm, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich. Wikimedia Commons.

But in the end, even Lovis Corinth adorns his Homeric Laughter (1909) with many mischievous young children, and decorates the sky behind with a chain of putti.

So the image has stuck.