The ancient mind worked quite differently to ours. When it came to myths, it was perfectly content to accept two or more conflicting accounts without expecting any resolution as to which was true. This is significant when we consider the origins of Eros (Greek Ἔρως, Latin Cupid), god of (sexual) desire and lust. He was simultaneously one of the primordial deities, an attendant at the birth of Aphrodite (Venus), and her son by the god Ares (Mars), in her most famous extramarital relationship. He’s also a perpetual youth or even infant, who never grows up.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Romans continued to change Eros/Cupid, and around the time of Christ he came equipped with a bow and arrows.
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 newly acquired bow and arrows. 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.
By the time of the Renaissance, Cupid had become an increasingly cherubic infant, flying with his wings as he shot arrows of desire at mortal men and women. He is the son and constant companion of his mother Aphrodite, and has a great sense of mischief.
Piero della Francesca’s fresco showing Cupid Blindfolded (1452-66) illustrates the ancient and long-lived saying that love is blind, while conforming to the Roman concept of an infant archer with spectacular wings.
This is maintained by Botticelli in the Cupid shown at the top of his Primavera (Spring) (c 1482).
If you thought that two Cupids were overdoing it, Titian’s The Worship of Venus (1518-19) shows a whole 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.
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).
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, clearly a more modern invention.
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.
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.
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.
But it remains more usual for Cupid to be shown with fine wings and his archery kit, as in Mignard’s superb Time Clipping Cupid’s Wings (1694).
A few artists did still show Cupid in his original form, as a winged young man. My favourite painting among those 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’s half-brother in Greek myth, and a childhood companion. He was the god of returned (requited) love, and the complement of Eros rather than competition. He was more typically depicted as a young man with the wings of a butterfly, and bearing a golden club or leaden arrows.
You’re 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.
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.
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).
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).
A few artists tried to keep to the classical Eros: John Roddam Spencer Stanhope has no time for infants (or nudity) in his Love and the Maiden (1877).
Franz von Stuck’s early Amor Imperator (1887-88) is a wonderful realist take on the traditional Cupid. He still holds his bow and quiver of arrows, and sports a crown to match the large orb in his left hand. The quiver, crown, and orb are all decorated with hearts. This emperor of love looks much more modern than would be expected in a mythological work.
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 of Cupid has stuck.