Psyche (Greek Ψυχή) has a murky if not absent history in Classical times, and in art is known from one novel written between 150 and 190 CE in Latin, Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass (as it’s almost universally known) by Lucius Apuleius. This in itself had a curious history, as it was lost and forgotten until its rediscovery before about 1370. Its central thread is the love affair between Eros (Cupid) and Psyche.
Psyche, goddess of the soul, was born a human, the youngest of three daughters of a mortal king and queen. Because of rumours about her being an incarnation of Aphrodite, Aphrodite was understandably offended, and ordered her son Eros to exact revenge. However, Eros instead scratched himself with one of his own arrows, and fell helplessly in love with Psyche.
Eros managed to marry Psyche by stealth, and made her pregnant. However Psyche was not aware that Eros was her husband, and tried to see and kill the monster which she was convinced slept with her each night. Instead she wounded herself on one of his arrows, and she too was struck by the feverish passion of love.
She then set off on a quest to find her husband. This took her through a succession of trials imposed on her by Aphrodite. The last of these was to take a box (Greek πυξίς, or pyxis) to obtain a dose of the beauty of Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld. Psyche made her way to the entrance to the underworld, and paid Charon the ferryman two coins for her return trip. Persephone provided the dose as pleaded by Psyche, and set off on her return. Eventually Zeus had a proper wedding arranged for Psyche and Eros, and everything was regularised.
Many artists have used this story as a platform for painting a naked couple making what is clearly not the Platonic love you might expect of a soul. Relatively few have attempted significant narrative, though.
Elisabetta Sirani’s undated Love and Psyche is an intriguing painting, and a very bold composition from a pioneering woman artist. It shows Psyche rather than Eros visiting their lover in the night. While Eros has his standard attributes, including wings, bow and arrows, there is nothing by which to confirm the identity of Psyche.
Jacques-Louis David’s late painting of Cupid and Psyche from 1817 has been explained as showing the conflict between the idealised love we might expect of the soul, and physical reality. David seems to have taken inspiration from a recent poem by the Greek writer Moschus, portraying Eros as something of a brat. From that, he has become an awkward teenager, grinning stupidly over his latest conquest. Psyche’s attribute of a butterfly is shown above her head.
Edward Poynter’s Psyche in the Temple of Love (1882) takes as its theme the contemplative woman. Eros has taken Psyche to the Temple of Love, where he visits her each night, but never in daylight. Here Psyche is whiling away the daytime, holding a sprig out to attract her sole attribute, a butterfly. However, Psyche’s enemy Aphrodite is not far away, as shown by the doves in the temple behind her.
Surprisngly, Benjamin West painted two works telling this story. One was a conventional version of the naked couple motif, the other Eagle Bringing the Cup to Psyche, from about 1802. The third of the tasks set by Aphrodite is to collect a glassful of black water from the source of the rivers Styx and Cocytus, a location protected by dragons, and on top of a high cliff.
Psyche manages to reach the top, but falls into despair when she encounters the guardian dragons. Zeus takes pity on her, and intervenes with his eagle, who fends off the dragons and retrieves the water for Psyche. She then moves on to the final trial, in which she has to take a box to the Underworld itself.
Évariste Luminais shows what is probably the key moment in the whole novel, in Aphrodite’s final task: Psyche, picked out in white and clutching the pyxis in both hands, being rowed across to the underworld by Charon, with a boatful of the dead. She stares straight at the viewer, an unusual and powerful pictorial choice.
Eros and Psyche remained popular in paintings up to the end of the nineteenth century, particularly with women artists as they broke down traditional barriers with their art.
Henrietta Rae intended her huge painting of Psyche Before the Throne of Venus (1894) to be her masterwork, but when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy the critics were belittling and misogynist, one calling it “a glorified Christmas card”, so dashing her aspirations. She was successful in selling it, though, and had already established the precedent of women painters exhibiting nudes at the Royal Academy.
Annie Swynnerton’s Cupid and Psyche from 1891 is one work which benefitted from Rae’s trailblazing. This follows the tradition of showing the couple as being very young. It also has a subtle allusion to Psyche’s enemy, Eros’s mother Aphrodite, in the shell to the left of Psyche’s feet.
We should be grateful that an unknown person rescued Apuleius’ novel from oblivion in the early Renaissance.