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Lecture: Cupid and Psyche—Myth, Mystery, and Art

March 12, 2015
Morton Auditorium
Free with museum admission

John Makowski, Loyola University Chicago, looks at one of the most famous love stories from Apuleius’s second-century novel The Golden Ass.

Among the most popular myths to survive from the classical world is the tale of Cupid and Psyche.  Immortalized by the Roman writer Lucius Apuleius in his novel The Golden Ass (Metamorphoses), the story stands as a minor masterpiece of Latin literature, and in its two thousand year history it has elicited many interpretations.  Apuleius’ narrative exhibits many affinities with later folktales like those recorded by the Grimm Brothers, and parallels may be discerned with stories like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast.  Closer to our own time the story became a favorite for  psychological theories of interpretation especially from the perspectives of Freud and Jung.  Long before modern theories of the tale as one of individuation the story had been made subject to allegorical interpretations because the names of the principals, Psyche (“Soul”) and  Cupid (“Love” or “Eros” in Greek), have been read as symbolic of the human soul’s encounter with love divine.  Many of these allegorical interpretations have their roots in the philosophy of Plato, specifically in the platonic nexus of erotics, psychology, and immortality.  Philosophic readings of the tale gained great impetus during the Renaissance in Italy, where writers like Petrarch, Ficino, and Boccaccio popularized the tale and in the process inspired an explosion of artistic dramatizations. Among the most notable representations of Cupid and Psyche were Raphael’s frescoes on the Loggia of Psyche in the Villa Farnesina (Rome) and those of Giulio Romano in the Palazzo Te of Mantua.  The tradition of illustration continued into the periods of Baroque and Neoclassical Art as represented by artists like Vouet, Canova, and David.  Then too there is Regnault whose important painting of Cupid and Psyche resides in the Art Institute of Chicago.

This lecture will survey the tradition of Cupid and Psyche as represented in art from antiquity to modern times, illustrating the tale’s artistic afterlife in mosaic, sculpture, painting, and architectural decoration. The talk will also relate the myth to the larger context of Apuleius’ novel, which because of its ending may be read as a mystery text connected to Egyptian Isis whose cult with its promise of immortality had great popularity throughout the Roman Empire of the first centuries A.D.   

Presented by the Classical Art Society

Affiliate Group: 

Jean Baptiste Regnault. Cupid and Psyche, 1828. Preston O. Morton Memorial Purchase Fund for Older Paintings.