The sepia sketch -- above -- of Cupid and
Psyche was drawn during one of my
drawing lessons in Rome's Palazzo Altemps.
While drawing this ancient sculpture, my
student and I noticed Cupid's femininity
and Psyche's masculine stance. We also
remarked how the sculptor had masterfully
led Psyche's right index finger to almost be
touching Cupid's heart. It was for this
reason, too, that I decided to draw the
figure from the angle that I chose -- to
honor what I think is perhaps one of the
greatest truths of the tale, which is that to
enjoy her beloved, she must touch his heart.
Click here to read more about
The Golden Ass .
The 2nd-century A.D. work, by African-born Apulleius, entitled "The Golden Ass," tells the
story of Lucius, a young man on a journey of self-discovery whose interest in magic leads
him to be accidentally transformed into a donkey.
In the course of his metamorphosis, Lucius ends up living with slaves who are in turn bought
by a team of thieves, and thus he begins his caravan travels in the trade highways of the
late imperial Roman world. One night, during one of his many stops along the road, he
listens to a tale by an old female cook concerning the myth of CUPID & PSYCHE.
The subject of Cupid and Psyche is, on the surface, that of a young mortal woman named
Psyche (this word in Greek means butterfly, as well as soul) whose great beauty not only
eclipsed that of the goddess of Love herself on high Olympus -- Venus -- but it eventually
led humans on earth to abandon the temples of the goddess. When Venus learns that the
young girl from Mytelene is the cause of her falling from grace, she decides to destroy her.
From that point on, the narrative of Cupid and Psyche -- as a story within the longer,
outer story of Lucius -- concerns the punishments inflicted by Venus on Psyche. The first of
these acts of revenge backfires, as she entrusts her own son Cupid (Eros) with the task of
making Psyche fall in love with a "dreadful monster." Eros, in fact, falls in love with Psyche,
and what in a way is monstrous about him is that he asks the girl not to look at him in the
light but to be content to be with him as a lover only in the dark of night. When Venus
learns of their union, she tries to destroy it in every way. At this point even Psyche's own
sisters unknowingly team up with Venus and precipitate the breakup between Psyche and
Cupid with one of the most dramatic scenes of literary narrative ever, where Psyche holds a
flaming candle to behold Cupid's fair face after he has fallen asleep, in order to see his
supposed monstrosity. Of course, Cupid awakens and, seeing that she had betrayed his trust,
abandons the girl.
At this junction of "The Goldn Ass," the story within the story of Cupid & Psyche reads
almost imperceptibly like a long formula for the healing of the human soul ... as the love-sick
Psyche, left to die of love by Cupid, goes to the ends of the earth and even down to hell, to
seek respite. The way to hell -- or back to love, as it turns out -- is paved or negotiated by
the appearance of one after another, and yet another, of the major Olympian gods (Juno,
Ceres, Mercury, and finally Jupiter himself), and it even includes the physical flagellation of
Psyche by two allegorical forces -- Tedium and Sadness -- sent by Venus to make the girl
fall out of love.
Of course, this backfires and the saga of Cupid and Psyche ends happily. The couple celebrates
their union in Olympus with a wedding feast attended by all the gods, even Venus, and from
their union is born a child named Pleasure, or Voluptas. Similarly, the larger "frame"
narrative by Apulleius, wherein that of Cupid and Psyche is told, also arrives at a resolution,
as Lucius himself gets out of his asinine predicament.
At the end of "The Golden Ass," Lucius regains his human form and he decides to be initiated
in the mysteries of Isis and Osiris in Alexandria, Egypt.
Cupid and Psyche
|Toroazul Painting and Fine Arts
|for Allegra and Ethan Hill
|Frontispiece from 1650 Netherlandish
edition in Latin by John Price
|From a statue of Cupid and Psyche
in Rome's Palazzo Altemps
conte crayon on paper 2011