Cupid and Psyche by Antonio Canova

cupid and psyche

No one more than Antonio Canova was a fine researcher of harmony and aesthetic perfection through the processing of white marble.

Cupid and Psyche (also known as Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss) is the artist’s most famous sculpture because it is placed in a historical period between Neoclassicism and Romanticism. In fact, this wonderful work of art synthesizes both currents between style and idea by fully capturing, exalting and compressing the two eras through narrative genius of Greek-Roman mythology, so dear to the sculptor.

In the next paragraphs we will analyze Antonio Canova’s sculpture Cupid and Psyche in every detail to discover the dimensions, pose, meaning, anatomical details and many other curiosities.

Cupid and Psyche description

There are approximately 1600 years that divide the literary work of Apuleius narrated in The Metamorphoses from the sculptural masterpiece Cupid and Psyche by Antonio Canova, created between 1787 and 1793.

Canova was inspired by a fresco found in Herculaneum entitled Faun and Bacchante, which today can be admired at the National Archaeological Museum of the city of Naples.

Through the talent of the Venetian artist, Cupid and Psyche embodies the god Love in the act of pure contemplation of his beloved girl, Psyche, who reciprocates the passion in the moment preceding the kiss full of tension between sweetness and eroticism.

The dimensions and the materials of the Canova’s sculpture

Cupid and Psyche is a statue composed of a multiplicity of interconnected figures in a single work.

The material used by Canova is white marble and perfectly materializes the neoclassical canons of style and artistic taste. The dimensions of the sculpture are 155 x 168 centimeters.

The work was created in finely lathed and polished marble, in order to experience the softness of flesh, in perfect style of the artist.

The composition and pose of the characters

Canova brings together the delicate and expressive neoclassical aesthetics of the characters and the complex geometry of the composition in a sculpture that can be admired from different perspectives and views.

The two subjects Cupid and Psyche are arranged diagonally, balanced by the triangular and mirrored shape of Cupid‘s upward-facing wings.

Looking at Cupid and Psyche embracing each other from the canonical point of view, i.e. from the front, one captures the harmony of the bodies that intersect in the loving embrace a moment before kissing, forming a sinuous and soft X, which leaves the work vibrating in the space.

The four arms of the two lovers together form two circles that frame the faces to accentuate the very few centimeters that separate their lips from the kiss.

Anatomical and ornamental details

The central point on which the viewer’s attention is focused is the embrace, Psyche is positioned to the side and holds out her arms towards Cupid, who takes her while keeping her head turned backwards with her right hand and with the other arm, he gently touches her breasts.

Looking at the sculpture from behind it is possible to admire the details of Psyche’s hair, the quiver of Cupid, i.e. the classic case that contains weapons such as darts and arrows, plus the vase that caused the girl to faint. In the next paragraphs, we will also discover all the details of the story.

To realize the complexity of the marble and the pose of the two lovers, it is essential to revolve around the work and delve into the infinite beauty that explodes from the author’s skillful workmanship.

The story of Cupid and Psyche

The artist concentrated on creating the final moment of Apuleius fable which is contained in The Metamorphoses and is entitled The Golden Ass.

The story of Cupid and Psyche represents one of the most romantic myths ever written in literature, because it tells of a pure love that is hindered by the envy and malice of a jealous goddess.

After several vicissitudes and difficulties, the love between the two protagonists manages to triumph. Here are the details of the fable created by Apuleius.

The fable of Cupid and Psyche in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses

Legend tells of a beautiful girl named Psyche, so sublime that she was nicknamed Venus, a fact that unleashed the wrath and jealousy of the goddess of the same name.

Venus (the goddess) tasks her son Cupid with making Psyche fall madly in love with a rude man who will not reciprocate her passion, condemning her to eternal unhappiness.

When Cupid sees Psyche, things don’t go as planned by the wicked goddess, because her son misses the shot of the enchanting arrow and pierces himself, falling madly in love with the splendid girl and uniting with her.

Love sets a condition so that their union can last forever and makes Psyche promise never to try to see his true face, but the girl in a night of unstoppable curiosity peers into the darkness, causing a drop of oil to fall from the lamp that wakes up Cupid.

The betrayal causes the separation of Cupid and Psyche: Psyche is then left alone and decides to go to Venus to ask for forgiveness but the evil goddess subjects her to a series of insurmountable tests.

Psyche overcomes all the tests with dexterity and with the help of human and superhuman forces; at this point, Venus has no choice but to send the girl to the underworld to ask for some of the beauty belonging to the goddess Proserpine.

Once again Psyche returns victorious from Venus and brings with her an ampoule donated by Proserpina, a vase that contains the deepest sleep and for this reason must never be opened.

Ironically, once again it is Psyche’s unstoppable curiosity that gets her into trouble, because as soon as she opens the jar, she falls asleep.

When Cupid sees her, he asks her father Jupiter to take her with him to Olympus and thanks to the ambrosia he drank from her, Psyche becomes immortal and the love of the two protagonists is finally accepted by her gods.

The wedding banquet celebrates the happy ending and Psyche becomes the protector goddess of every girl.

The commission of Cupid and Psyche to Canova

This astonishing work of art was commissioned from Canova by John Campbell.

The English colonel’s instructions were detailed and precise, the sculpture should have represented Cupid and Psyche in the act of embracing, a moment inspired by the ending of Apuleius’ Golden Ass fable.

The realization of the work

According to the chronicles of that period, Canova set to work on the afternoon of May 30th 1787, studying a fresco located in Herculaneum which depicts a faun embracing a Bacchante.

Quatremère de Quincy (a friend of Canova) states that in 1788 the sculptor translated the work into marble into the form as we know it today, a work which was finished in 1793.

In that year, Colonel Campbell was unable to cover the costs of transporting the work to England, because the shipment was particularly expensive.

In 1800 the sculpture was purchased by Gioacchino Murat, who managed to transport it to France to the royal palace of Compiègne, located near Paris. Since 1808 Cupid and Psyche has been exhibited in Paris in the Louvre Museum.

The meaning of Cupid and Psyche

The sculpture responds perfectly to neoclassical aesthetic canons while enveloping the viewer’s experience in full Romanticism: sensuality and lines of tension which intersect with the spiral-shaped dynamism dominate.

Considered a true masterpiece of modern art, the meaning of Cupid and Psyche statue represents the meeting of the Soul (Psyche) with the uncontrollable passion of Cupid (Love) in a metaphorical moment represented by the moment preceding the kiss, a precise moment where the perfection of physical forms meets the incandescent fire of pure love.

Devine love and the union of the two worlds

Another aspect that better outlines the meaning of Antonio Canova’s sculpture Cupid and Psyche concerns the encounter between divine love and the human desire to love unconditionally, in a climax (to use a cinematic term) that allows the human being to embrace divine perception by assimilating its perfection.

In the union of the two worlds, the moral of the Golden Ass fable (in which love triumphs over everything) explodes, even over evil and against the most stubborn goddesses out of whim and envy.

The victory of beauty and love over evil

In the fullest sense of the meaning of the work Cupid and Psyche, Canova imprints on marble the victory of beauty and pure love over evil.

Every single detail of the work is aimed at narrating the story of the two protagonists as Apuleius had conceived it, as Colonel Campbell had commissioned it and as it was created by the sculptor.

The white marble protagonist of the neoclassical era is preparing to become the (almost futuristic) connection bridge with the next artistic current that would become the protagonist of the 19th century: Romanticism.

The celebration of romantic love

Now all the points that make Canova’s sculpture Cupid and Psyche an invaluable work but also an ambitious project, with an eye turned forward, are finally clear.

Apuleius’ celebration of romantic love is directed towards two perspectives: the morality in the strict sense of finding strength in resisting curiosities and the triumph of pure love against the adversities of fate, also understood as the construction of the union between two lovers.

The statue of Cupid and Psyche embracing each other allows Romanticism to be reflected in Neoclassicism, where the aesthetic elegance of marble acts as a mirror for art that celebrates the triumph of pure love in every sense and moral perspective.

Foto intestazione di Sailko, licence Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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