Cupid and Psyche is a very common subject in the visual arts of antiquity and modern times, and a popular theme in fiction and music. It depicts aspects of the mythical love affair between the god Cupid, also known as Cupid, and the mortal king's daughter Psyche, who is eventually accepted among the immortals.
The modern artistic treatment of the subject matter links directly or indirectly to the tale of Cupid and Psyche contained in Apuleius' 2nd century Metamorphoses. In the visual arts of antiquity, the depiction of Cupid (Eros) and Psyche was already popular in the era of Hellenism, long before the time of Apuleius.
Narration in Apuleius
In the eleven-book work Metamorphoses, the narrative occupies a wide space: it makes up the end of the fourth book, the entire fifth book, and most of the sixth book (4:28-6:24). The story of Cupid and Psyche does not come from the Greek original of the Metamorphoses; apparently it is a creation of Apuleius.
It is embedded in the depiction of the fate of the girl Charite, who has been kidnapped by a gang of robbers. The robbers' old housekeeper, in order to distract Charite from her suffering, tells her the story of the god Cupid and the king's daughter Psyche, whose name is the Greek word for "soul".
Psyche is the youngest and most beautiful of the three beautiful daughters of a king. She is so beautiful that everyone stops worshipping Venus, the goddess of beauty and love. Exasperated, Venus calls her faithful son Cupid and orders him to make Psyche fall in love with a bad man.
The father sends his daughter - as the oracle of the god Apollo has commanded him - in a bridal gown to a lonely mountaintop where she is to marry a terrible demon. But instead of becoming the demon's consort, she is taken to a fairy-tale castle by Zephyr, the Lord of the Winds, on the orders of Cupid, who has himself succumbed to Psyche's unearthly beauty.
In this castle, her current lover Cupid seeks her out night after night, but during the day he disappears without her ever seeing him. Feeling lonely, Psyche allows her to be visited by her sisters. Cupid warns her, however, that she must not let the sisters tempt her to find out who he is.
The sisters are initially happy to find Psyche safe and sound, but are soon consumed by envy. During another visit, they succeed in convincing the naive girl, who is meanwhile expecting a child, that Cupid is in fact a hideous snake, which is why he never confronts her in daylight, and moreover intends to devour the pregnant woman.
Fearing for herself and her unborn child, she follows the advice of her sisters and waits for her husband at night with an oil lamp and a knife. Meanwhile, as she illuminates her beloved, she beholds not a monster but the beautiful body of the winged Cupid.
Psyche is overwhelmed with love for her divine husband and therefore does not notice how a drop of the hot oil falls on Cupid's shoulders. The god, who has been disobedient to his mother, feels betrayed and flies away, leaving Psyche inconsolable.
Venus is filled with rage that her son has disobeyed her orders and instead fathered a child with Psyche. Venus tracks down the girl and forces her to perform various life-threatening tasks for the goddess. Thanks to the help of ants, talking reeds, towers, etc., she manages to solve them.
However, in the last task she lets herself be overwhelmed by the desire to win back her beloved. Thus, in order to make herself beautiful for him, she opens a box that is supposed to contain a beauty ointment intended for Venus from Pluto's wife Proserpina, and falls into a death-like sleep, which is the only content of the container.
Cupid has meanwhile recovered from the burn with the hot oil and rushes to Psyche's rescue. Since he still loves her, he uses his wings to shoo the death-sleep back into the box. While Psyche delivers the box, Cupid flies to Jupiter and asks permission to marry Psyche.
The supreme god (according to another tale, the messenger of the gods, Mercury) is lenient and hands Psyche a cup of ambrosia, thereby making her immortal, so that nothing stands in the way of a wedding among the gods.
Psyche gives birth to a beautiful daughter for Cupid, who receives the name Voluptas (lust).
The story of Cupid and Psyche has continued to have many effects in literature and music, but above all in the fine arts. Many paintings and sculptures deal with the couple. Among the best known are the sculptures by Antonio Canova in the Villa Carlotta on Lake Como and Auguste Rodin in the Louvre and the Hermitage, the sculpture group by Reinhold Begas in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and the etchings by Max Klinger.
The painter Moritz von Schwind decorated the owner's Schwind Pavilion at the Rittergut in Rüdigsdorf (Kohren-Sahlis), Saxony, with numerous frescoes. Many depictions of psychics were also by Bertel Thorwaldsen and several of his students and successors, including Wolf von Hoyer and Ferdinand Schlöth.
In music, César Franck, among others, wrote a three-part symphonic poem Psyché for chorus and orchestra, as did Richard Franck a tone poem for large orchestra love idyll "Amor and Psyche" (op. 40). C. S. Lewis gave a modern interpretation of this story with Till we have Faces (Thyself is the Answer).
The first ballet about Cupid and Psyche was performed at the Louvre in 1619. It was followed in 1656 by the Ballet de Psyché, with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully. Lully also composed the musical interludes for the ballet-tragedy Psyché by Molière, Pierre Corneille, and Philippe Quinault, performed in 1671, which he reworked into the opera Psyché with librettist Thomas Corneille in 1678.
Widely performed in Europe was the ballet Psyche et l'Amour by Jean Georges Noverre, premiered in 1762, to music by Jean-Joseph Rodolphe.
For narrative scholars, Cupid and Psyche is the oldest written version of the fairy tale type animal bridegroom.
In the novel The Perfume by Patrick Süskind, as well as in its film adaptation, a perfume called Amor and Psyche plays an important role.
The Camée tiara in Paris, once supposedly a gift from Napoleon Bonaparte to his first wife, Empress Joséphine, and today part of the Swedish crown treasure, is also adorned with a depiction of Cupid and Psyche.
A short film by the artist duo VestAndPage is called Amor and Psyche (In Times of Plagues) (2020).