No one ever plans to fall in love with a specific person. It just happens randomly. It sneaks up on you. And when it does hit, you feel elevated and energized. Who understands love? It’s unpredictable. Cupid is the personification of all these states that make up the predicament of being in love and having sexual desire. He is mischievous, spirited, young, immature, impulsive, and endearing. He fascinates.

5th century BCE Early Classical
Roman copy of 4th cent BCE Greek original Hellenistic

In Greek mythology, his name was Eros. He originally was just a companion to Aphrodite, goddess of love, but later he was said to be her son. The Ancient Greeks depicted him as an attractive teenager. This makes sense in his embodiment of love because teenagers are more passionate and impulsive when in love than adults are (although almost all Greek gods were lustful). He fell in love with and eventually married Psyche. She represents the human soul because she was mortal but made immortal by Zeus when he realized that the two were in love, soul mates.

Cupid riding a Dolphin 1st century CE Imperial Roman
Aphrodite, Ares, Eros and Phobos     1st cent CE Imperial Roman

The Romans changed his name to Cupid and officially made him the son of Venus (Aphrodite). The Ancient Romans were not so taken by love as the Greeks were. The Romans thought being in love was a fatal distraction from their responsibilities of expanding the empire and sexual relations were for reproducing and not love or pleasure. They represented Cupid as a mischievous kid who always looked to have fun and would shoot whoever Venus told him to. He, love, is an immature distraction, but even though it looks small, it can strike at any time and manipulate you.

Tiepolo, Aeneas Introducing Cupid Dressed as Ascanius to Dido, fresco, 1757. Neoclassical

In Virgil’s Aeneid, Venus tells her son Cupid to make Queen Dido fall in love with Aeneas to keep him safe in Carthage: “put on/the familiar features of [Aeneas’ son, Ascanius], boy that you are/… breathe/your secret fire into her, poison the queen/and she will never know,” (Virgil, 1.815-16, 819-21). Her command for Cupid to “poison the queen” highlights the Romans negative view of falling in love. Aeneas also falls in love with Dido, but she gets in the way of him fulfilling his destiny. He moves on and she commits suicide. Aeneas is already foretold that he will marry an Italian princess, but there is no mention of love being part of it, just the promise that their descendants will form the Roman Empire.

Francesca, Cupid Blindfolded, fresco, 1452. Early Renaissance

During medieval times, art primarily focused on Christian themes and stories. Cupid was seen as the embodiment of fornication, which was considered a great sin. He was described as being blind or blindfolded, signifying foolishness and that love is blind which could lead to fornication if one follows their sexual passions. The wings meant that love can be temporary and leave, which is against the appearance of a life-long marriage. He wasn’t depicted in art of this time period.

Botticelli, Primavera, tempera, 1482. Renaissance
Raphael, The Triumph of Galatea, fresco, 1512. High Renaissance

Cupid became very popular in the Renaissance, since he doesn’t have a set story or function in specific Greek and Roman mythology, artists and writers were free to use him in any context concerning love. However Cupid seems like a warrior actively shooting at unsuspecting victims.

Caravaggio, Sleeping Cupid, oil on canvas, 1608. Baroque

Paintings were darker in the Baroque period. Subjects were in total darkenss but lighted by a non-specific source. The darkness of the paintings was a commentary on the darkness of the human soul or the evil forces that influenced people. In the Baroque period, Cupid was not actively shooting arrows, but instead appeared sluggish. This perhaps was to draw attention to the raw sexual appetite to appease bodily desires and not an actual relationship that requires more effort and focus in order fall in love and remain in love with another human being.

Barbier, Cupid in a Tree, oil on canvas, 1795/1805. Neoclassical

After the Baroque came the Rococo period, which was lighthearted and often focused on childhood fun. After that came the Neoclassical and the idea of these paintings as either beautiful (symmetrical and orderly), picturesque (the return to nature that overtakes the beautiful), or sublime (being in awe of the darkness and grandier). The painting above has the feel of the picturesque, since it has Cupid at rest in nature. This may symbolize the idea that love is just part of human nature. You do not have to actively pursue it and sometimes its better to let things happen naturally.

The images below do not fit in to a specific art period. Instead, they play on the tenderness of the idea of love and the idea of Cupid being a cute, playful, and innocent toddler.

Bouguereau, Cupid and Psyche as Children, oil on canvas, 1890.
Cupid in a Green Hat, postcard, 1912.
Wally Fialkowska, A Sure Hit, postcard, 1926.

I am a huge Disney fan, so I couldn’t help but include a couple of ways Disney has depicted Cupid in their films.

Cupid statue in Disney’s Hercules, 1997.

This Cupid statue in Hercules is adorable but an incorrect way of presenting Eros, as Cupid was called in Ancient Greece. As an aside, in Ancient Greece Hercules was named Heracles.

Old guy dressed as Cupid in Disney’s Tangled, 2010.

This is just an old alcoholic dressed as Cupid. Perhaps he’s a play on being stupidly in love, where you don’t think about what you are doing or the consequences it may bring, which is often typical in teenage first love. This “Cupid” can also exemplify the no-strings-attached freedom of a one night stand, where love is in no way a part of it.


Bibliography links / Further info

Eros in Greek mythology

Psykhe in Greek mythology

The story of Cupid and Psyche

The Nude in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Cupide in literature in the Middle Ages

Cupid in Renaissance literature

Art History Timeline


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