Sculpture of Cupid

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Cupid, the Roman god assimilated to the Greek Eros, was the personification of love. He was the son of Venus and Mercury or Mars, according to diverse myths. His iconography as a robust boy was established from the 4th century on, when he is shown as a gay child playing with various animals, especially dolphins and birds. This sculpture would seem to follow the model in its apterous form (without wings), presenting the god in a slight contrapposto, where he is supporting his weight over his right leg and holds his left leg slightly forward. This pose forms part of the architectonic decoration which is hidden in the posterior part. His face is a little inclined to the left. The face is sculpted with full cheeks and small lips. The open eyes have holes bored for pupils, which testifies to the technical and stylistic innovation which came about in the 2nd century AD. This gives a certain dramatic aspect to the figure due to the chiaroscuro effect obtained with the marble. The hairstyle is odd: while he is usually represented with curling hair, in this case what calls our attention is the knot of hair on top of the head following the Apollonian prototype (Apollo Belvedere, Vatican Museums B92).

The god of love is wearing a chlamys pinned over the right shoulder with a circular fibula. He is using this garment to carry various pieces of fruit (apples, pomegranates, grapes, etc.), one of which he is holding in his right hand in a winning gesture habitual in children. A similar motif can be seen in the so-called “Vaso Blu”, a beautiful glass amphora from the 1st century AD conserved in the Museum of Archaeology in Naples. Various Erotes are depicted on it during the grape harvest. One of them is harvesting grapes and collecting them in his own chlamys, just as in the sculpture in question.

On the left side of the piece the head of a horse with its mouth wide open is looking towards the right, and below this, we see the figure of a young woman, perhaps a maenad, with curled hair gathered back at the nape of the neck. While there are numerous representations of Cupid or Eros riding on the back of dolphins, on various birds, lions, etc., there are few examples where the horse is the protagonist. One of the few representations of this animal can be found in the Capitoline Museums in Rome and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the latter museum the example is a small relief where the winged god holding a palm branch, is riding in victory on the back of a galloping horse.

The inclusion of Cupid – or Erotes in its most generic term – in architectural decoration of interiors and exteriors was a constant both in paintings and in Roman sculptures. These formed part of the usual iconographic repertoire in the great mansions of the aristocracy throughout the Empire, especially those Erotes which appear carrying out various domestic tasks or taking part in offerings and sacrifices (Centrale Montemartini MC 1105; the frieze from Petra, Petra Museum s/n, Triclinio de los Vettii, Pompeii). In this case, it is possible that the horse and the other figure are part of a wider iconographic group, of which only this fragment remains. The interpretation is, therefore, more complex.

Erotes forming part of the entourage of Bacchus or wreathed in garlands and fruit also appear in funerary art, especially in Roman sarcophagi, as they symbolize the primordial forces of nature and the rebirth, concepts which are omnipresent in this type of monument (sarcophagi in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin SK 857 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, n. 70.1.). The various provincial and metropolitan workshops spread this prototype, with certain variations in style, more or less baroque, while keeping to the scheme of the cupids and garlands of fruit, and also including mounted Erotes, the symbol of the triumph of life over death. This is, without doubt, the context for this work. It belonged to the lid of a great marble sarcophagus. The figures of a Cupid carrying fruit were placed on the front corners of the lids of sarcophagi in works produced in Asia Minor (see the sarcophagus of Sidamara in the Museum of Archaeology in Istambul, inv. no. 1179 and the sarcophagus in the Torlonia Collection). Both examples also show the head of a horse emerging from the headrest of the couch, copying in marble what had been a bronze attachment (the fulcrum) on a wooden couch. The bust of the maenad represented in the present example is not seen in other sarcophagi. It takes the form of the lower end of the fulcrum on the arm of the chair, a position often occupied by Dionysian figures, such as Sileni, satyrs and maenads, as can be seen in existing bronze examples.

The so-called «Amores or amorini» were possibly derived from Late Hellenist models, re-elaborated with eclecticism and originality by the creative talents of the Roman workshops, especially combining different attributes of various divinities, which from the 2nd century AD on, underwent syncretism as concerns their powers, and therefore, their symbols. In the present sculpture elements can be seen shared with the divinity of oriental origin called Attis. According to ancient sources, Attis had promised his love to the Phrygian goddess Cybele, but, knowing that he would be unfaithful to her, the goddess caused him to have an attack of madness which led him to self-mutilation. Cybele, repenting, begged Zeus that his body should not decay, and it was converted into a pine tree, forever turning green.

Attis was generally represented as a muscular youth, wearing a Phrygian cap and with long curls or a knot of hair on the top of his head, wearing a chlamys pinned over his shoulder with a circular fibula. However, there also exist sculptures of Attis as a child, similar to Cupid, in reference to vegetation, such as the piece conserved in the Museo Histórico-Arqueológico de Almedinilla, in Cordoba. In some versions of the myth (Pausanias, Description of Greece 7.17.8 and Ovid, Fasti, 222) we find the Sangarius river and the nymph Sagaritis: it is possible that the small bust which emerges along with the horse head represents this river divinity, while the animal will allude to fertility, fecundity and the lost virility of the god.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

- BLANC, N. and GURY, F. «Eros», nº 157-192, LIMC III. 1986.
- CLARKE, J. R. The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 BC-AD 250: Ritual, Space and Decoration. University of California Press. 1991.
- COSI, D. M. «Salvatore e salvezza nei misteri di Attis», Aevum, 59, 1,2, p. 42-71. 1976.
- DI PALMA, F. «Attis nella tradizione coroplastica. Le terrecotte figurata della collezione Steinhause», Civil Service and Foreign missions: the contribution of Italy to the Cultural Heritage of the Holy Land, Bari University, s/p. 2014.
- GAZDA, E.K. and HAECKL, A.E. Roman Art in the Private Sphere: New Perspectives on the Architecture and Décor of the Domus, Villa and Insula. University of Michigan Press. 1994.
- McCANN, A. M. Roman Sarcophagi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art n. 2. New York. 1978.
- SFAMENI GASPARRO, G. Soteriology and Mystic Aspects in the Cult of Cybele and Attis. E.J. Brill. 1985.
- STUART JONES, H. A Catalogue of Ancient Sculptures preserved in the municipal Collections of Rome. The Sculptures of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Oxford. 1926. p. 148.
- WALLACE-HADRILL, A. Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton University Press. 1994.
- WARD-PERKINS, J. B. «Four Roman Garland Sarcophagi in America», Archaeology, 11,2, p. 102-3. 1958.

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