Fragment of a pyxis with Psyche and Cupid

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This fragment of carved bone is from a pyxis, a vessel, generally a cylindrical box with a separate lid, which was used by women to hold cosmetics or jewellery. The bone probably came from the vertebra of a bovine. It is carved in high relief and decorated with a musical theme, showing images of Cupid and Psyche. On the left, Psyche is resting, seated on a rock and playing an aulos, a double flute. “Butterfly” wings emerge from her back, an allusion to the soul. A naked Cupid with bird wings is facing her. He is playing a lyre, an ancient stringed instrument in the form of a yoke that was to be strummed.

It is not mere chance that these two gods appear as a characteristic element on a woman’s dressing table, as a pyxis is a delicate object, as is the material used to make it, and the scene expresses a certain symbolism.

Both deities, Psyche and Cupid, share a myth which describes one of the greatest love stories to be found in Classical mythology. Cupid was the personification of intense passion, more so than the Greek Eros, with whom he was confused and integrated. Psyche, an extremely beautiful maiden, personified the human soul and is the symbol of a soul purified through passions and misfortunes, and prepared to enjoy eternal happiness in love. Some authors say she had a daughter with Cupid: Voluptas.

Lucius Apuleius, the most important Roman writer of the 2nd century AD, greatly admired during his lifetime as well as in latter times, narrates the story of Cupid and Psyche. His best-known work, The Golden Ass (or Metamorphoses) is the only Latin novel that has survived in its entirety. It can be considered a precursor of a literary genre, the picaresque novel. It relates the adventures of the young Lucius, who as a result of an unsuccessful magic spell, is changed into an ass. He loses his ability to speak, but not his faculties, and experiences many adventures. Humour is the dominant tone of the narrative, but there are also religious and philosophical reflections. As an ass, he hears and sees many unusual things and in the frame of his predicament, he recounts many different tales until he is once more returned to his human form. One digression is one of the most beautiful examples of storytelling in Classical Antiquity: the fable of Eros/Cupid and Psyche. This story is the longest in the novel and tells of the trials and tribulations of Psyche (soul) to reach Cupid (love) and immortality.

PARALLELS:

- An ivory goblet with a frieze of erotes. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. USA. Inventory Nº 17.190.64.
- Marble pyxis with erotes. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. USA. Inventory Nº 23.160.61a, b.
- Marble pyxis with a scene of erotes. The Walters Art Museum, Maryland, USA. Inventory Nº 71.59.
- Mosaic with a scene of Psyche and Eros. Hatay Archaeology Museum, Antakya, Turkey. Inventory Nº Antakya 1021.
- Relief on a sarcophagus with the image of Psyche. Beirut National Museum. Lebanon.

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