Olympic religion was ubiquitious in the ancient Greece and Rome between 1600 BCE and 300 CE and it strongly influenced the massive surge in philosophy and art, especially during what is now known as “Classical Period”, 510 – 323 BCE. Its decline was famously described by Pliny the Elder as cessavit deinde ars1 when the popular taste had shifted from the restrained classical style to sensational works of Pergamum and other eastern schools. Images of the greek gods and heroes did not die with the epoch, quite the opposite, they fueled the Renaissance of the 15th century2, and various neo-classic movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. Even now, thousands of years since the religion died, its myths inspire artists with their visions of love and pleasure, life and death, emotions and philosophies.
It took me a while to decide what work of art to feature on this page. The choices are endless: Classical works such as 4th century BCE Cnidian Aphrodite by Praxiteles, Hellenistic works, like everybody’s favorite Aphrodite of Milos by Alexandros of Antioch from 2nd century BCE, or the 18th century voluptuous works of François Boucher, or perfectly realistic William-Adolphe Bouguereau, or haunting and symbolic Gustave Moreau. I went with Bouguereau because he was the greatest artist of the 19th century and my personal favorite.
This is one of his several works inspired by the ancient Greek folk tale3 about Eros (Cupid), the God of Love, and Psyche, the most beautiful mortal woman of her generation. Eros went to Psyche with the task of making her fall in love with the vilest creature on Earth, by orders given by his mother, the Goddess of Beauty, Aphrodite (Venus), who was jealous of the praise the mortal woman was receiving, while Aphrodite’s temples stood deserted. By chance Eros pricked himself with the arrow and fell in love with Psyche. The story takes Psyche through a secret affair with Eros, the deaths of her jealous elder sisters, a meeting with Demeter (Ceres), impossible tasks of Aphrodite, including the dreaded trip to Persephone (Proserpina) through the Underworld, and, finally immortalization by Zeus (Jupiter) who assigned Psyche the role of the Goddess of the Soul. Her union with Eros gave birth to Hedone (Voluptas), the Goddess of Pleasure.
Just to give you an idea of how popular this story has been with the artists, here’s a quick list of who made paintings or sculptures of Psyche: George Watts, John Waterhouse, Frederick Leighton, Jules Lefebvre, Raphael, Lionel Royer, Auguste Rodin, Henrietta Rae, Henri Ruxthiel, Paul Curzon, Antonio Canova, William Etty, Salvatore Albano, Mikhail Kozlovski, Harold Speed, Guillaume Seignac, Edward Hale, Orazio Gentleschi, Francois Gerard, Henri Godet, Luca Giordano, Anthony Van Dyck, Jacques David, Maurice Denis, Edmund Dulac, Bertel Thorvaldsen, William Bouguereau (featured here), Abraham Bloemaert, Edward Burne-Jones, Joseph Berger, Paul Baudry, Jacques Balthasar, Fragonard, Jacques Pajou, James Pradier, Edward Poynter, Francois Picot.