Cupid, draw back your bow

February 14, 2013

Figure 1: V&A inventory number 29876.4

Juan Dolívar after Jean Bérain the Elder

Possibly after a tapestry design by Jean Bérain the Elder


Every year around Valentine’s Day images of Cupid begin to appear on cards and in shops advertising gifts to buy for our loved ones.

Known as Eros in Greek mythology and Amor in Roman mythology, Cupid comes from the Latin ‘Cupido’, meaning ‘desire’. The god of love, Cupid is the son of the goddess of love, Venus.  Mother and son are often shown together, as in this porcelain cup made at the Vezzi factory in Venice in 1724-7. It is painted with scenes after a suite of etchings by Odoardo Fialetti showing Venus and Cupid  and entitled the Scherzi d’ Amore, published in Venice in 1617.

Figure 2: V&A inventory number C.15-1911

Vezzi Porcelain factory, possibly painted by Lodovico Ortolani

Cup decorated with scenes from Fialetti’s Scherzi d’Amore



In Ancient Greek culture, Cupid appears in the form of a youth. By Roman times he was often depicted with wings and since the Renaissance he has taken the form of a winged boy, recognisable by his attributes of a bow, arrow and quiver.

Figure 3: V&A inventory number E.2985-1910

Virgil Solis

Covered goblet with cupid on the top



Virgil Solis, Covered goblet with cupid on the top, Engraving, 1530-1562

Detail of figure 3

Cupid is often shown shooting an arrow, as in this design for a covered goblet by Virgil Solis. His arrows had the power to induce uncontrollable desire on anyone hit by them, whether mortal or deity. Cupid frequently takes a lesser role than other gods in classical mythology. However his presence is often used to symbolise the moment when characters fall in love.

Figure 4: V&A inventory number 4721-1901

The rape of Proserpine

Tin-glazed earthenware plate

Fabriano, Italy


In this plate made in Fabriano Cupid, placed in the centre, aims his arrow at Pluto who is shown in the lower right of the rim as he carries Proserpine off to his underworld kingdom. Similarly in René Boyvin’s engraving after Léonard Thiry Cupid shoots an arrow at Medea, causing her to fall in love with Jason.

Figure 5: V&A inventory number E.88A-1891

René  Boyvin after Léonard Thiry

Medea and Jason conversing in a forest

From Livre de la conqueste de la Toison



This engraving is from a suite representing the Legend of the Golden Fleece. According to the Legend, written by Apollonius of Rhodes in the first half of the 3rd century BC, Jason arrived at Colchis to claim his inheritance by retrieving the Golden Fleece. Hit by Cupid’s arrow Medea falls in love with Jason, she then offers to help him on his quest on the condition that he later marries her.

Figure 6: V&A inventory number C.918-1919

Meissen porcelain factory

Cupid and Psyche


Mid 18th century

A fairy tale from the 2nd century AD by Lucius Apuleius tells of the story of Cupid’s own passion for the mortal Psyche. As in this group from the Meissen factory Psyche is often shown as a young girl with butterfly wings, referring to the ancient Greek meaning of her name which translates as both ‘butterfly’ and ‘soul’. According to the tale, the mortal Psyche was so beautiful that people began to treat her as a goddess. Envious of this mortal’s fame, Venus sent her son Cupid to shoot one of his arrows and make Psyche fall in love with an ugly creature. When Cupid saw the maiden her beauty made him stumble, and scratch his own leg with one of his powerful arrows. As a consequence he fell in love with Psyche and took her to his magical palace where she was waited on in luxury by invisible maidens. There he visited her only after dark, never allowing her to see him.

Figure 7: V&A inventory number Dyce.1072

Agostino Veneziano after Michiel Coxcie

Psyche looking at Cupid whilst he sleeps



Curious to know who her lover was, one night Psyche took a lamp to view Cupid whilst he slept. But oil fell from the lamp onto Cupid who woke up and, angry at being disobeyed and discovered, vanished along with his palace from Pysche. The tale continues, recounting the trials undertaken by the maiden in order to find her lover. It ends happily with the reunion and marriage of the lovers. The tale of these beautiful lovers was translated from Latin into numerous languages including Italian, French and English during the Renaissance and quickly became the inspiration for many decorative schemes throughout Europe. One example of is the  44 stained glass windows recounting the tale at the Château of Ecouen and now housed in the Musée Condé in France. These were based on a set of prints by Agostino Veneziano after designs by Michiel Coxcie, which in turn were inspired by Raphael’s fresco decorations at the Villa Farnesina in Rome.

Figure 8: V&A inventory number A.103-1910

Francesco Fanelli

Cupid on a dolphin

Gilded bronze


Most commonly represented with his bow and arrow Cupid also occurs with other attributes that refer to love. In this gilded bronze statuette made in the opening decades of the seventeenth century  Fanelli represents Cupid with his arms raised in the action of shooting his bow (now missing). Looking closely we see that the god is blindfolded to symbolise that love is blind. 

Figure 9: V&A inventory number 28706

Master of the Die after Perino del Vaga

Panel of ornament with Cupid holding a weathercock




Rather curiously this print by the Master of the Die after a decorative scheme by Perino del Vaga shows Cupid holding a weathercock. This unusual symbol would seem to refer to the unpredictability of love. After all who can tell what love will bring until Cupid shoots his arrow.

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