Love in the third century B.C.: Not much has changed over the millenia

A Metropolitan Museum of Art Hellenistic-era bronze of Eros sleeping.

NEW YORK: A plump, naughty looking winged baby with a bow and arrow. It sounds like the illustration on a 21st-century Valentine’s Day card.

Actually the figure is rendered in a 2,000-year-old statue, nowadays on show in New York. “Changing Image of Eros, Ancient Greek God of Love, from Antiquity to Renaissance,” a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggests that love as we know it isn’t just meant to last forever – it’s been around forever too.

The centerpiece of the show, which runs through June 23, is a remarkable, life-size bronze sculpture of Eros shown as a sleeping baby.

His chubby legs are draped over a stone. One of his wings lies flat, the details of every feather visible, while the other is tucked up underneath.

Unusually for Greek art, the god’s eyes are shut. In a touching nuance, the baby’s mouth rests open. His left hand, having dropped his famous bow, hangs limp. “He’s in the midst of his labors and he’s taking a nap,” curator Sean Hemingway told AFP.

Those labors, according to the Greek myth, were very much as doodling, lovesick teens might imagine them today: Eros firing arrows of love.

Less well known is that the Greek Eros had two arrows – “either tipped with gold or tipped with lead,” Hemingway said. “The golden ones gave burning desire and the lead ones,” he said with a chuckle, “repelled people from burning desire.”

The image of Eros captured in the statue, whose provenance is the island of Rhodes, and is dated to the third-second centuries B.C., spawned a remarkable dynasty of look-alikes, right from the Cupid of Roman art to the winged cherubs of Renaissance paintings, thence into our contemporary popular culture.

Eros wasn’t always so cuddly. According to an early myth, Gaia (goddess of the Earth) and Eros were the source of all creation and Eros was capable of overpowering the minds of gods and mortals alike.

In Archaic Greek poetry (sixth and fifth centuries B.C.), as the exhibition catalogue explains, the god was depicted as a “powerful, often cruel, and capricious being.”

In classical art Eros is usually represented as a beautiful winged youth. It was only during the Hellenistic period (323-31 B.C.) that a new image of the god as a baby took hold. That iconography’s popularity is linked to the myth of Eros being the son of Aphrodite, born of her affair with Ares, god of war.

With this infantile version of Eros was “brought down to earth and disarmed,” said Hemingway, an archaeologist. “The idea of love is a universal concept.”

The MMA’s bronze is the finest example of its kind. Scholars have long wondered whether it is an original Hellenistic work or a very fine copy from Rome’s Imperial era. Variations of the type are known from hundreds of sculptures, which, to judge from the number of extant replicas and adaptations, was one of the most popular ever produced in Roman Imperial times.

It was also among the earliest of the ancient statues rediscovered during the Renaissance, when artists revisited the theme. This exhibition presents the results of a recent study of the Museum’s statue, utilizing scientific and technical analyses as well as art-historical research, which supports its identification as a Hellenistic bronze but one that was restored in antiquity, likely during the Roman Imperial period.

For Hemingway the MMA’s piece is a “great masterpiece” that has always “fascinated” him. It certainly fascinated the Romans, who made copies in large quantities, followed by the Renaissance artists whose rediscovery of Classical art inspired Europe’s cultural explosion after the Middle Ages.

“For the Greeks,” Hemingway said, “he was an important god and we continue to think of love, if not as a god, as important. Valentine’s Day is coming up, so it’s a good time to remember him.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 07, 2013, on page 16.




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