This lovely work was painted in 1904 by John William Waterhouse, the last of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. It depicts a critical moment in the love story between Cupid, god of love, and Psyche, a beautiful mortal persecuted by Venus.
I won’t repeat the entire myth, which symbolizes both the nature of love and the nature of the human soul, but I will explain the context of the painting. Psyche was cursed by Venus never to marry. Venus’ beautiful and capricious son Cupid, however, had fallen in love with Psyche and, in protest, refused to shoot his arrows at any living thing–which meant the living world began to age and die, being unable to… renew itself without Eros. Psyche visited the oracle of Apollo who explained her destiny thus, “The virgin is destined for the bride of no mortal lover. Her future husband awaits her on the top of the mountain. He is a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.”
We know that the monster is the beautiful god of love, but Psyche knows only the oracle’s dire words. She goes to the mountain and, swooning, is carried away by the wind to the palace of Cupid. Waterhouse has painted her as she awakens and enters the garden of the palace of love. Although afraid, she sees the ineffable beauty of the garden and realizes the owner is no mortal. As a gardener, I would like to dwell on the musk roses and cypresses, yet as a painter I am obliged to point you towards the troubled mien of Psyche as she attempts to puzzle out the nature of her monstrous divine consort.
A perennial favorite for artists, the entire myth is told best by its originator, the incomparable Lucius Apuleius who used the story of Cupid and Psyche as a chapter in The Golden Ass, the only complete Milesian tale to survive from ancient Rome. The Golden Ass is arguably the immediate ancestor of the novel and it is every bit as ribald as its name suggests. The chapter about Cupid and Psyche however is dead serious (as is the overall book, which subtly suggested that if Roman aristocrats continued to degrade and oppress everyone else in society, Roman civilization would founder).