A new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Changing Image of Eros, Ancient Greek God of Love, from Antiquity to Renaissance,” demonstrates that love as we know it doesn’t just last forever — it’s been around forever too.
The centerpiece of the exhibit, which opened last week and 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, and the other is tucked up underneath.
Unusually for Greek art, the god’s eyes are shut. And in a touching nuance, the baby’s mouth rests open, while his left hand lies limp, having dropped his famous bow.
“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, love-sick 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 added with a chuckle, “repelled people from burning desire.”
The image of Eros captured in the statue, which is dated to the 3rd-2nd centuries BC and comes from the island of Rhodes, spawned a remarkable dynasty of lookalikes, right from Roman art’s Cupid to the winged cherubs of Renaissance paintings, and into our popular culture today.
But Eros wasn’t always so cuddly. Until the period when winged babies came out with their darts of passion, the god was depicted in Archaic Greek poetry as a “powerful, often cruel, and capricious being,” the exhibit explains.
The baby version meant love was “brought down to earth and disarmed.”
“The idea of love is a universal concept,” said Hemingway, an archaeologist and the grandson of the novelist Ernest Hemingway.
“For the Greeks, it 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.”
Hemingway called the piece 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.
“He was rediscovered in the Renaissance early on,” Hemingway said.
Incidentally, there’s one more link between that ancient artwork and our modern cult of love: the statue’s presumed birthplace.
Rhodes, Hemingway pointed out, “means ‘rose’ in Greek.”
© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse
Image: A statue of “Sleeping Eros“ is on display during a press preview of the Sleeping Eros exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The statue of Eros, the god of love in Greek mythology, was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in 1943. It was believed to be an original Hellenistic sculpture or a close replica created between 250 and 150 B.C. Subsequently, some scholars have suggested that it is a very fine Roman copy of one of the most popular sculptures ever made in Roman Imperial times. Recent research supports the former identification, but also makes apparent that it was restored in antiquity, most likely in the Early Imperial period. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand. By Sebastian Smith
Official Info: Metropolitan Museum Exhibition Examines Changing Image of Eros, Ancient Greek God of Love, from Antiquity to Renaissance
(Until June 23, 2013)
Exhibition Location: Greek and Roman Special Exhibitions Gallery, Room 172 (mezzanine level)
In Greek mythology, Eros was the god of love. He was capable of overpowering the minds of all gods and all men. Literary sources of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. portrayed him as a powerful, often cruel, capricious being, and in classical Greek art Eros was usually represented as a winged youth. A radically different visual image of Eros—as a charming, winged child asleep on a rock—was introduced centuries later by Hellenistic artists. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s statue of Eros Sleeping—one of the finest of the surviving bronze statues from classical antiquity—will be the focus of the special exhibition Sleeping Eros, opening January 29, 2013.
The exhibition is made possible by The Vlachos Family Fund.
Eros Sleeping will be shown with 46 related works of art in various media, ranging in date from the fifth century B.C. to the 17th century A.D., drawn primarily from the Museum’s permanent collection. Two works from private collections will also be shown.
Through these examples, the exhibition will examine the cult and image of Eros before and after the Sleeping Eros statue type, show the breadth of its influence, and trace the wide dispersal of the type in Roman times and its subsequent rediscovery during the Renaissance. The exhibition will also consider the original function and context of the sculpture, how the statue was made, and the issue of originals and copies in Greek and Roman sculpture.
The Sleeping Eros was among the earliest types of ancient sculpture to be rediscovered during the Italian Renaissance, and it was the subject of numerous figural studies by Renaissance and Baroque artists in Italy—including Michelangelo, among many others—who were looking to the classical tradition for training and inspiration. Some works were close likenesses, such as the fine Drawing of a Sleeping Eros after an antique sculpture by Giovanni Angelo Canini (1617–1666), which will be shown in the exhibition. Other, less literal, adaptations will also be displayed.
In 1943, when the Metropolitan Museum acquired its statue of Eros Sleeping, it was believed to be an original Hellenistic sculpture or a very close replica created between 250 and 150 B.C. Subsequently, some scholars have suggested that it is a very fine Roman copy of one of the most popular sculptures ever made in Roman Imperial times. Recent research—to be presented in the exhibition—supports the former identification, but also makes apparent that it was restored in antiquity—most likely in the Early Imperial period.
Details of the research will also be published in an upcoming article in the Metropolitan Museum’s annual Journal.
A public lecture by the curator on Friday, April 5, 2013, and gallery talks will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition.
Additional information about the exhibition and its accompanying programs can be found on the Museum’s website at www.metmuseum.org.