A new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Changing Images of Eros, Ancient Greek God of Love, from Antiquity to Renaissance," demonstrates that ancient Greek sculptors responded to erotic love by creating statues that still resonate, 2000 years after they were made.
Greek philosophers from Plato to Epikouros reflected on its power and centrality to human existence. Not for nothing did the poets call erotic love "the sweetness of honey and the sting of bees."*
The centerpiece of the exhibit, which opened last week and runs through June 23, is a life- sized bronze sculpture of Eros shown as a sleeping baby.
One of the few bronze statues to have survived from antiquity, this figure of a plump baby in relaxed pose conveys a sense of the immediacy and naturalistic detail that the medium of bronze made possible. Every feather is visible in his wings and his chubby legs, draped over the stone, show rolls of baby fat.
In an unusual pose for Greek art, the god's eyes are shut. In a touching nuance, the baby's mouth rests open, while his left hand lies limp, having dropped his famous bow.
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 cute and cuddly. Until the period when winged babies came out with their darts of passion, the god was depicted in Greek poetry as a "powerful, often cruel, and capricious being," the exhibit explains.
The ancients felt the sting of Eros' arrow as well as the sweetness of fulfilled desire. The Roman poet Longus wrote, "There is no medicine for Love, nothing you can drink for it, nothing you can eat for it..."*
Catullus was distraught when his love affair with the famous Clodia ended. "Poor damned Catullus, stop being idiotic," he moaned and went on to both mourn the end of the affair and curse his lover.
Other poets were cruder, too crude to quote in a newspaper.
Contemporary Valentine's Day celebrations are more focused on the sweet and tend to ignore the often bitter end of love gone awry.
What would you say to this sleeping Eros?
*Michelle Loveri and Nikiforos Doxiadis Mardas. A Book of Love from the Ancient Mediterranean.