Two great mythologies inform Western culture: the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian. Greek and Roman myths have always been a rich subject for Western artists. However they often clash with Judeo-Christian values. One of the results has been a gradual sanitizing of the original Greek meaning.
The myth of Eros and Psyche gives us two essential Western concepts. The word eros gives us erotic and psyche – psychology, psychiatry.
The story of Eros and Psyche is the story of passion. Psyche is the most beautiful mortal on earth and Aphrodite becomes jealous of the adulation she receives. She orders her son Eros to cast a spell so that Psyche falls in love with the ugliest creature on earth. But when Eros visits her, he falls deeply in love and begins a passionate and all consuming affair. According to the Roman version they have a daughter called Voluptus (Pleasure).
Psyche represents the mortal longing to unite with the gods and Eros represents the love of beauty. There is a great deal to say about these two archetypes, but my immediate interest is how they have been represented in Western art.
Eros is almost always a prepubescent boy and this pagan god is the model for ‘Christianized’ cupids and cherubs, which are usually depicted naked.
The important thing to say here is that the meaning of Eros clashes with the Judeo-Christian myth of the Fall and the notion of original sin. The two myths have become entangled. Thus Judeo-Christians have projected a state of pre-Fall ‘innocence’ onto children and, paradoxically, borrowed the symbol of Eros, who is far from innocent, to create a de-sexualized cupid/cherub image. Yet they complain when the image of Eros appears in its true context, as a symbol of beauty and desire.
The following images speak louder than words:
Nothing particularly ‘innocent’ about these famous works.
The debate about the naked child in art is really a clash between two mythological attitudes to children. One that sees the naked child as a thing of beauty belonging to the world of Eros and one which sees the naked child as a symbol of ‘fallen’ innocence.