Cupid and Psyche. The Fable of the Soul
MANTOVA, Palazzo Te and Palazzo San Sebastiano
13th July – 10th November 2013
Cupid and Psyche. The Fable of the Soul takes its starting point from the Neoplatonic Humanist reading of the myth, according to which Psyche’s error lay in considering the Divine as a tangible, sensorially verifiable entity rather than as one perceivable in its fullness only by the heart.
The curator of the exhibition, Elena Fontanella, observes that ‘contemporary living often denies human beings the space of the sacred. Absorbed by our chaotic everyday existence, we’re often unprepared to face the silences and the voids which our inner life sometimes bestows upon us. With the help of one of the most beautiful and telling stories about love, about death and about life, what we wish to do is guide the visitor through the meanders of the soul, using the images of art which for centuries have taken this myth as their subject’.
The exhibition follows the phases of Apuleius’ telling of the myth: the path from passion to calm, achieved through hope. The story moves from rivalry in the name of beauty: Psyche, as new terrestrial Aphrodite, unconsciously subverts the cosmic order and thus puts the harmony of divine laws at risk. Aphrodite, on the other hand – goddess of love and beauty, ruler of the fertility of the cosmos upon which Eros casts his creative strength – is indignant that a mortal would ever dare compete with her in grace.
What follows is Psyche’s feral wedding, which acts as prologue to the drama about to take place: by prophecy, in fact, Psyche is to be wedded to a monster; for this reason, Cupid orders Zephyr to kidnap her and to take her to his palace where, aided by the darkness of the night, he will be able to meet his beloved. Though she is happy in her new home, Psyche suffers from the envy of her sisters – the symbol of feminine awareness, of the voice inside which determines the evolution of love from its initial stage as mere passion – who encourage her to kill her loved one.
In what is the most ancient form of sacrificial act, Psyche awaits Eros’ slumber before shining her lantern upon him, thus witnessing his feral appearance; but a drop of oil from her lamp hits his sleeping body, making him jolt and run away. Just as Psyche, aided by the light, acquires the knowledge of her love, Eros finds himself overburdened by the woman’s totalising love, a love which imposes not darkness but light and consciousness, and which hence draws out a path whose inevitable end will be pain and separation.
Left loveless, Psyche falls into deep despair and gives herself up to Aphrodite, in the hope to placate her ire. The goddess subjects her to four tests, the last of which is to descend to hell to obtain from Persephone the elixir of eternal youth. A tower – symbol of human knowledge – comes to her assistance in this ordeal; yet as she returns, once more the girl falls prey to her curiosity and, having drunk the liquid, she falls into a deep sleep similar to death.
Only Cupid, who had never surrendered to life without his loved one, will be able to awaken her with his amorous arrows, ensuring the happy ending to the story and its final, tender embrace.
The myth sheds light on a momentous turn in ancient religiosity and in the history of the understanding of the soul: the ability to love is a divine flame, and the transformation of the soul through love is a mystery akin to the mystery of god.
Mantova, 12 july 2013