About Dr Serena Trowbridge

Lecturer in English at Birmingham City University

‘Cupid and Psyche’ by Edward Burne-Jones


‘Cupid and Psyche’ by Edward Burne-Jones

Accession Number: 1922P191

Date: 1872-81

This beautiful image takes its original inspiration from part of William Morris’s long poem The Earthly Paradise, in which the myth of Cupid and Psyche is explored. The panel (which is the last in a series of twelve) has the full title of ‘Psyche entering the portals of Olympus with Cupid, preceded by Mercury, is welcomed by the Gods, and is offered the Cup of Immortality by Hebe.’ Morris’s work, in 12 books or sections, shows a group of medieval Norse pilgrims in search of eternal life; they meet people on their journey and exchange stories on feast days, of which the myth of Cupid and Psyche is one. This section appears in book V, the month of May, and while the book focuses on the passing of time and human desire to prolong life, May is a time for celebration and fresh beginnings:

Now must these men be glad a little while
That they had lived to see May once more smile
Upon the earth

Each story is preceded by an ’Argument’ which outlines the myth, before its poetic retelling. For ‘Cupid and Psyche’, the Argument runs thus:

Psyche, a king’s daughter, by her exceeding beauty caused the people to forget Venus; therefore the goddess would fain have destroyed her: nevertheless she became the bride of Love, yet in an unhappy moment lost him by her own fault, and wandering through the world suffered many evils at the hands of Venus, for whom she must accomplish fearful tasks. But the gods and all nature helped her, and in process of time she was reunited to Love, forgiven by Venus, and made immortal by the Father of gods and men.

The myth contains themes which symbolically explore the contrast and potential reunion of the body and soul, and the conflict that can arise between them, particularly in the case of earthly and spiritual love. As Bruno Bettelheim has pointed out, aspects of the story resurface in fairy tales, particularly ‘Beauty and the Beast’.

This oil explores the final scenes of Morris’s retelling, where she is bathed and prepared as if for a feast, and then permitted to enter heaven and live eternally:

Led by the hand of Love she took her way
Unto a vale beset with heavenly trees,
Where all the gathered gods and goddesses
Abode her coming; but when Psyche saw
The Father’s face, she fainting with her awe
Had fallen, but that Love’s arm held her up.
Then brought the cup-bearer a golden cup,
And gently set it in her slender hand,
And while in dread and wonder she did stand,
The Father’s awful voice smote on her ear,
“Drink now, O beautiful, and have no fear!
For with this draught shalt thou be born again,
And live for ever free from care and pain.”

Burne-Jones’s depiction adds Mercury (the son of Jupiter) to the scene; he does not appear in Morris’s poem, and the presenter of the cup is Jupiter, not Hebe, in Morris’s version, contrary to the title given to the painting. This suggests that while Morris was ostensibly working from Morris’s poem, in fact he was working more closely with Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, where the myth originated.

Burne-Jones’s work seems to sanctify the figures who – unusually for those not in the Christian tradition, have halos. Psyche accepts the cup reverently, with the procession of figures around her framed by the magnificent golden pillars of heaven, or Mount Olympus. The figure directly in front of Psyche is evidently Mercury (given the symbolic wings and staff which mark him out). The panels were commissioned by George Howard for his house in Kensington.