Monday, April 2, 2012

B23: Appendix: The tale of Cupid & Psyche.

In the section on Ferrara, I mentioned that there was a fresco sequence illustrating the tale of Cupid and Psyche done in the 1480s under the supervision of Ercole Roberti, and that while this series is no longer extant, the tale was a subject for numerous marriage chests and also a later series of frescoes, c. 1527, in Mantua under the supervison of Giulio Romano. It seems to me that this tale, and its imagery, is another example of the mind set that would have also applied itself to the tarot sequence.

The imagery I am concerned with (all of it from artwork reproduced in Sonia Cavicchioli's Tale of Cupid & Psyche, an Illustrated History) is not directly taken from the tarot. It is the elements of the story that resemble the tarot sequence. Only one scene in the Palazzo Te actually resembles  tarot imagery, and that is on the side of the banquet scene at the end, in a detail not even mentioned in the tale. There is a naiad, or river nymph, holding two jars out of which water pours. There is a spring above her and a stream below and in front, as though formed from the water coming out of the jugs. There is also a water god in the scene behind her, holding two more jars out of which more water pours, this time into a lake. They could be the River Lethe and the Lake of Mnemosyne. There are other details suggestive of Dionysus, such as the boy on a goat and the scantily clad people holding a boy and a winnowing basket. There is also a Cupid and a young lady dressed in green like Psyche. These details also have other meanings relating to Mantua and its duke, for whom the Palazzo Te was built: the Cupid is himself, the girl his mistress, the lake is the lake at Mantua, the river the river at Mantua, etc. But I want to bring out is a comparison with the Star card: the resemblance between the naiad and the figure on the Cary Sheet Star card, and even more the figure on the Marseille cards later.
So now I want to go through the cards one more time as adjuncts to the tale, as told by Apuleius in The Golden Ass and illustrated on wedding chests, Romano's frescoes, and two other fresco series of the same time period, namely, Raphael's version in Rome a little earlier than his pupil Romano's in Mantua, and that of Perin del Vega, another pupil of Raphael, in Genoa.

Psyche is Greek for "soul". That makes it even easier to see it as an allegory of the soul's journey.

In a 5th or 6th century version of the story, when Christianity was already the religion of the Roman Empire, Psyche was depicted as the daughter of the sun-god Apollo. Since Christ was seen as the new Apollo (his day of worship, after all is Sun-day), Psyche thereby acquires a kind of divinity, like Christ and the various divine children of pagan Rome. On a 1490’s wedding chest from Florence, perhaps following this tradition, the sun shines behind the father at psyche’s conception.
As a marriageable young girl, Psyche was of course renowned as a great beauty; however none clamor to marry her. Here I would compare the d'Este Matto, whose sexual apparatus was being admired by young boys, with Psyche and her admirers as painted by by Perin del Vaga for Pope Paul II.
Naturally, Venus is jealous of the attention paid to Psyche, and she orders her son to sue his arrows to make her fall in love with some doddering fool, so that she will be a laughing stock instead of an object of worship. Venus pointing out Psyche can be seen in the cloud in the image just given (above), or close up in Romano's fresco (below). Correspondingly, for the Bagatella (Magician) and the Papessa I would compare Cupid and Venus. Conjurers were always in demand for love potions, and that is just what Cupid's arrows are. Venus, Cupid's mother, will set Psyche various tasks for the purpose of seeing if she is worthy of her son, none of which she thinks Psyche has any chance of fulfilling. She is thereby the initiation master of the story; in all initiations there were tests to be passed.

But Cupid pricks himself on his own arrow and falls in love with her himself. Therefore he cannot make her fall in love with anyone else, or allow anyone else to fall in love with her (below, from a wedding chest). The god of love's passion for Psyche, also a metaphor for Christ's love for humanity, is one possibility for the Love card.

Psyche's parents are distraught. These are my candidates for the Empress and Empress, just as Dionysus's parents were candidates for the same cards. They go to the oracle of Apollo and is told that she will meet her husband, a horrible monster, if she is taken to the top of a certain mountain and abandoned. Apollo, her spiritual father, corresponds to the Pope card.
She is taken to the mountain, and at night the wind picks her up and carries her far away. Here is Romano's depiction of that scene. This is the equivalent of the Chariot (Carro) card, as depicted by Romano on the ceiling of the Palazzo Te.
Psyche finds herself in a luxurious palace, attended by unseen servants who bathe, clothe, and feed her. At night there is the swishing of wings, and Cupid makes love to her. This is another possibility for the Love card, their mutual love. She is in bliss, despite his admonition that she must never see what he looks like, or she will lose him forever (below, from de Vega).
 She has her sisters come for a visit, and they are filled with envy. When they find that her lover comes only in the dark, they say that he is probably the monster that the oracle predicted. So she has to know, and lights a lamp after they have made love (below, Romano). This would correspond to the Vecchio (Old Man) or Hermit, the type with the lantern; it is the lamp of knowledge and seeking, which moves us forward. If there is any analogy to Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, Psyche's disobedience is a "happy fault" in the end.
She sees her lover is the most beautiful young man there could be, but he flies away. Not only has he seen her, but the lamp oil burns him. He flies away and goes back to his mother's, where he lies ill from his wounds. This is the Wheel of Fortune, which has turned against both of them. There is a beautiful sketch by Raphael of Psyche watching Cupid flee.

Psyche eventually asks Venus to let her see him. After much scolding, Venus gives Psyche a series of tasks. The first three, I think, correspond to the tarot virtue cards. The first task is to sort out, in one night, four immense piles of seeds that Venus has mixed together. Psyche despairs, but the ants come and do the sorting. It seems to me that this corresponds to Justice, where every act has its due reward or punishment. In administering justice, one needs to sort out the facts in relation to principles.
 After that, her next task is to bring Venus several baskets of golden wool from the fierce golden rams of the sun. A friendly reed, of the kind used to make Pan's pipes, advises her that all she has to do is wait until night, when the rams are sleeping, and pick the wool off the trees that they have rubbed up against. It seems to me that what corresponds is the virtue of Fortitude, associated with the lion, a solar animal.
The third task is to get water from both the middle of the River Styx, where it cascades down a steep gorge, guarded by dragons. In this case Jupiter's eagle comes and fills her jug from the stream. This corresponds to Temperance, with its water pouring from one jug to another. We might also compare it to the two jugs on the Star card.
The fourth task is to get some of Venus's beauty cream, which is supplied to her by Proserpine (Persephone) in Tartarus. This is the journey to the underworld I see in the cards. The descent is the Hanged Man, the Devil is Proserpine's husband Pluto.
 The Tower card, then called the House of Pluto, is part of this scene in hell.

Just past the guard-dog Cerberus and out of Tartarus, Psyche cannot resist temptation and does take some of the beauty cream. She instantly falls into a coma and is near death. That is the Death card, but also the darkness of the Moon card, in which the precious jewel of divinity is waiting to be picked up, just where it would be madness and the height of folly to do so. Her act and subsequent coma corresponds to the divine madness described by Erasmus, of the one who simulates dying (through fasting and other mortification) and gets the experience of divinity. By using Venus'e beauty cream, she has in fact stolen, and even earned, her right to live among the immortals.

But there is Hope that Psyche's Faith will be rewarded Charitably (I invoke the names of the three Theological Virtues, which were present in the Cary-Yale deck of the Visconti. In minchiate, they are still there, with the numbers given in tarot to the Star, Moon, and Sun.) In Psyche's case, her hope is that Cupid will rouse himself from his sickbed, as we see he does. He is her star in the East, so to speak, come to save her from her dark night. But he cannot do anything by himself. The beneficence of the Sun is represented by Jupiter, for Cupid decides to ask Jupiter to allow him to marry her (shown here by Raphael).

For that, she will have to be immortalized. So she is brought up to Olympus on the wings of Mercury (again shown by Raphael), a scene comparable to the Angelo (Angel of Judgment) card.
And the marriage takes place there, an apotheosis scene as Romano portrays it, which is how I see the World card, an elevation to the realm of the gods.

In due time a child is born, who in the tale of Apuleius is named Voluptas, Pleasure. In her honor, the gods have a banquet, a feast of the gods as in Bellini's painting for Alfonso in 1514. only with Cupid and Psyche instead of Liber and Libera, and Voluptas instead of the infant Bacchus. Here they are as Romano painted them.

Inspiration on fertile soil results in pleasure of many kinds.
This sequence also corresponds in essence not only to the myth of Dionysus but to that of the "mystical staircase" of Christianity; all would have been seen as part of the ancient theology,  piscina theologia, that suffused the ancient world.

For another interpretation of the tale, this time in terms of alchemy and supplemented by more recent artworks (19th century and later) see my blog post at

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