Day 53 – Psyche IV: ‘The Tasks’

Giulio Romano, The Story of Psyche, 1526-8, Palazzo Te, Mantua.

Where are we? Back in the Sala di Psiche – or Room of Psyche – in the Palazzo Te in Mantua. And where were we? Oh yes – we left Psyche sitting and snivelling outside Cupid’s castle, having realised how much she loved him, back in Picture Of The Day 45. And, as I said then, ‘it is at this point in the story that she makes the worst decision possible. She decides to ask Venus if she knows where Cupid is…’ Now Venus hasn’t seen her son for a while, and doesn’t know what he’s up to. She also doesn’t know what has happened in her plot against Pscyhe (POTD 43 & 44) – because she hasn’t heard from Cupid. So when Psyche turns up at Venus’s door, declares her love for her son, and asks the Goddess of Love if she knows where he is – well, Venus is apoplectic. Apart from anything else she doesn’t know. She says she’ll try and find out where he is, if Psyche doesn’t mind helping her out in the kitchen for a while. She then disappears for a moment, Psyche hears a lot of crashing and cursing in the kitchen, and then Venus comes back and says, ‘I’ve had the most terrible accident, and spilt all my pulses – there are kidney beans and borlotti beans – not to mention chick peas and lentils – all over the place. I don’t suppose you could sort them out for me? I’m just popping out for a while to find out where Cupid is, and I’ll let you know when I get back’. With which, she disappeared again, leaving Psyche to clear up the mess. Obviously Psyche wasn’t best pleased, and sat there moping for a while, until eventually she started slowly, and half-heartedly, picking up the odd lentil, and putting it in one corner, then a chick pea in another, etc., etc., fully aware that she would never get it done. Until, all of a sudden, unannounced and out of the blue, a crack team of highly skilled ants appeared, curiously expert at kitchen maintenance and the organisation of ingredients. They ran in, picked a pulse each, and took it to the relevant pile. Sorted! And if you don’t believe me, have a look at this painting by Giulio Romano:

What do you mean, you can’t see the ants? You can at least see the inchoate pile of pulses on the left, from which flow ordered ranks of ants towards the coherent piles on the right. Psyche sits there every bit as miserable as she was in Claude’s Enchanted Castle last week, head in hand, and curled up as foetally as possible while still seated. And in case you still don’t believe me, here is a detail from a pre-cleaning image: on this scale the ants are more visible:

This is one of the episodes which Giulio Romano included in the lunettes (semi-circular paintings) at the tops of the walls of the Sala di Psyche. As a reminder – and so you can see where the lunettes are – this is what the Sala di Psiche looks like (although the ants are on one of the walls behind us):

Venus returned, and was astonished to find that the task had been completed, the pulses were sorted. How was it possible? (Hint: the other Gods were on Psyche’s side – Venus wasn’t always that popular with the others). Now, you may be thinking that this story reminds you of something else: a girl, left to do the kitchen work, with sisters she argues with, and a mother (not hers) who is a bit of a harridan… Yes, this is the origin of Cinderella. And in the original version – known to any fan of Stephen Sondheim and Into the Woods – Cinderella has to pick the beans out of the ashes, or cinders – hence her name. However, Cinderella’s little helpers are birds who fly in, pick out the beans, and drop them into a pot. They then later return to peck out her step-sisters’ eyes. Well, that’s another story, nevermind…

Anyway, as it was clearly taking longer than Venus expected to find Cupid (or at least, that’s what she said), she set Psyche another task. She pointed to a large wood with a river running alongside it, where, she said, there were sheep with golden fleeces. Her request was simple: to get her some of their wool. Psyche’s first instinct was to jump into the river and so end it all – until a friendly reed, growing on the banks of the river (yes, there are some), piped up and told her not to do that, as she didn’t want her river polluted (maybe not so friendly after all). She did, however, advise Psyche not to get too near the sheep, as they were pretty violent, and also suggested that, if Psyche wanted to wait until the sheep were resting, she could then gather strands of the golden wool that had got tangled in the bushes and briars around the edges of the wood. 

Again, this is a story that Romano tells in one of the lunettes. And, remembering that the Palazzo Te was built as a pleasure palace away from the cares of the court, Giulio is intent on being none-too-serious with what is, let’s face it, a none-too-serious story. Most of this painting is taken up by the River God, who reclines, as they do, pouring his river out of a jug. But then Romano makes him entirely watery: his flowing white hair and beard add to the flowing river – the white water being the sort that you wouldn’t even want to go rafting in (although it would, presumably, have suited Psyche’s original purpose). However, given where some of the water is coming from (I did say that this room isn’t the most… respectable… in Renaissance art), I wouldn’t want to swim in it anyway. The reed appears to be popping out from the very rock formation which is also the source of the river. With blond hair, and a suitably reed-green dress, she points Psyche in the direction of the sheep – and the bushes on which the wool has been snagged. Psyche appears to be tugging at some now – notice how she is wearing the same yellow gown as in the previous painting: it is important for characters in long stories to wear the same clothes, or you might not know who they are – just think of any superhero.

Once more, Venus was astonished. And once more (or so she said), she hadn’t managed to find Cupid – so, she sets a third task. This one seemed quite simple – just go and get a flask of water from a river. Which would have been fine, if it weren’t for the fact that it was the River Styx, which leads to the Underworld. Psyche headed off, ready for more despair. Indeed, she would have been a good contender to model for Giotto yesterday (POTD 52). Once more she considered suicide, but even that seemed impossible, as there were dragons appointed to guard the river. She reached down as far as she could to get some water, at which point Jupiter’s eagle took it upon himself to fly down and help her – he grabbed hold of the crystal vessel Psyche had been given by Venus, and filled it for her. 

Once again, Giulio Romano is in what we might today see as comic-book mode, with cartoon dragons on either side sporting long curving necks, tails and tongues. Psyche, who rather unhelpfully, given what I just said, has had time to stop and change into a green dress, is still stooping, trying to reach the water. The eagle is already there, all dignity, calm, and sobering solemnity, just about to take the container from her. Once he has returned it, Psyche heads back to Venus’s palace, her task fulfilled.

Raphael, in the Farnesina, imagines Psyche getting a lift back from accommodating amoretti, and, when Venus is unexpectedly given the filled phial, he shows her with the most wonderfully ham gesture of shock. We will look at this particular cycle in more detail another day, but, if you’re surprised by the slightly mechanical gestures, remember that Raphael may have designed these frescoes, but he didn’t paint them. Likewise, Giulio Romano (who had worked for Raphael in Rome) designed the paintings in Mantua, but had a team of assistants helping him to paint them. Notice how Psyche is wearing yellow (well, almost wearing…) – maybe this is one of the ideas that Giulio took with him to Mantua. Maybe Raphael wasn’t exaggerating Venus’s incredulity, though. In one early English translation of The Golden Ass her disbelief is palpable: ‘What, thou seemest unto me a very witch and enchauntresse, that bringest these things to passe, howbeit thou shalt do nothing more’.

What does she mean, ‘thou shalt do nothing more’? A fourth – and final – task, of course.  One that should shut Psyche up for good. It seems that Persephone (or, if you prefer, Proserpina), who had been carried off to the Underworld by Pluto (or Hades), having nothing else to do had released a new fragrance – as celebrities often do. It was called ‘Everlasting Sleep’ (to be honest, I don’t think this is quite how Apuleius wrote it, but the effect is the same…), and Venus wanted some. So she sent Psyche to get it… Still in green, she heads to the top of the tallest tower, once more to end it all – and, as luck would have it, the tower, like everything else, had her best interests at heart, and gave her some really useful advice. Not only did it tell her which way to go, but also suggested that she should take two cakes and a coin with her. And one other thing: she should not, under any circumstance, smell the fragrance. OK… you know where this is going.

All she has to do is to pay the ferryman (with the coin) to get over the river Styx, and then give the three-headed dog Cerberus one of the cakes, to calm it down (the other one would get her out), and so here she is in the Underworld, with Cerberus looking pleased having eaten his cake on the left, next to Charon, the Ferryman. Persephone, enthroned as Queen of the Underworld at the Right Hand of Pluto, hands over the fragrance in a white urn, while tormented souls look on… Psyche heads back out, wondering what this fragrance could possibly smell like. Of course, this is the point at which she does the one thing that she is not supposed to do. She opens the jar, smells the fragrance – ‘Eternal Sleep’ – and falls asleep for ever. And this is how Cupid finds her.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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