Day 67 – Psyche VII: ‘Celebration!’

Raphael, The Council of the Gods and The Wedding Banquet of Cupid and Psyche, 1518-19, Villa Farnesina, Rome.

Oh dear – I was wondering last week if we were nearing the end of the story of Cupid and Psyche (Picture Of The Day 43, 44, 46, 53, 54, 60), on what has gradually evolved into ‘Psyche Sunday’, and I fear that things are not yet resolved. Mercury had flown down from Olympus, leaving nothing to the imagination, Psyche had been gathered up by him to be taken to meet ‘the family’, and now – well, it’s all over bar the shouting. 

Just a reminder of where we are: in the loggia of the Villa Farnesina, with Raphael’s scheme sadly incomplete, but still entirely enchanting. Last week we talked about the paintings in the pendentives, and today we will look up to the ceiling itself and the two fictive tapestries. Both are ‘hung’ in the pergola, garlanded with fruit and flowers, with the chords tugging at the decorative borders so that their edges are scalloped. They are arranged so that, as we enter the loggia and look up, we see them the right way round – the ‘ground’ in the tapestries is towards the villa. Psyche has been summoned by Jupiter to appear before the gods, but she has not yet been accepted. If I’m right, though, and it’s all over bar the shouting, let’s look at who’s shouting!

One of the things I realised when I wrote my book about the Renaissance was that Raphael was very good at cataloguing. If you want to see all the Greek and Roman philosophers, look at The School of Athens. If you are interested in Christian Theologians you’ll find them on the opposite wall in La Disputa. All of the Sibyls are in his fresco in the Chigi Chapel – yes, same Chigi – in Santa Maria della Pace. And if you want a painting with all of the Olympian gods, then this is it. Well, most of them are here. To be honest, as with most meetings, not everyone is really that involved. At the moment the debate is going on between Venus and Cupid, who are both putting their arguments to Jupiter at the far right of the image. 

The King of the Gods and Goddesses has his right foot up on the globe: we are not so much under his thumb, as ground down under his heel. He sits with elbow on knee and chin on hand, the ultimate gesture of ‘the thinker’, made explicit by Rodin centuries later. With one knee up, foot forward, the other down, foot back, and one mature, muscular shoulder also forward, he could easily be a reconstruction of the Torso Belvedere (POTD 48) – or simply inspired by the prophets and sibyls painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Ceiling. He has a robe of royal purple wrapped around his legs, with his eagle sitting between them, happily joining in (well, he had helped Psyche with one of the tasks – POTD 53). To our right of him, in blue and yellow, with a peacock behind her in the bottom right-hand corner, is his consort, Juno, Queen of the Gods and Goddesses. On the far right, standing at full height, wearing a feathered helmet which takes her to the full height of the ‘tapestry’, a spear in her left hand which goes out of view, is Minerva, Goddess of War and Wisdom. Her tall, straight figure closes the composition at the right, and she looks down, thus directing our attention to the focus of the debate. Juno does the same, as does a third woman, with a crescent moon in her hair. This is Diana, the Chaste Goddess of the Hunt, and Goddess of the Moon. I’m afraid I’m only going to use the Latin names today – ‘when in Rome’, as they say – and I’m also simplifying their areas of responsibility. These changed over the millennia of Greek and Roman history in a way that is too complex to capture simply. All three are looking down towards Cupid, who, as in previous episodes, is not the chubby baby beloved of many, but the sort of adolescent who is bound to fall in love – what he believes is true love – and the sort of love that he knows adults are bound not to understand. His wings identify him, as he gestures towards Jupiter, trying desperately to tell Jupiter what true love is (as if either would know…). Next to Jupiter is another bearded, mature man who clasps a three-pronged spear, or trident. This is Neptune, the God of the Sea. And besides him a man with a two-pronged spear, or bident – Pluto, God of the Underworld, with Cerberus, the three-headed dog at his feet. It’s a bit like having the head of the UK Government, with the heads of the governments of Scotland and Wales… Jupiter ruled over everything, not just the sky. Imagine if the Head of the UK Government was as much of a philanderer as Jupiter, though, and tried to advise someone on love. I mean, what do you do when someone has broken the rules?

Neptune and Pluto look distrustfully at a topless woman. This is Venus, Goddess of Love and Beauty, here only defined by her nudity. Well, at least she’s covered up a bit. As much as the men have, anyway. The other three women present are entirely decently clad, though – you can’t be inappropriately clad in Council. Or use the wrong tone. Venus points a finger of blame at Cupid, and tries the ‘innocent eyes’ trick with Jupiter. But will it succeed?

Behind Venus, and keeping an eye on her (well, they’d had an affair) is Mars, God of War, in his armour. His shield rests on the floor, in between him and Apollo, God of the Sun and inspirer of the muses, who has clearly spent a lot of time at the gym, and just as much time tending to his long blonde hair. His left hand rests on what is probably meant to represent his lyre. He points to Venus – or maybe to Mars – while looking to our left. Raphael does this to move our attention along the composition, but Apollo is clearly telling somebody something. He is either conveying the latest developments in the debate, or simply gossiping about Mars’ and Venus’ affair. Next to him is another blonde ephebe. This is a Greek word for a young man in military training, usually about 18-20 years old, although it comes to stand for ‘young man’, or ‘youth’, or, for that matter, ‘pretty boy’. He has vine leaves and grapes in his hair, which indentifies him as Bacchus, God of Wine. However, Raphael does this for ease of identification, as traditionally Bacchus would have ivy in his hair. Titian gets that right! To our left of Bacchus is another mature man with grey hair and beard, huge muscles and a large club. He could, just like Jupiter, be a reconstruction of the Torso Belvedere. And like Jupiter he rests his chin on his hand. Well, like father like son, I suppose – this is Hercules, Jupiter’s favourite illegitimate son, although he seems strangely old to be the latest arrival in Olympus. To the left of him, dressed in what could be workman’s clothing, with a big pair of tongs over his shoulder, is Vulcan, the God of Fire, who worked in the forge making all the armour and weaponry. There are also two River Gods lounging on the ground – that’s what they do – and the one on the right has his arm over a lion. I can’t for the life of me think which river he represents. There used to be a sculpture of the River Tigris in Rome, which had a tiger, but that got re-carved to look like a she-wolf, thus re-purposing it to represent the Tiber. Raphael could have been thinking of that. A century or more later, Bernini would use a lion as a symbol of the Nile, but this is not the Nile.

The River God on the left is leaning on a sphinx – so that must be the Nile. To the left of Vulcan we see Janus, God of doorways and boundaries, looking back to the past (the old face on the right) and forward to the future (the young face on the left) – and the future is Psyche. Mercury, in his winged helmet, has just arrived with her, and hands her a welcoming drink. In the other hand he holds his caduceus – his staff of office. There are all sorts of tales about this, but it basically identifies him as the Messenger of the Gods. He carries it in the same way that Gabriel used to carry a messenger’s staff, until that got swapped for a lily (but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that yet). He would use it to part the clouds, when flying on a mission, and once, when he saw two serpents fighting, he ‘zapped’ them with it, and they curled up around it and died… Meanwhile, an amoretto clings to Psyche’s legs. That’s not Cupid, remember, he’s at the other end of the fresco. Or ‘tapestry’, rather.  What does she get to drink? It is ambrosia, the food of the Gods (whatever happened to rice pudding, by the way?) The fact is, while we have been looking at them all and chatting away amongst ourselves, they have been discussing her, trying to calm down the disagreement between Venus and Cupid, and generally trying to placate Venus, which was never easy. However, despite what seemed like insurmountable difficulties they have decided that Psyche can stay! So she gets to drink ambrosia, and to be immortal. There’s nothing left but to celebrate.

And it is the wedding feast that we see in the ‘tapestry’ on the left – the same gods, although not as easy to identify: tridents and bidents have been left at the door it seems – although not clubs – and war has been banished (so no Mars). But there are a few additions. Some of them are seated at the banqueting table, as wine is poured and garlands are brought, while on the left, others have already broken away to the ‘mingling’ phase of the party.

Cupid and Psyche are seated at the far right of the image, still very much in love and peering into each others eyes, while the Three Graces appear at the top right to anoint them, thus auguring their future success and happiness. Jupiter is next to them, dutifully ensconced with his wife Juno who is holding on to him firmly – although, as she looks away he accepts a drink from Ganymede, his cupbearer. Well, that’s one word for it, I suppose, but that’s another story. But this is the banquet – what about the marriage itself? Well that was painted by Giulio Romano in the centre of the ceiling of the Sala di Psiche in the Palazzo Te in Mantua (POTD 42). The most extreme version of da sotto in su I know, we look right up past them, their whole bodies foreshortened, as they stand on clouds above our heads, surrounded by all the Gods. They reach across the space between them and hold hands, with Mars and Mercury flanking Cupid – you can see right up Mercury’s skirt. Way up in the sky Jupiter is holding a thunderbolt, and next to him is Juno, who is also, somewhat ironically, the Goddess of Marriage and Childbirth. She raises her hands in blessing, and they were indeed blessed: in due time Psyche gave birth to a daughter, called Pleasure. The shouting is over: Psyche, representing the head, and Cupid, the heart, are now safely together, and when your head and your heart are in the same place and want the same things, then you can be sure you will live happily ever after. 

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

9 thoughts on “Day 67 – Psyche VII: ‘Celebration!’

  1. I just wanted to thank you for your detailed commentary on these works by Raphael. I was searching for information on the gods depicted in this series of paintings; specifically the Council of the Gods. This was the only site I found where you actually described everything in detail. I found it very informative and enlightening. Thank you so much!


    1. Thank you, Keith – I don’t suppose you have a source for that? If I’m honest, I’m not sure which figure you’re referring to: the Sphinx? None of the images of Astarte that I can find look anything like Raphael’s depiction, although I could be looking at the wrong one.


      1. Inanna is the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, procreation, and of war who later, became identified with the Akkadian goddess Ishtar, and further with the Phoenician Astarte and the Greek Aphrodite, among others. She was also seen as the bright star of the morning and evening, Venus. Through the work of the Akkadian poet and high priestess, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE) daughter of Sargon of Akkad (who conquered Mesopotamia and built the great Akkadian Empire) Inanna was carefully identified with Ishtar and rose in prominence from a local vegetative deity of the Sumerian people to the Queen of Heaven and the most popular goddess in all of Mesopotamia.

        Queen of the heavens was also the name of Isis.

        I think if you look hard at the sphinx one could surmise that was a female at some point.

        Love your work. We will keep looking. Ty Coppola


  2. Thanks again, although I’m interested in knowing if anyone else portrait Astarte as a Sphinx, whether female or not? This would go towards explaining why Raphael might have done. Given that both Venus and Juno (the Roman ‘Goddess of the Heavens’) are both represented, it seems, from what you’ve said, that Astarte’s associations overlap a bit with what is there in other places.


  3. I’m so glad I found this blog! Yours is the only discussion of this painting and identification of its mythological figures that I’ve found online.

    About the reclining river god leaning on the lion: could that be a tiger whose stripes have faded or been painted over? I think I see faint traces of stripes on the foot of the creature. If so, then the god could represent the Tigris.

    But I’m wondering, where’s Saturn? I had picked him out as the old man seated across from Jupiter, mirroring his pose.

    Anyway, thanks for a fascinating and entertaining essay!


  4. Just want to echo (no pun intended) what others have posted: thank you for such erudite ruminations on the paintings of Psyche, particularly Raphael’s unfinished frescoes. With the upcoming publication of Luna McNamara’s controversial rewriting of the Psyche & Eros story, I suspect this site will receive many more visits as readers try to separate myth from fiction.


    1. Thank you, Nicholas – it’s such an old tale, and was even before Apuleius was born 1,900 years ago, so new versions are bound to crop up every century or so! I hadn’t heard of the McNamara, but I am intrigued to hear her version is controversial.


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