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Artistic Imagery for St. Valentine's Day

The National Gallery of Art offers both a painting and a sculpture of traditional figures for St. Valentine's Day, beyond the red hearts.

From the time most of us are old enough to wield crayons, safety scissors and a bottle of glue, we mark St. Valentine's Day with decorations consisting of hearts, flowers, and the ever-mischievous Roman god Cupid - though not images of St. Valentine himself. 

Originally Valentine's Day was a Christian feast day first declared in the year 496 A.D. to commemorate the lives of two (or possibly three) martyrs named Valentine. During the Middle Ages, popular belief came to hold that the birds began to pair off on the Feast of St.Valentine, and over time this grew into the association with romantic love and the promise of spring not being too far away.

From the time of Chaucer we know that people would send love poems to each other on Valentine's Day, and the earliest existing example dates from sometime after 1415. The Victorians later revived interest in the custom, and produced often highly decorated love notes or "valentines." Our present tradition of sending valentines on this date is merely a commercial adaptation of 19th century British and American customs, which have little or anything to do with either the Church or theories on nesting birds.

If you were to go to the National Gallery of Art on February 14th, and look for art featuring St. Valentine himself, you would be sorely disappointed. Although the museum possesses several images identified as representing St. Valentine, none of these are on view to the general public. For example, there is a 16th century altarpiece wing in the collection by an unknown painter depicting St. Valentine as a bishop. Sadly, given the poor condition of the panel, it can only be examined online at the National Gallery's website.

Cupid on the other hand, can be seen throughout the National Gallery, and perhaps the most striking example is a French 18th century marble sculpture by Edme Bouchardon, which is part of the Samuel H. Kress Collection. Though often simply referred to as "Cupid", the statue is properly titled, "Cupid Cutting His Bow from the Club of Hercules."

Cupid is caught by the sculptor in the middle of his work; surrounding him we see some of the items from the legendary Labors of Hercules, including the skin of the Nemean Lion, and weapons belonging to Cupid's father Mars, the Roman god of war. While no one is looking, Cupid is using one of his father's short swords on Hercules' wooden club, almost like a Boy Scout whittling with a Swiss Army knife, in order to carve it into a bow for his love arrows. Bouchardon even includes a pile of wood shavings from Cupid's vandalism in a pile around his feet.

Cupid's quiver of arrows is already strapped to his back, between his wings, and he just needs to do a bit more carving to ready his bow. Bouchardon is not only portraying a mythological figure, he is also creating an allegory, in which the implements of war and violence are turned into weapons of love.

The sculpture itself is a scaled-down version of the original, now in the Louvre, which was designed for the Palace of Versailles. Unfortunately, Louis XV and most of his court did not care for it. Bouchardon's decision to portray Cupid as a lanky adolescent engaged in work —all skinny arms and legs rather than a muscular, idealized god—was deemed unattractive and vulgar by Voltaire, among others.

However, others with more innovative artistic tastes, including the king's legendary mistress Madame de Pompadour, loved the sculpture for its naturalism and the grace of its pose. Cupid is shown as a real, teenage boy—not a stiff automaton—and the wonderful turning movement which Bouchardon gives the piece produces a lively contrapposto that led to its growing reputation despite the King's disfavor. Indeed, a relation of La Pompadour ordered a copy of the Cupid from Bouchardon himself, and this is the piece now at the National Gallery.

While art featuring St. Valentine may not be on view at the National Gallery, if you are interested in seeing this remarkable sculpture of Cupid, please take note that he will soon be flying away on an extended journey. He will head to the West Coast as part of an upcoming exhibition entitled "Paris: Life & Luxury", which will open at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles on Apr. 26 and run through Aug. 7. 

From there, the exhibition will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where Cupid will alight from Sept. 18 to Dec. 10.

William Newton writes on art, architecture, Catholicism and their intersection on his blogs: http://theblogofthecourtier.blogspot.com and http://catholicbarcelona.com.

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