Romantic love has been the inspiration for some of the greatest artists of all time: Titian in Renaissance Italy, Boucher in the Enlightenment, Renoir and Rodin in the 19th century, and Roy Lichtenstein in the 20th. Whether to commemorate key moments in life such as betrothal or marriage, to worship the beauty of their beloved, or to share the narrative of their relationship, sculptors, painters and performers have always immortalized love in works of art.
This roughly 12- by 6-inch glazed terra cotta vessel dates to the fourth century B.C. (Photo courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of the Lipman Foundation)
1. Love Child
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts houses works inspired by love across all its collections, but in its second-floor 2,000-object ancient-art collection is an icon of love whose popularity endures today. A fourth-century B.C. terra cotta lekythos, an ancient Greek vessel used for storing oil, shows Eros, the mischievous god of desire, flying toward a woman seated in a garden while a man and young woman holding a parasol attend her. No mortal or god could resist Eros’ spell of enchantment, so the fate of this woman is sealed.
“Eros, in the guise of a winged figure, adds an element of playfulness to the scene,” says Peter Schertz, curator of ancient art at the VMFA. “He is depicted as mischievous, with impulse as his driving force.” Eros is also the embodiment of beauty, explains Schertz. “While the goddess Aphrodite presided over female beauty, her son Eros represented both male and female beauty.”
In this idyllic scene, Eros is a chubby, playful child, but over the centuries, he has also been depicted as a handsome young man. His wings are said to portray the fleeting nature of passion; the torch he sometimes holds symbolizes the flame of desire he kindles in others. When he is depicted brandishing a whip, it is said to represent the terrifying power he wields over gods and men. The arrows he is often shown with are of two types: one gold, inspiring love, and the other lead, inspiring indifference.
“Aphrodite and Eros,” ca. 120 B.C., terra cotta, traces of polychrome (Photo courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment)
2. Mother and Son
A short distance away, also on the museum’s second level, a circa-120 B.C. terra cotta statuette depicts a tiny winged Eros perched beside his mother Aphrodite’s left shoulder. Here, the goddess of love gazes into a mirror as she adjusts her hair, while Eros holds a cosmetic box. This statuette was made from a mold and the cast pieces were assembled and painted with bright colors.
“Asiatic Sarcophagus,” ca. third-century Rome, marble (Photo courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Wilkins E. Williams Fund)
3. A Beautiful Death
Across the hall, a marble sarcophagus from third-century Rome depicts beautiful carved erotes, winged boys who take their name from the god Eros. In the center of one long side, and on a short side, Eros collapses into the arms of a companion, Dionysos, the god of wine. On the second short side, two erotes wrestle while a third holds a palm branch for the victor. Whether or not Eros — in various poses of celebration — represented the promise of a blissful afterlife, it is interesting that the god of desire was chosen to accompany the deceased on their journey to eternity.
(Photo Courtesy The Poe Museum)
4. Poe’s Piece
Four miles from the VMFA is the Old Stone House, a circa 1757 structure that has sheltered the Poe Museum since 1922. Inside, there’s a portrait of Elmira Royster Shelton, the woman to whom the famous writer, Edgar Allan Poe was twice engaged; once when he was a 17-year-old student at the University of Virginia, and again after he and Mrs. Shelton had both been widowed. This portrait is a copy of a miniature drawn by Poe. In his writings — most notably in his series of “dead women stories” featuring doomed damsels Eleonora, Ligeia and Morella — Poe is preoccupied with the conflict between eros, physical love, and agapé, ideal love. The suppression of each, in Poe’s style of writing, often lead to madness or death — sometimes both.
According to Poe Museum curator Chris Semtner, many say this conflict represented Poe’s own life. “It is possible that in Elmira Royster Shelton, he found a balance and might have been happy had they married,” he says. In Poe’s poem “To One in Paradise,” which is thought to have been inspired by Shelton, the flowers represent ideal love and the fruits represent physical love, Semtner suggests.
Poe and Shelton’s first engagement was broken when her father intercepted Poe’s letters to her. In September 1849, they became engaged for a second time, but two weeks before the wedding, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore in severe distress and was taken to a hospital where he died four days later.
It requires a writer of consummate talent to lead the playful winged god of love by the hand toward sickbeds to hover above disease and madness, and then on through the gates of the graveyard to lie down with death and grief. This is what Poe achieved in his short stories.