Monday, February 13th, 2012
The Sting of Love
Happy Valentine’s Day! I thought that this year I would highlight slightly different theme: the sting of love. The material for this post formed over several weeks, partially due to some conversations on Twitter with H Niyazi (of Three Pipe Problem) and Agnes Crawford (of Understanding Rome). Our conversation was sparked by some discussion in one of my earlier posts, which examined whether Fragonard depicted a dolphin or a beehive in his painting The Swing (1767).
In some tweets, Agnes Crawford pointed out that cupid has been depicted with a beehive in many instances. As far as I have found, Dürer’s Cupid the Honey Thief (1514, see above) is the earliest known example of this subject matter in a Northern European context. This association between Cupid and the bee goes back to a fable which is found in the Idylls (which historically has been attributed to the Greek poet Theocritus, but such attribution is unsubstantiated). In this little story, Venus compares her son to a bee and laughs, “Are you not just like the bee – so little yet able to inflict such painful wounds?” Here’s a translation of Idyll XIX:
When wanton Love designed to thieve,
And steal the Honey from the Hive,
An impious Bee his Finger stung,
And thus reveng’d the proffered Wrong.
He blew his Fingers, vex’d with Pain,
He stamp’d and star’d, but all in vain;
At last, unable to endure,
To Venus runs, and begs a Cure,
Complaining that so slight a Touch,
And little Thing, should wound so much.
She smil’d, and said, how like to thee,
My Son, is that unlucky bee?
Thy self art small, and yet thy Dart
Wounds deep, ah! very deep the Heart.
It seems that this story was especially popular in Germany during the Renaissance. Two Latin translations of “Idyll XIX” were published in 1522 and 1528.1 One such translation copy was made by the humanist Johann Hess, who included the manuscript note “Tabella Luce” (“Picture by Lucas”). It is possible that Hess was referring to a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach made his first version of Cupid and the Bee story in 1526-27. Some estimate that Cranach made at least twenty-five versions of this subject matter. Here are a few of my favorite Cranach variations on this theme:
Want to see another version by Cranach? Here’s Venus and Cupid (1531) from the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. (And if you know of another version, please share in the comments!) It seems like this type of painting was so popular during Cranach’s day because of the moralizing message (which fit with Protestant sensibilities): there is no pleasure without pain.
That being said, I hope that your Valentine’s Day (with your own honey!) is more pleasurable than painful. But if this doesn’t end up being the Valentine’s Day of your dreams, never fear. Cupid can commiserate with you about the sting of love.
1 You may have noticed that the Latin translations I mentioned actually post-date Dürer’s 1514 watercolor by almost a decade! Dürer undoubtedly became familiar with this poem through his friend Willibald Pirckheimer, and even provided illustrations of a text (thought to be by Theocritus) for his humanist friend.