Eros in Passing
by Douglas Penick
Today a friend called to talk about the sorrows and uncertainties of a love affair. His other friends had advised some time with a therapist. What did I think? I passed. Then an email from the car dealer where I got a car two years ago. I must never forget, as I was urged, that the car I bought provided not only convenience, but LOVE. Really! And later, at the gas station, more Love, this time in a display for a local chocolate bar by that name.
Love has been on the wane. Not the feeling or intensity perhaps, but the place it occupies in public culture and in our imagination. We all long for love. We all crave a chocolate bar. And we can’t live without a car.
Yes, as has been well noted, Cupid, the very emblem of love, steadily lost status amongst divine powers as the Renaissance progressed until, by the late 17th century, little cupids are merely components of a veritable bubble bath in churches like Munich’s Baroque Theatinerkirche (Theatine Church). Eros has slid from being a demonic and life altering force of random passion to merely a lavish embellishment in a graceful passage to the altar in church.
But then, in one of the far less visited of the galleries of the Louvre, we may encounter this mysterious, obscure and somehow shocking painting which seems to proclaim the end of this troublesome little deity.
This is a large canvas, so possibly part of the décor of a grand salon or perhaps it was made for a specific architectural installation. If it were small, one could imagine it had been painted for a cynical lecher or a distraught lover to contemplate, but it is a kind of proclamation, a public statement to be shared with those who would easily interpret and understand its meaning. Now, this is not so. The online catalogue says tentatively and without references: “The funeral procession of Love followed by poets is heading towards the temple of Diana: this subject has been interpreted as an allegory of the mourning of Love, followed by the poets of the Pleiades, either when Ronsard abandoned the tone of the Amours and the Odes for that of the Discourses, or after the death of Diana of Poitiers in 1566.” I have asked several learned academics and combed the internet, but no further insights can be found. So, for now, we’re left to our own devices.
When we look at all the personages in this picture, it is hard not to be struck by the fact that no one appears grief stricken. The pallbearing putti are almost flirtatious; those in the cortège seem quite frolicsome. The poets behind seem grave in a business-like kind of way; these have been identified with the group of contemporary poets, La Pléiade, but may equally be, more generically, the late Alexandrine poets of the same name. Meanwhile those assembled on either side of the road (all, it seems, women and children) are like picnickers. It seems the little corpse is being carried on the road leading to the temple of Diana, but a monument to Dionysus is in a grove nearby. A little swerve and they might end up there. And in the sky, Venus in her chariot pulled by doves, is not departing but coming to bestow her blessings and, perhaps, renew the life of passion.
Obviously the painting is an allegory, and thus the scene, its characters, its dramas, its décor all embody some kind of meaning. But here, title notwithstanding, we are not seeing the death of love, but the cortège of Cupid/Eros already deceased. The little corpse here might indeed once have been the source of unruly passions, but no more. And, except for the gravely decorous poets, the atmosphere of the entire scene is celebratory in a refined and very civilised way. Well-dressed women have come to witness the parade; all are chatting companionably, commenting and gossiping as children play happily before them. And merriest of all are the cupid-pall bearers and the dozen cupid-mourners who precede them. Despite the strangely ominous black cowls they wear, (which one has pulled his off as he calls out to those in the windows of the building which the procession has just left) all are full of mischief and merriment. It seems that even as the Goddess herself has flown to join in the funeral to follow, the little cupids do not take this death, or the clearly dead Cupid corpse, seriously. Not at all. And why would that be unless they know with certainty that, though one of their number might expire, they will all return? Death, in this context, cannot be taken seriously. And if this is so, perhaps we can understand the sang-froid of the ladies who prefer more stately desires, and the composure of the poets who move forwards to give love an elegant and manageable form.
Of course, this is just a made-up story pretending to be an interpretation. But we can say that the puttis’ mirth and confidence were regrettably premature. Their descent has been lavishly documented as they fell from residing in churches to living in plaster picture frames and valentines. They remained only to decorate the purchases of sentimental and unimaginative lovers. And the word that was for them so sacred: Love? It too fell to commercial uses, even as it retains its fearful power to evoke secret longing, inextinguishable desire and the unknown.
About the Author
Douglas Penick’s work has appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.
 An excellent summary by Kari Allegretto for Dr. Amy Golahny, Art 447 Lycoming College 2010.
 Online page regarding collections of the Louvre: collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010065501