Roman, Imperial Period, ca. 1st to 2nd century CE. Finely carved from white marble, a wonderful sculpture of Cupid (Greek Eros) holding a large bird against his chest. This iconography emerged during the Hellenistic period when sculptors introduced several charming representations of children or Erotes with their pet dogs or birds. This piece is remarkable for the sculptor’s ability to turn marble to both flesh and feathers as well as to convey the dynamic motion of Cupid, his cherubic body energetically twisting as he grasps the bird. Size: 11″ H (27.9 cm)
Sometimes the ancient artists captured a playful moment with the child embracing the pet with such a high degree of enthusiasm that he appears to almost suffocate the animal. Sometimes the pet’s resistance manifested in a struggle. For example, Pliny the Elder mentioned a sculpture of a child struggling a goose, the original by Boethos of Chalcedon, a Greek sculptor of the 2nd century BCE, in his Natural History (XXXIV, 84). The Boethos child became widely popular and was rendered several times by Roman sculptors. It also served as an inspirational source for multiple adaptations and variants of which the present piece is likely one.
The Boethos sculpture, known through the best copies displayed in the Capitoline Museum and the Munich Glyptothek, helps to reconstruct the composition of the fragmented Cupid. The child stands with his legs wide apart and the knees slightly bent; the body is thrown back and the head is turned toward the big bird trying to keep standing and away from the boy’s embrace. The Cupid represents exactly the same action only the smaller bird does not stand on the ground and is instead lifted in the Cupid’s arms.
The sculpture is very well modeled, the proportions and the round forms of child’s body are realistically rendered, and attention was brought to every detail: the naval, the fingers inter-space was drilled, and the feathers of different size of both bird’s and Cupid’s own wings were engraved. The carefully polished surface shines, and the marble captures the quality of the child’s healthy, glowing skin.
Such statuettes frequently populated the areas of recreation in a house or a villa; they have been found in the garden or in fountain arrangements. They also served as dedications to the gods related to the baby’s birth or health such as Aphrodite, Artemis, or Asklepios which is confirmed by the 3rd century BCE epigram of the poet Herodas (4. 30-31) who describes two women visiting the Asklepios sanctuary, watching and admiring the votive sculptures displayed in the precinct, the child with a goose among them.
Sources: BIEBER M., The Sculpture of the Hellenistic Age, New York, 1967, p. 81, fig. 285. RIDGWAY B. S., Hellenistic Sculpture I, The Styles of ca. 331-200 B. C., Madison, Wisconsin, 1990, p. 232. SMITH R. R. R., Hellenistic Sculpture, New York, 1991, p.136, fig. 170. On the representations of Eros and a bird, see: Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC), vol. III, Zürich-Munchen, 1986, s.v. Eros, p. 871, nos. 205-219.
This piece is accompanied by Art Loss Register document – MA.FRA.016 – dated 11 August 2004 – signed by William Webber.