Cupid, Draw Back Your Bow: The Mythological Messages of Cameos

Many antique cameos are masterpieces of miniature art, but they don’t have to be centuries old to generate demand. Some of the treasures of modern cameo art rival the best sculptural work of ancient artisans and are eagerly sought by collectors. Furthermore, collectors know a secret the jeweler needs to learn: The cameos with the greatest appeal are those with a message, usually one of love. Discerning those messages requires some background in the mythology from which they spring.

Love, thy name is Cupid. Romance sells jewelry, and that bromide explains the longstanding popularity of cameos. Over the centuries, unrequited love has led the lovelorn to take desperate measures—appealing for divine assistance, using magic potions, and placing their faith in love charms. The carved messages and images on the cameo are thought to have an especially enchanting effect.

The cameo portrait can’t depict just anyone. Love magic works best when the cameo image is a representation of the god of love. From the ancient Greeks and Romans to the romantic Victorians, cameos have been the consummate love token when carved with images of Eros, also known as Cupid.

The early Greeks believed there were divinities besides the 12 great Olympians. The most important was Eros, the god of love. The Romans renamed Eros as Cupid and referred to him as the son of the love goddess Venus. For centuries, Cupid has been depicted as a mischievous boy with bow and arrow, ready to inflict the wound of love upon mortals and deities. Today, Cupid is still portrayed as a winged youth against whose arrows there is no defense.

Most ancient cameos bearing the image of Cupid send messages that have gotten lost in the mists of time. The Cupids on 19th- and 20th-century cameos, with their intense messages of love, are more readily comprehensible.

Message and meaning. The Victorians viewed the world through a veil of romance and sentiment. Flowers, hands, anchors, knots, hearts, and Cupids were symbols of emotion and attachment for them.

Flowers were often used on cameos as part of the language of love. In mythology, Cupid often wears or carries a rose. The expression “sub rosa” (“under the rose”) comes from the Romans and refers to secret or private messages. It derives from the practice of hanging a rose over a conference table as a symbol of secrecy, as well as from the legend that Cupid once gave Harpocrates, the god of silence, a rose so he would keep the secrets of Venus.

A cameo depicting Cupid with roses in his hand, as seen in the shell cameo at the top of the facing page, might convey the tender sentiment “my secret love” or the more practical warning, “keep this love affair a secret.” Ancient as well as contemporary messages of love can be subtle. Consider the shell cameo at the bottom of the facing page. The cameo has two winged figures. Cupid, identified by angel wings, is being pulled in a two-wheeled cart by a figure with butterfly wings. Since butterfly wings identify this figure as the “soul,” the message may be an idyllic one, such as: “I am yours heart and soul.” Cupid represented blindfolded conveys the message, “love is blind.”

When Cupid is shown with a lion—often he’s riding on its back—the message is, “love conquers all.” Cupid riding a lion is one of the oldest cameo subjects, and like many of the classic cameo motifs revived during the Victorian period, it’s still repeated today. The hardstone Cupid seen at left is an example of newly carved work with an old motif. Cupid in chains can have only one meaning, “love bound.” The Cupid wrought in Wedgwood shown stringing his bow in the photo below may be interpreted as the god of love preparing to do battle in the “war” of love.

The top photo at right displays a large hardstone carving of the romantic wedding of Cupid and Psyche. This well-known and collectible subject is often repeated in various media, including the shell seen in the photo at bottom right. Most major museums in the world have at least one painting or sculpture of this most popular rendition of Cupid and Psyche.

Apollo and his loves. On page 234 is a modern hardstone cameo carving showing Cupid holding a trident while riding a dolphin across the water. This cameo has a complicated interpretation. Consider the mythology behind it.

The Greek god Apollo is often depicted as a master musician with a golden lyre, as well as the god of light. Many creatures were sacred to him, most of all the dolphin. The loves of Apollo were numerous. One favorite love myth involves the beautiful maiden Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus. The Roman poet Ovid (43 b.c.-17 a.d.) wrote that when Apollo saw Daphne, he was struck by one of Cupid’s golden arrows. He fell instantly in love with her. Although it’s entirely possible that this particular cameo was not carved to convey a message, it does have the requisite attributes—trident of the river god, Cupid to deliver love, hippocamp/dolphin sacred to Apollo—to be a metaphor of Apollo’s love for Daphne.

The oval cameo seen at right, second down, continues the Apollo/Daphne saga. Although Apollo loved Daphne, she was a dedicated virgin and fled in terror from his embrace. Daphne begged her father, the river god, to save her from Apollo’s attentions by destroying her beauty. She was transformed on the spot into a laurel tree. Now you know why Apollo’s brow is shown adorned with laurel leaves in many cameo carvings.

Sorrow and lust. Not every Victorian Cupid cameo is an expression of romantic love. Some Cupid cameos represent sorrowful love and were used in mourning jewelry in the 19th century. In mourning jewelry, Cupid generally has a sad expression and displays a posture of despair. He typically leans against an urn, cross, or other funerary object. Commonly, the cameo’s setting is decorated with small pearls representing tears.

Love that develops into lust is a central theme in numerous ancient myths. The Greek myth “Leda and the Swan” is interpreted in hardstone by a German master carver in the cameo above. Today’s carvers are displaying a new sensuousness in hardstone cameos. The blue and white cameo called Clio seen at the top of this page is modeled after Alphonse Mucha’s paintings and was carved by the German manufacturer Hermann Loh GmbH in two- and three-layer agates. This is a new and brazen interpretation of the subject of love.

Jewelers who want to know more about cameos and their messages might wish to delve into further study of mythology. It will soon become apparent that the ability to decipher the messages of cameos doesn’t just make owning and selling them more enjoyable. It also paves the way to becoming a specialist to the collector.

Anna M. Miller, G.G., is the author of five books on gems and jewelry, including Cameos Old & New.