In the Galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago hangs an amazing painting by the 16th Century Italian, Baroque artist Bartolomeo Manfredi. The name of the piece is “Cupid Chastised”.
This painting depicts Mars (the god of war) striking Cupid with a whip while Venus (the goddess of love) crouched to the side attempts to stop Mars from his assault on the young Cupid. The scene shows Mars dressed in Roman garb with a striking red toga, Venus in a stola, and cupid naked with quiver, bow, and arrows.
When you first look at this piece you are taken by the outstanding artistry of the work. The scene is very dramatic with Mars thrusting Cupid down ready to strike while Venus is off to the side in shock trying to prevent Mars from striking. The colors, composition, and facial expression are all very fine and reveal an interesting story. The painting was originally believed to be a Caravaggio and with good reason for the superb execution of chiaroscuro greatly intensifies the drama in the scene.
Upon viewing this work of art one might think that it is typical Classical Mythology with Mars chastising cupid for his entanglement with himself and Venus. However this is not the case at all, what we have here is one of the most intense scenes of homo-eroticism in European Art!
While I was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I had the privilege to take a course of European Painting by the legendary professor Robert J. Loescher. In one of our walks through the galleries of the Art Institute professor Loescher stopped the class before this famous painting and asked us to respond to it. When we finished our responses (which were all missing the point) he then explained the work of art to us.
Roman mythology is the vehicle used by Manfredi to deliver his real message which is Homo-Erotic Sadomasochism. As a gay man Manfredi usually expressed his sexuality in his works and this is the case in point here with Cupid Chastised. What we have here is Cupid depicted as a young male (a smooth hairless youth or “twink” in gay slang, not an innocent winged baby) receiving sexual gratification from Mars’ strikes! Cupid’s ass located dead center is clearly the focal point of this painting as he awaits Mars’ strikes with the ropes. If you look at Cupid’s wrist it is limp (passively submitting to Mars) not clenched as it would be in a struggle and while blind folded his mouth is open showing him in a state of complete ecstasy. Both male figures are handsome, dominant, and beautifully rendered. Whereas Venus, shoved off to the side, with her breast hanging out (a ploy to satisfy straight viewers) is rather homely looking, not much to say for the goddess of love!
Truly this virile male to male intense sexual interaction leaves all of us to reflect on our own sexual persona. As the saying goes “Do not judge a book by its cover”, however, take a second look!