Eros, the Greek god of love, was capable of overpowering the minds of all gods and mortals. According to an early myth, Gaia (goddess of the Earth) and Eros were the source of all creation. Literary references of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. often portray Eros as a cruel, capricious being who causes burning desire. In Classical art he is usually represented as a beautiful winged youth. During the Hellenistic period (323–31 B.C.) a new image of the god as a baby took hold. The popularity of that iconography is linked to the myth of Eros being the son of Aphrodite, born of her affair with Ares (god of war). The most innovative and influential representation of Eros during the Hellenistic and the Roman periods was of Eros sleeping.
The Metropolitan’s bronze statue Sleeping Eros is the finest example of its kind. Scholars have long wondered whether it is an original Hellenistic work or a very fine Roman Imperial copy. Variations of the type are known from hundreds of sculptures, which, to judge from the number of extant replicas and adaptations, was one of the most popular ever produced in Roman Imperial times. It was also among the earliest of the ancient statues rediscovered during the Renaissance, when artists revisited the theme. This exhibition presents the results of a recent study of the Museum's statue, utilizing scientific and technical analyses as well as art-historical research, which supports its identification as a Hellenistic bronze but one that was restored in antiquity, likely during the Roman Imperial period.
The earliest and most important cult site of Eros in ancient Greece was at Thespiae in Boeotia, where a monolithic aniconic cult statue represented the god. Dedications to Eros at Thespiae featured statues by major Classical and Hellenistic sculptors, among them Praxiteles and Lysippos. In Classical and Hellenistic Athens, Eros was worshipped with Aphrodite in a sanctuary on the north slope of the Acropolis and in a temple by the Ilissos River. Images of Eros are recorded in the Hellenistic period among the temple treasures of the Athenian Acropolis. In the coastal city-state of Megara near Athens, a temple of Aphrodite housed the famous statue of the goddess and her three sons—Eros (Love), Pothos (Longing), and Himeros (Desire)—by the Late Classical sculptor Skopas. Eros was also worshipped at gymnasia and in domestic shrines as well as at diverse religious festivals. The cult of Eros had many different aspects. As the god of love, he was a major figure in courtship and marriage rituals. Like his mother, Aphrodite, Eros received offerings of thanks in the form of precious vessels, jewelry, and other objects in addition to sacrifices made in his honor. For the ancient Greeks, Eros symbolized all attractions that provoke love. As a cosmic primordial deity tied to creation, he is frequently associated with plants and fecundity. The rose was his sacred flower. Greek philosophers from Plato to Epikouros reflected on his power and its centrality to human existence.
The Museum's Sleeping Eros is a particularly fine and characteristic example of how a bronze statue was made in antiquity. The sculpture was hollow-cast by means of a combination of the direct and the indirect lost-wax processes. As it is preserved today, the statue was created in seven sections that were joined together. Each cast section was of a similar size, providing an indication of the amount of metal that was convenient for the ancient foundry to melt and pour into the mold at one time. Analysis of the alloy of each cast section shows that all the parts are similar unleaded tin bronzes except the drapery between the legs, which is a tin bronze with a high percentage of added lead (ca. 18–19%). Small fragments of clay core were discovered adhering to the body interior where chaplet holes that once held metal rods to secure the core are also visible in several different cast sections. A plug in the proper left big toe is one place where the clay core was most likely introduced. The castings have very few imperfections, though occasional hammered rectangular patches are visible. Additional cold working was done as part of the finishing process.
Original or Copy
Compared to all other existing replicas of this type, the Museum’s Sleeping Eros is in a class of its own. Its superior modeling and craftsmanship are the strongest arguments for its identification as an original work by a major Hellenistic sculptor. It underwent a substantial repair at a much later date and was copied, as is clear from some forty existing replicas of the type. While most of the interior of the statue adheres closely to the form of its exterior (indicative of the indirect
lost-wax process), an X-radiograph of the head shows that the fine curls of hair are solid. They would have been worked in wax and then attached to the figure and are individualized work unique to this sculpture.
When the statue was first published, in 1943, it was considered to be an original Hellenistic sculpture or a close replica dating between 250 and 150 B.C. In the last seventy years many scholars have tended to agree with the original assessment, though not the precise dating. Others have suggested that it is a fine Roman copy of one of the most popular sculptures ever made in Roman Imperial times known from hundreds of copies, variants, and adaptations. There are, however, relatively few securely dated Hellenistic sculptures and Hellenistic sculptors borrowed freely from the styles of other periods. The precise dating of most Hellenistic sculptures is therefore difficult unless the work is tied to a particular historical event. The technical analysis presented here supports the identification of the Metropolitan’s statue as a Hellenistic work, and stylistic analysis allows only a broad date to the third or second century B.C.
An Ancient Restoration
The drapery between the legs was restored in antiquity. Not only is the alloy dramatically different, but the section also appears to have been cast by a slightly different method. Very fine globules of metal on the interior of the drapery between the legs indicate that the drapery’s core was in a liquid state when it was poured into the mold and was most likely made of plaster not clay. Given that the head, body, and other parts of the figure are regular tin bronzes (typical of Hellenistic sculpture from the eastern Mediterranean region) while the drapery contains high quantities of lead (more characteristic of Imperial Roman bronze sculpture), the statue may have been damaged in antiquity and repaired at a later date, possibly during the Early Imperial period. Remarkably, the complex drapery between the legs is of the same type, though with finer detail, as in the drapery of an Antonine marble copy in the Capitoline Museum, Rome. Versions of the same drapery are known in other Roman marble copies of the first and second centuries A.D.
Reconstructing the Missing Parts of Sleeping Eros
Replicas help us to understand the parts that are now missing. A small bow originally rested against the rock, where it dropped from Eros' open hand, and an open quiver lay by his head. Such details added to the tender naturalistic impression of the god momentarily napping outside in the midst of his labors. The head would have rested on the left arm cushioned by a bundle of drapery that served as a pillow. Although the base is modern, the finished cast edge evident on much of the underside of the statue and a groove cut into the bottom of the proper left wing suggest that the original base was of another material, likely stone.
Interpretation and Function
The choice of representing Eros asleep was an innovative and clever composition. Although the quiver around his neck and the presence of the bow allude to his ability to wound, Sleeping Eros is a depiction of the god of love at peace and of the pure innocence of love. Given its large scale and high quality, it was probably a religious dedication set up at a sanctuary, like the famous bronze Eros by Lysippos dedicated at Thespiae in Boeotia. It may have been a dedication to Eros; to his mother, Aphrodite; or to both of them. In later times, the statue may have remained in its original location or been moved as a valuable antique Greek sculpture and displayed in a private setting such as a Roman villa.
To judge from the hundreds of replicas, the sleeping Eros and its many adaptations and variations—as sleeping Cupids and even Somnus, the Roman personification of sleep—were especially popular during the Roman Imperial period. Particularly notable are the diverse contexts in which these sculptures were displayed. As in the Hellenistic period, statues of sleeping Eros continued to be offered as dedications at sanctuaries, but they also decorated Roman public baths, fountains, and private villas. The type was well suited for funerary use, and sleeping Eros/Cupid sculptures became popular tomb monuments, especially those made for children. The image was adapted for a wide variety of uses, from its appearance in relief on sarcophagi, marble urns, and altars to mosaics, wall paintings, gold jewelry, terracotta lamps, and an array of other objects.
During the Italian Renaissance the recovery of ancient sculptures, such as the Laocoön, found in the Roman emperor Nero's Golden House in the early sixteenth century, inspired artists such as Michelangelo to adapt classical styles to their own work. The sleeping Eros was among the earliest types rediscovered, and it is known that Michelangelo, early in his career, made one that he passed off as an ancient sculpture. Indeed, the sleeping Eros was the subject of numerous figural studies by Renaissance and Baroque artists who were looking to the classical tradition for inspiration. These works were sometimes close likenesses or less literal interpretations.
The exhibition is made possible by The Vlachos Family Fund.