In this painting Dominico Beccafumi relates the story of the Education of Cupid using gestures, color, and divided sections of the painting to lead the viewer through Cupid’s story.
The main characters, Venus and her son Cupid, are placed front and center. Venus’ body and the tree behind her conveniently divide the picture into areas that reveal important elements of the story and add variety to the composition.
To the left is the Forge of Vulcan, the god responsible for creating Cupid’s magical arrows, while the expansive landscape to the right illustrates Earth and its bounties.
Venus is the goddess of love and fertility in the Roman pantheon. She is often presented nude as an idealized female form.
She stands with her son Cupid, who acts as her messenger on earth where his arrows trigger love.
She points to the fertile landscape as an indication of Cupid’s mission. This gesture combined with her loving glance at Cupid suggests the subject of the Education of Cupid.
As the son of Venus, Cupid is also a harbinger of love. He is often portrayed as a charming, chubby little boy, but this mischievous youth can wreak havoc. When mortals are struck by his arrows they fall instantly in love, wanted or not. Cupid has wings and carries his quiver and arrows.
The cave-like landscape at left depicts the Forge of Vulcan. In Roman mythology Vulcan is the god of fire and blacksmith to the gods. He is shown forging a wing for Cupid. Mercury stands next to Vulcan in a red cloak with a winged-cap and caduceus. He is the messenger of the gods as well as Cupid’s teacher. He will bring Cupid’s wings and arrows to Venus.
The lush landscape is complemented by many animals. The birds and rabbits also have symbolic meanings that relate to the roles of Venus and Cupid.
The blackbird is a symbol of sin and temptation and reminds us of Venus and Cupid’s association with lust.
Rabbits are well known symbols of fertility and lust and are therefore fitting companions to the goddess of love.
When paired with Cupid and Venus, goldfinch are symbols of fertility. In Christian art, the bird often represents the human soul.
Beccafumi's use of the color red leads the viewer to key areas of the composition. We can follow red highlights counter-clockwise through the painting.
The vibrant sunset in the upper right leads the eye to Venus’s ruby cheeks and necklace...
... From there, Mercury’s cloak and the fires of Vulcan’s forge attract our attention and the eye moves on to Cupid’s splendid red velvet pouch.....
... the conversation between Venus and Cupid with their similar gestures toward the landscape brings us full circle.
Venus and Cupid with Vulcan by Beccafumi, DomenicoNew Orleans Museum of Art