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Bronze statue of Eros sleeping

Met curator Seán Hemingway on the purity of love in Bronze statue of Eros sleeping from Greece’s Hellenistic Period, 3rd–2nd century B.C.E.

The Hellenistic period introduced the accurate characterization of age. Young children enjoyed great favor, whether in mythological form, as baby Herakles or Eros, or in genre scenes, playing with each other or with pets. This Eros, god of love, has been brought down to earth and disarmed, a conception considerably different from that of the powerful, often cruel, and capricious being so often addressed in Archaic poetry. One of the few bronze statues to have survived from antiquity, this figure of a plump baby in relaxed pose conveys a sense of the immediacy and naturalistic detail that the medium of bronze made possible. He is clearly based on firsthand observation. The support on which the god rests is a modern addition, but the work originally would have had a separate base, most likely of stone. 

This statue is the finest example of its kind. Judging from the large number of extant replicas, the type was popular in Hellenistic and, especially, Roman times. In the Roman period, Sleeping Eros statues decorated villa gardens and fountains. Their function in the Hellenistic period is less clear. They may have been used as dedications within a sanctuary of Aphrodite or possibly may have been erected in a public park or private, even royal, garden.

View this work on metmuseum.org.

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Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Video transcript

This is a Hellenistic bronze statue of Eros sleeping. It’s likely that it was a religious sculpture that was dedicated at a sanctuary, in honor of the gods. The artist has captured a moment where a child, the god of love, has just fallen asleep. It’s a totally new representation of Eros as this baby--and a sleeping baby. The artist is capturing the purity of love, the innocence of love, which is different from how he’s portrayed in earlier periods often as this kind of cruel and capricious being, who could wound mortals with his arrows, causing burning desire or loathing. Here he's disarmed really. one arrow from the quiver just by his head. and you get the power of it. It’s a brilliant way to capture the innocence and perfection and beauty of love. It’s so quiet that you don’t think of it as so radical, but actually it’s very rare and unusual to show a god sleeping. It’s not something that happened in Greek art very often. From a technical standpoint the sculpture is outstanding. The statue is made in seven pieces: the legs, the arm, the head, the wing, the body, and then the drapery. This statue exhibits incredible naturalism in the way that the wings are folded closed like a bird’s, the way the flesh falls to the side, his arm just hangs down. In the Classical period, children are represented as miniature adults; here, this naturalism where a baby is represented as a baby with the extra flesh, the folds of skin and that sort of doughy quality. Many people think of Classical art, they think of the Parthenon sculptures as the high point of Greek art. But for me, the naturalism in this sculpture is remarkable. It’s powerful, and it’s hard for us even today to understand that because that becomes the paradigm. This superbeing, born out of chaos, becomes this baby, this Cupid. It’s become a cliché, which is what happens to great masterpieces, and yet when you’re in the presence of this statue you get it.