Jacopo del Sellaio (1442 - 1493) Cupid and Psyche, c.1473 Tempera and gold on a wooden panel
Jacopo del Sellaio was born and worked in Florence during the Renaissance, at a time when the city was emerging as the cultural and artistic centre of Europe. He was trained by the painter Fra Filippo Lippi and his style of painting uses a light palette of colours and experiments with linear perspective. He was influenced by the artist Sandro Botticelli who trained with him and their work is similar in style.
This colourful panel is from a ‘spalliera’, a decorated backboard. It would either be mounted on a wall as a headboard or attached to furniture, most commonly a ‘cassone’ (marriage chest). These special chests were made to celebrate a marriage, and were part of a bride’s dowry. They were filled with expensive linen and cloths and paraded through the streets from the bride’s family home to her new home as part of the wedding celebration. It would then be used as a piece of furniture in the family home for storage and sometimes as a bench to sit on.
The panel shows the first half of an ancient romance in which the mortal princess Psyche is married to the god of love, Cupid. The story is read from left to right like a cartoon strip. Two bedchambers ‘bookend’ the action at either end- on the left Psyche is conceived and born, and the room on the right hand side shows her marital bed with Cupid. Sellaio arranges everything symmetrically to balance out the different elements of the picture. For instance, the hovering figure of Cupid is echoed by the figure of Psyche being blown from her mountain, and the three suitors match the sisters on the other side of the composition.
Fifteen episodes from the story appear across the panel. Many of these involve the same characters and all take place against a simple background and landscape. Psyche appears twleve times - eleven as a women and once as a baby. This method of visual storytelling is called ‘continuous narrative’ and is inspired by classical models such as Roman sarcophagi. This might be confusing today when we are used to seeing single frames of action.
However, this was a familiar way of telling stories in Renaissance Italy.