Chagall’s ‘Le Paradis’ and Jacopo del Sellaio’s ‘Cupid and Psyche’ represent two different approaches to depicting well known narratives in a single work of art. Each tackles the issue of space differently, and uses a range of pictorial devices to communicate a story in the absence of words.
Chagall’s ‘Le Paradis’ depicts Adam and Eve in Paradise – an indeterminate space made up of layers of colour. The figures are represented multiple times, beginning with the birth of Adam on the right and Eve on the left, followed by the two embracing as Eve offers Adam the fruit. The narrative features of the painting are not depicted literally but symbolically. Sea creatures, land mammals and birds occupy a unified picture plane, alluding to the story of creation, and the harmony of all God’s creatures. The symbols of serpent and fruit tell us that this is the moment before the fall. Despite these clues the narrative remains vague enough that it is left up to the viewer to decide whether this is a moment of sharing embrace, or rebellion against God. This element of mystery is created by Chagall’s dreamlike interpretation of biblical stories.
Jacopo del Sellaio depicts another well-known story – that of Cupid and Psche - all on a single panel painting. Unlike Chagall’s dreamlike space, it is clear how this painting is intended to be read. The narrative unfolds from left to right, a bit like a comic strip. The fall of light and the direction of the grass help to point the way for the viewer. Psyche features in the painting fifteen times. If it wasn’t for the identifying clothing which remains the same for each character throughout their many appearances, the complicated narrative would be impossible to follow.
The painting begins on the far left with Psyche’s conception in the bedchamber of Endelechia, followed by her birth below. As she leaves the house, now a woman, she is met by a crowd of male suitors. Cupid is seen hovering above, following the orders of the jealous Venus to put a curse on Psyche, but falls in love with her himself. In the distance her parents take her to visit the Oracle of Apollo in order to find a husband. On hearing that she’s cursed to fall in love with a monster they send her to the top of the mountain, where she is pictured consequently being blown down by the wind. She is then welcomed into the palace of cupid, who makes her his wife but prohibits her from setting eyes on him. Outside the palace she chats with her sisters who persuade her to break the vow out of suspicion. Finally, inside the bedchamber she lights a lamp to gaze upon him whilst he sleeps, accidentally waking him, and he flies away from her out of the top right corner.
The story has a clear beginning and end, symbolically bookended by the two bed chamber scenes. The painting covers a large span of psyche’s life in a single unified landscape, which calls for the extended length of the panel. Gestures and facial expressions are also used to convey the narrative in the place of words. It is likely that the contemporary audience would have found the act of deciphering such a narrative painting a form of social entertainment and an opportunity to show off their knowledge of literature and mythology. The painting would have originally decorated an Italian marriage chest, in which context the narrative would have served as a call for obedience in marriage directed at wives.