The Enchanted Castle

Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid, ‘The Enchanted Castle’, 1664, by Claude Lorrain, 87.1 × 151.3 cm, National Gallery of London.

Threatened with marriage to a monster, Psyche, a mortal, is blown away by the West Wind. She awakens near a magical palace and falls in love with Cupid. He makes Psyche promise not to look at his divine face, but she breaks this promise and Cupid abandons her. The story is told in Books IV to VI of Metamorphoses, also known as the Golden Ass, written by Apuleius.

Psyche sits in the foreground, deep in thought or melancholy. Claude may have based this figure on an illustration in Apileius’ Metamorphoses. However, she looks similar to the figure representing Mediation in a seventeenth-century French edition of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, a book where ideas are shown through images of people with particular expressions and attributes.

The enchanted castle

Claude perhaps shows the moment before Psyche meets Cupid rather than when he leaves her. However, the figure’s pose does not match the written story, which says she ‘lay flat upon the ground and watched her husband’s flight as far as her sight enabled her’ and then in despair, ‘threw herself over the edge of a nearby river’. Alternatively, this scene may represent another moment in the narrative when Psyche is alone: when her two jealous sisters leave after persuading her to murder Cupid. The two figures in the boat on the right are perhaps her sisters.

In this painting, Cupid’s enchanted castle combines various architectural styles seen by Claude in and around Rome with imaginary examples: the grand exterior of a townhouse or palazzo is attached to circular towers and ruins associated with military fortification.

The painting inspired John Keats to write the poem A Reminiscence of Claude’s Enchanted Castle:

You know the Enchanted Castle,—it doth stand
Upon a rock, on the border of a Lake,
Nested in trees, which all do seem to shake …
You know it well enough, where it doth seem
A mossy place, a Merlin’s Hall, a dream;
You know the clear Lake, and the little Isles,
The mountains blue, and cold near neighbor rills,
All which elsewhere are but half animate;
There do they look alive to love and hate,
To smiles and frowns; they seem a lifted mound
Above some giant, pulsing underground.
The doors all look as if they oped themselves,
The windows as if latched by Fays and Elves,
And from them comes a silver flash of light,
As from the westward of a Summer’s night …
See! what is coming from the distance dim!
A golden Galley all in silken trim!
Three rows of oars are lightening, moment whiles,
Into the verd’rous bosoms of those isles;
Towards the shade, under the Castle wall,
It comes in silence,—now ’tis hidden all.

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