In ancient Roman mythology Cupid, the son of Venus, goddess of love, was most often portrayed as a handsome youth. He carried a bow and arrows, which he used to pierce the hearts of his living targets—gods and mortals alike—plunging them headlong into love. Cupid himself was not immune; accidentally nicked by the tip of an arrow, he fell passionately in love with a mortal, Psyche.
Cupid may have been the ancient Roman god of desire, but over time his image has morphed into one of the most enduring symbols of Valentine’s Day: a chubby cherub carrying a tiny bow and quiver of arrows, a motif that dates to the Victorian era. Today that image—ubiquitous on Valentine’s Day cards, boxes of candy, and decorations—is familiar to modern eyes as the embodiment of Cupid.
Because of the association with the image of Cupid, cherubs seemed like a good choice for the 1995 Love stamps. Both stamps issued that year feature a winged child taken from Sistine Madonna (c. 1513–1514), a painting by Renaissance artist Raphael.
The decision to use the figures from Raphael’s work caused some controversy, however. During initial discussion about the stamp design, it was noted that the cherubs were putti, or child angels, whose appearance related to death rather than love. Nevertheless, the consensus was that by isolating the children from the original painting, they became beautiful cherubs, described in press materials for the stamps as “cupids.”
Reports in Linn’s Stamp News and follow-up letters to the Washington Post stirred the controversy. Were they putti—little angels of death—or cupids? Some people agreed that separating the images from the source painting created a new context; others still debated the appropriateness of the images on a Love stamp. But in the end the stamp-buying public had the last word—millions of the stamps sold!