Museum stories
From history, with love... 14 objects to get you in the mood for Valentine's Day

From Rodin’s masterpiece The Kiss to more secret signs of courtship and love of all kinds, let history and art sweep you off your feet this 14 February. Kissing might be a symbol of love in many parts of the world today, but that’s not always been the case – and even today it’s not a universal sign of romantic love. Read on to find out more…

1. Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss

Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), The Kiss. Plaster, after 1898. S. 174. © Musée Rodin. Photo: Adam Rzepka.

Now one of the most famous kisses in the world, Rodin never actually intended for this sculptural masterpiece to be a romantic one. The couple represents Paolo and Francesca from Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Divine Comedy – a pair of tragic lovers Dante meets in his travels through hell. The cursed couple were murdered by Francesca’s husband (Paolo’s brother) after he discovered the lovers together. This sculpture depicts them lost in reckless passion at the very moment of their untimely demise. Keen-eyed readers may have noticed that this isn’t from the British Museum collection. However, you’ll be able to see this work at the Museum alongside other Rodin masterpieces on loan from Musée Rodin in our major Rodin exhibition opening in April.

2. Paolo and Francesca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), study of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini. Graphite, c. 1855.

Rodin wasn’t the only artist captivated by this tragic story – Paolo and Francesca also appear in this graphite drawing by Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, again locked in loving embrace. Rossetti’s interest in Dante Alighieri was predestined: his father had been so fascinated by the poet that he named his son after him!

3. Torii Kiyonaga’s kissing lovers

Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815), Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve). Woodblock print, c. 1785.

While on the subject of loving embraces, this detail of two lovers kissing is from a woodblock print by Japanese artist Torii Kiyonaga made about 1785. The print is part of a set perhaps originally intended to be mounted together as a handscroll. An example of shunga – Japanese erotic art – the set describes the full gamut of sexual intercourse: from the anticipation, to the moments of high passion, right through to the slumber that follows.

4. Persian miniature depicting lovers in a garden

Lovers painted in the style of Abd Allah. Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, Bukhara, c. 1560–1570.

‘A heart without love is a body without a soul. A soul lives forever because of love.’ So wrote the Persian poet, scholar and mystic, Jami (1414–1492), on love – of all subjects, perhaps the most universal to humanity. In Persianate culture, the theme of love has permeated literature, art and music for thousands of years. This 16th-century painting in ink, watercolour and gold depicts two lovers in a garden.

5. Indian miniature depicting Krishna and Radha

Artists often depicted romantic moments in Indian miniature paintings, proving that no love is too small to warrant celebration. Like the Persian artwork above, this beautiful miniature from 19th-century India depicts two figures in a green-filled landscape. This time, however, the pair represent the Hindu gods Krishna and Radha, accompanied by a female musician and a cow.

6. A relief depicting the king and queen of Assyria reclining in a garden

Assyrian relief of a banqueting scene. North Palace, Nineveh, Iraq. 645–635 BC.

From gods to royalty – this Assyrian relief shows a romantic scene between a besotted king and his queen. It may depict Queen Libbali-Sharrat sitting opposite her husband King Ashurbanipal (668–c. 630 BC). This rare example of an Assyrian relief featuring a female figure depicts the couple under a grape vine surrounded by a lush garden. Maids fan the royal couple, while servants play music and bring food. Try to spot the subtle reminders of past wars, including a severed head! (Generally not recommended as a Valentine’s Day gift today.)

7. Etruscan painting of two men, as reproduced in a 19th-century copy on canvas

Detail from a wall-painting from the Tomba delle Bighe (Tomb of the Chariots), Tarquinia, reproduced in a 19th-century copy.

Ancient Greek and Roman attitudes to sex and sexuality were in many ways very different to the modern era. People were sexually active – and girls married – at an earlier age. Sexual relationships between males were accepted within certain boundaries, but the modern term homosexual had no Greek or Latin equivalent. This scene is from a wall-painting in an ancient Etruscan tomb of about 490–480 BC known as the Tomb of the Chariots, in Tarquinia, Italy. This detail was part of a much larger scene, copied on to canvas in a 19th-century reproduction, most of which is now lost. The surviving remains of the original wall-paintings from the tomb are now in the Museo Nazionale di Tarquinia. The Etruscans were greatly influenced by the contemporary Greeks but they had their own distinctive character, which in turn influenced the neighbouring Italian peoples, including the Romans.

8. Ancient Egyptian relief of a mother and child

Limestone relief carving of a woman suckling a child. Late 18th Dynasty, about 1350–1330 BC, El-Amarna, Egypt.

A parent’s love for their child is another enduring during theme through history. This limestone relief made nearly 2,500 years ago depicts a mother nursing her child: the intimacy and informality of this scene is rare in ancient Egypt, and may have been a preparatory sketch for a wall carving. The family unit and procreation of children was highly regarded in Egyptian society, enabling the life cycle to continue and thus allowing the dead to live on in memory.

9. Medal of Leonello d’Este

Medal of Leonello d’Este, designed and modelled by Pisanello (1395–1455). Italy, 1444.

What would love be without the quintessential serenade? The relationship between love and music is a long-standing one, as demonstrated in this rare 15th-century medal from Italy. On it, Leonello, the soon to be son-in-law of the King of Aragon, is taught to sing a song of love by Cupid in preparation for his wedding in 1444. The lion represents Leonello himself – a play on his name. Music was very much valued at the d’Este court in Ferrara, which may have served as inspiration for the imagery.

10. Medieval lovers’ brooch

Lovers’ brooch. Made in France or England, 13th century.

Tokens of love have always been big business. This medieval gold brooch, set with rubies and sapphires, was a gift intended to be passed between lovers. The back of the brooch carries an inscription in Old French for the benefit of the wearer: ‘Io sui ici en lui dami: Amo’ (I am here in place of the friend I love). Items of jewellery with sentimental inscriptions like this were often exchanged between wealthy lovers in the medieval period.

11. Navajo blanket

Blanket made by Navajo, Southwest Peoples. Arizona, c. 1855.

But what about when love can’t be expressed openly? Many cultures through history have eschewed open displays or proclamations of love. These blankets made by Navajo Peoples of North America were used across the Great Plains to shelter lovers from indiscreet eyes during courtship. They were valued items and are represented in picture writing by Plains Indians of the 19th century.

12. East African kangas

‘The Mangoes are ready’. Kanga made in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, c. 2002.
‘I don’t’ say much, but I have a lot in my heart’. Kanga made in Mombasa, Kenya, 2003.

Today many millions of east African women wear pairs of kangas over their everyday dresses – but they are much more important than simply items of clothing. In Swahili society it is not always easy for women to say out loud what they feel, and so they use kangas to speak on their behalf. Kangas allow women to communicate among themselves, as well as with men, to express a wide range of feelings and concerns, many of which are in the context of intimate social, courting and conjugal relationships.

13. Gold pendant of Cupid and Psyche

Gold pendant set with a shell cameo of Cupid and Psyche, made by John Brogden (c. 1796–1884). Cameo made c. 1826–1875 in Italy and setting made c. 1870 in England.

How could we have an article about Valentine’s Day without including one of the most famous symbols of love? This gold pendant is set with a shell cameo of Cupid and Psyche and decorated with ivy-leaf ornament. Sold by London jewellers firm of John Brogden, this intricate ornament might have been intended as a wedding gift, making references to love (Cupid and Psyche) and fidelity (the ivy).

14. Terracotta depicting Psyche and Eros

Terracotta busts of Eros and Psyche embracing, from the interior of a vessel. Centuripe, Sicily, c. 200–100 BC.

Psyche also takes centre stage in this terracotta made in Sicily over 2,000 years ago. Psyche (Soul) was a princess so beautiful that people mistook her for the goddess of love Aphrodite. Enraged by jealousy, Aphrodite ordered her son Eros (sexual desire) to shoot Psyche with an arrow charged with a spell to make the princess fall in love with a hideous beast. In typical Greek myth fashion, this plan backfires for Aphrodite, as Eros falls for Psyche instead. Here Psyche turns to gaze at her lover, their lips about to meet.

If all that talk of love has left you wanting more, check out Lloyd de Beer’s blog post on even more objects featuring love, sex and desire.

Looking for more inspiration this Valentine’s Day? Discover love poetry from around the world in our online shop.