Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Related post B Proper 19 Art for September 16 2012
In ancient Greece, the numerous gods that were created had varying attributes and personalities. Their activities explained elements of the physical world and provided reasons for things that were imagined. Among them was Athena, a goddess acclaimed for her wisdom. In addition, she was the goddess of war and a protector of cities (the city of Athens was named for her). Also, there were gods and goddesses that caused strife. Eris was a schemer and known to the Romans as “Discord.” In an infamous event she set up a conflict that led to the Trojan War. Starting in the fifteenth century, these gods and goddesses were again depicted in art; often their deeds were presented as allegories (a representation of an idea in visual form).
Dutch artist, Jacob de Wit’s fresco, Allegory of Government: Wisdom Defeating Discord, was painted on the ceiling of Aldermen’s Hall (a meeting hall for the city’s governing body) in The Hague. The painting is in the delicate Rococo style of the early eighteenth century but in subject matter it anticipates the use of art to promote moral values as seen later in neoclassicism. In de Wit’s allegory, the figures of Athena (Wisdom) and Eris (Discord) are depicted in a battle. Wisdom is wearing a helmet and holding a shield and spear as she drives away Discord, the bringer of strife. The fresco’s message is: Following the example of Athena, a responsible alderman should make wise judgments and be protective of the city.
In this ceiling fresco, action is taking place overhead in a mythical world. We are very aware that we are looking at a painting that simulates the effect of clouds and figures, yet de Wit creates an illusion that the ceiling isn’t there; as if we are looking directly into the sky. We tend to suspend reality and move from actual space – the space we are in – into a pictorial space that takes us into another realm. Our vantage point is from below this scene but several figures are viewing this battle from within the painting itself. Among them in the distance is Zeus who has arrived to observe the outcome.
De Wit’s fresco of “Wisdom Defeating Discord” had to be removed because of its poor condition. Only photographs and a preparatory study now exist.
In our lives, the horizon is part of our consciousness and we seek balance or equilibrium in visual relationships. We are conscious, too, of the pull of gravity which creates a need for verticality and stability in upright forms. Because of this we are more comfortable with paintings that are rectangular in shape (and level on the wall). An oval carpet on the floor or an oval shaped painting on a ceiling, however, does not affect our sense of balance.
De Wit’s allegory is a call for wisdom in government. The following is an invitation to individuals:
“Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent her maids to call from the highest places in the town, ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’ To him who is without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave simpleness, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’” (Proverbs 9:1-6)
© 2012 Hovak Najarian