Not a day goes by without some depressing reminder that our freedom is slipping away, whether it’s new taxes, new restrictions on blogging, new intrusive measures to protect against terrorism, or the ever-growing threat of the socialized rationing of medical services. Each day we have to renew our commitment to fight the decline of American civilization. But where can we get the fuel to do that? Philosophy gives us the intellectual ammunition, but where do we find the will to use it?
The most important inspiration in life comes from art. It is in art that we find concretized the abstract values that we cherish–the romantic passion and grandeur of Cyrano de Bergerac, the fatherly love and courage of Arthur Winslow, the independence and rationality of John Galt. It is in art that we find nourishment for the soul.
History can also transport us to a world apart. History shows us the real-life triumphs of the Athenians over the Persians, the real-life political gains of the Roman plebeains against the patricians, the true story of the birth of philosophy, art, science and history in Greece, the true story of the rise of modern technology and industry, and the true story of America’s heroic founding.
What never ceases to amaze me, however, is just how much inspiration of this sort there is out there to be had. Though it was not my intention to write this piece as an accompaniment to Thanksgiving, it is entirely appropriate that I should be writing it at this time of year, because if I had to name the greatest value that I have recently discovered — which has given me irreplaceable emotional and intellectual fuel, and for which I am especially “thankful” this year — it is value of history integrated through visual art.
My immediate response to this painting, which did not involve any focus on the historical details, was that I felt immersed in luxury. The vibrant reds and yellows of the fabrics and the gold in the woman’s garments, the jewelry, the diadem, the flower petals, all made me feel that this was a place I could relax.
And I immediately fell in love with the curve–the curve that accentuates how the woman is laid back and her body has sunk down into the plush pillows.
Empress Theodora (Closeup), a.k.a. "The Curve"
There is also something very sensual about the woman herself. I am reminded of Sargeant’s controversial Madame X. Notice how they both have the bare shoulder and are both depicted in profile. (More on that in a minute.)
Madame X, by John Singer Sargent
Obviously, since there is only one character in this image that’s where almost all of our attention is directed. There are, however, a few additional elements that transform the image into what I would tentatively term a “narrative portrait”–a kind of half-way point between a portrait and a history painting, with the characteristics of both.
Evidently, the column is adorned with a golden wreath, which is symbolic of the emperor, so she is a member of the imperial family, most likely the empress. (We know this from the title, of course, but I’m referring to approaching the image inductively, by which method we could still make that determination “visually,” as long as we have the least bit of knowledge of Roman icons.)
Beyond that, regarding the woman herself, she is evidently royalty. The diadem is enough evidence of it, but the jewelry (bracelets, rings, earrings) all are indicative as well. Her luxurious clothing, with gold accents, is somewhat revealing and ever so rich.
She is young, but not a girl. She is slim, has smooth skin, and a “young” neck. Her hands are delicate and smooth.
She is seated in a reclined, relaxed position on a kind of plush chaise or divan. One hand rests on her outstretched left leg. The other is draped over the top of the chaise, and is gently holding a flower.
Her eyes are almost closed. She is looking downward, though not necessarily at anything in particular. Certainly, what she is not looking at is the spectacle for which she evidently has prime seating.
What is that spectacle? A tiger is feasting on its victims in a stadium packed with crazed fans — a number of whom are reaching or gesturing excitedly from their seats towards the carnage below. (See here for a large version of the image.) The setting, evidently is gladiatorial games or simply the execution of criminals and/or Christians during Roman times.
The curtain, however, is drawn to separate her from the scene. It is even weighted down by some kind of decorative object that is on the shelf next to her, beside the flower petals.
The key to the image is a precise integration of three things:
1) the woman’s separation from the Colosseum scene
2) her facial expression/look
3) the flower(s)
Evidently, as I’ve said, she’s not watching the spectacle. What she is also not doing is looking at the flower(s).
There are so many images that we could draw upon for the sake of comparison here, to come to a clear interpretation, but look at this one:
A Rose, by John White Alexander
In this image, the woman is obviously fixated on the flower. This warm, intimate image depicts a moment of reminiscence, in which she is recalling the experiences that the flower evokes.
With the empress, however, the flower does not appear to have any special significance. It is there, in her hand, but in the manner of a trinket. It certainly does not command her attention. She just holding it in her hand as an afterthought, or even almost as an affectation.
What then of her expression? It is almost featureless. Certainly, there are no strong emotions visible. In another context, it might well be interpreted as introspective, but I can’t see how it can be that in this context. We can imagine the screaming crowd, and the noise of the tiger, which are barely muffled by the barrier that separates her from it all. She would have to be aware of it, unless she were able to make a conscious effort to focus on something else. If she were staring at the flower, as the woman is in the other image, then she might be able to block it out. But she is not.
So what is comes down to is precisely that separation between the outer world, and her, luxurious, personal world. She is a woman apart. Her imperial status gives her that luxury — the luxury of not having to watch what the rest of the world thinks is entertainment. She might have to be there for show, as the empress, but she can achieve that modicum of seclusion that her status affords.
Well, what about the history?
Empress Theodora was the wife of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian. She was a notorious theatrical performer and courtesan, with whom Justinian is said to have fallen madly in love (more likely lust). I think this is why she is depicted in the sensual manner that she is.
It is said that she was highly intelligent, even to the point of dominating her husband, who is known as an accomplished emperor (responsible for promulgating a famous legal code, for one thing) and defying him in many areas (such as his doctrinal position in theological controversies).
Regarding the historical Theodora, we might be inclined to believe that Constant wanted to say that she did not approve of the cruelty of the way death sentences were carried out in the arena. But she is not depicted in the images as disapproving, just aloof. My interpretation, historically is thus that Constant wanted simply to highlight her sensuality and her separation from the people, as a historical theme. Those certainly are the dominant elements of the painting. (Another way of looking at this might be to assume that Constant intends to show us how the Emperor viewed the Empress. He places the viewer in the Emperor’s seat, thus giving us a sense of how Theodora dominated the Emperor’s attention.)
Either way, the image can provide a certain inspiration.
In particular, I am reminded when viewing this image of Ayn Rand’s statement concerning civilization, which she defined as the process of “setting man free from men.“ When I think of Empress Theodora, I think of an intelligent if damaged person, living in a culture that was crumbling. She was able to separate herself from the men of her time. Her world apart is a refuge afforded to her by her imperial status, which, thanks to the torturous progress of civilization since then, each of us can now attain in far more significant ways.
Naturally, political considerations will encroach upon our historical evaluation of this image, but if, in viewing it, we focus primarily on the contrast between the bankruptcy of the outside social world and the intimate values of one’s personal world, then we can derive the greatest enjoyment from it. Indeed, the scene captures the very idea of maintaining A World Apart, which is so important to refueling one’s soul for each new round of intellectual warfare we embark upon to save our own.