Day 52 – Three Vices

Giotto, DespairEnvy and Infidelity, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

This week, for Scrovegni Saturday, I thought we should cross to the other side of the chapel and have a look at the Vices which are paired with last week’s Virtues – paired with, or rather, opposed to: they are indeed opposite. I haven’t yet enumerated all Seven Virtues (that will have to wait until next week), but you might expect them to be paired with the Seven Deadly Sins – but no: these are Vices, not Sins – although I would assume that the Vices would lead to various sins. As it happens, they are, almost, the exact opposite of their equivalent Virtues.

You might want to look back to last week (Picture Of The Day 45), to remember where we were, but I will post this picture again anyway. It is not actually the chapel, but a very good replica of it – we are looking towards the West End, with the Last Judgement we saw in POTD 38. At the bottom of the left wall, and closest to the West End, you can see Hope reaching up towards Jesus, who is enthroned just below the window at the end of the Chapel. To the left of Hope – after the two decorative panels – there is another figure reaching up: Charity. On the right-hand wall, similarly conceived as a stone sculpture in a rectangular niche, at the far end of the wall, a figure hangs with her arms down – this is Despair. To the right of her, with flames burning around her feet, is Envy. They really benefit from being compared to their opposing virtues.

Despair has led to suicide, and although the church’s teaching on suicide has altered over the centuries, it has never been favourable. Back in the fourteenth century it would have been considered a mortal sin: if anyone who commits a mortal sin dies without repenting, there is no doubt: they will go to Hell. Hence the devil appearing above the figure, so disturbing to visitors across the centuries that it has been vandalized. The scarf that Despair has used to hang herself has suffered the same fate. All is downward – her weight, the direction of the arms, the fall of the head. What a contrast with the upward movement of Hope, which lifts her off the ground, her hands, relaxed and open, reach out to take the crown of salvation held for her by an angel. Despair’s hands are clenched, her arms tense and held out from her body, and although her weight pulls down on the rope, causing the beam it is tied to to bend, her feet still hit the floor. They cannot support her weight, and she buckles at the knees. Remember that both are next to the Last Judgement. In the same way that Hope’s gesture continues across the fresco on the adjacent wall towards the figure of Christ, the demon that comes down to take Despair’s soul seems to have flown – or even flowed – from the rivers of blood that issue from the throne of Christ. Her left arm continues this downward diagonal – a contrast to the upward reach of Hope’s arms on the opposite side of the room. And not only that, but look how she has let herself go! Her hair is undressed, and waves, snakelike, down the left side of the figure. As a contrast, Hope has the most pert coiffeur, wrapped into a bun that seems to stand up almost supernaturally. 

The contrast of Charity and Envy is similarly extreme. Both have a relationship to money – and also, to fire. Whereas Charity tramples worldly wealth underfoot, Envy grasps hold of a moneybag in her left hand. She doesn’t need to: there is a thin cord tying it to her belt in any case. The moneybag is a key symbol in this chapel, as you will remember, because the patron’s father had been condemned to Hell as a notorious usurer. Jesus instructed his followers, ‘lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven’  (Matthew 6:20), and to hold onto earthly treasure, rather than giving all you have, is seen as inimical to God’s word. She is literally burning up with envy – flames lick all around her legs as if she were on a bonfire. Charity  – or Love, to give her her other name – also burns, but with the unqualified love of and for God. You can see three flames around her head, in front of what looks like a halo. I have no doubt that we should imagine a fourth reaching down behind her neck, not unlike the cruciform halo seen so often in images of Jesus. In fact, it is only Jesus – and the Holy Spirit – who are shown with a cross in their haloes. You can always tell the difference, though, because the Holy Spirit is depicted as a dove. By arranging these ‘flames’ around Charity’s head, Giotto creates a very clear parallel between Charity/Love and Jesus – God is Love. She reaches up to the sculpture of God in the niche, giving or taking – or even sharing. Envy also reaches – but it is a grasp. And while Charity’s reach is, beyond the sculpture, towards the figure of Christ in the Last JudgementEnvy is unwisely grasping towards Hell – and maybe, to some of the moneybags that can be seen there too.

Last week I pointed out that the background of the rectangular niches are painted as if inlaid with a slab of dark stone, which I said was serpentine – a dark, olive green, metamorphic rock. Some of these slabs are indeed meant to be serpentine (e.g. for Hope), but I realised, just after I posted, that they are not all the same. Envy’s background, for example, was clearly designed to emphasize the red of the flames: it is painted to look like porphyry, which is a deep red igneous stone with coarse crystals in a fine-grained matrix. Notice how the paler stone which surrounds it is veined: the convoluted patterning adds to Envy’s sense of anxiety, whereas the light marble which frames Charity’s niche is far calmer. Charity is also seen against a porphyry background, although the photograph makes it look like a different shade of red – which it may well be in the original. This red again ties in with the flames (in this case emanating from her head), but it is also fitting because red is often used as symbolic of Charity. The other Theological Virtues are represented by green (Hope – hence the serpentine) and white (Faith). 

Envy has an entirely alarming head, the whole thing seemingly bandaged together. She has sharp horns which curve back and seem about to pierce her neck, and a serpent for a tongue, which forces its way out of her mouth, only to bend back and threaten her. Not only is she burning up with envy, she is about to start gnawing on herself. She also has large ears – which may be a reference to Midas. He is best known as a result of his envy – he was envious of other people’s wealth – and wanted everything he touched to turn to gold. He got his wish, but as everything – from food and drink to his own family – were transformed as requested, he lost far more than he gained.  However, in another story about him he was asked to judge a musical competition between Apollo and Marsyas. Foolishly, he favoured the latter – and Apollo got his revenge by giving him ass’s ears. The reference to one story would be intended to trip a memory of another: ass’s ears, Midas, gold, envy…

While we’re talking about memory, I remember bringing in Marcel Proust last week. Envy is another one of the figures from the Scrovegni Chapel that he discusses in À la recherche du temps perdu, the narrator clearly remembering how off-putting he found the image when he was a schoolboy:

‘…that Envy, who looked like nothing so much as a plate in some medical book, illustrating the compression of the glottis or uvula by a tumour in the tongue, or by the introduction of the operator’s instrument…’ 

However, he learnt how to appreciate these figures:

‘But in later years I understood that the arresting strangeness, the special beauty of these frescoes lay in the great part played in each of them by its symbols, while the fact that these were depicted, not as symbols (for the thought symbolised was nowhere expressed), but as real things, actually felt or materially handled, added something more precise and more literal to their meaning, something more concrete and more striking to the lesson they imparted’.

(For more context, and more of this passage, go to the Public Domain Review)

This use of ‘real things, actually felt or materially handled’ also applies to our final comparison today, between Faith and Infidelity.

Rather than the poise of Fidelity, whose balance shows the security of true belief, Infidelity seems off balance, leaning backwards, on the verge of moving out of the picture altogether. Although she could be similarly statuesque in appearance, she is rather more bulky: she has weight, rather than gravitas. Whereas Faith holds something in each hand, Infidelity has little to hold onto but her own robe. Faith holds a text aloft, something to believe in, and this is echoed by a smaller scroll held by a figure in the top right of Infidelity’s niche. This could represent a prophet that she is ignoring, and signals that she has neglected true authority.

The discarded idol, broken at Faith’s feet, is replaced by the figure held up with respect, looked after, and intact, which is physically – and metaphorically – tied round Infidelity‘s neck. She cannot get away from this pagan god, however hard she leans away from the Hell of the Last Judgement and offers this idol to the devil. The flames are licking at her feet, too.

To be honest, I feel like they are licking at mine! The amount of thought that went into this fresco cycle is astonishing, every detail seems to have been deliberated over, conceived as an entity in its own right, and yet related to the Chapel as a whole. Nothing is left to chance. Each of these individual figures is a masterpiece – and yet there is so much more going on above them. I feel like I’ve barely started! So next week, so as not to delay too long, I shall introduce the four Cardinal Virtues – and their opposing Vices. 

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “Day 52 – Three Vices

  1. Wonderful to see Proust’s funny comments on the Vices. Envy is a primary theme in ALR — everyone is eaten up by it. And very few have the confidence of true faith… in anything…

    Liked by 1 person

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