Wednesday, 25 June 2014

5 Paintings of Truth

Last week I wrote an article about the goddess Veritas according to Greco-Roman mythology. Now what better describes the timeless truths about Truth than art? I've collected five allegorical paintings on this noble goddess, for our joyful contemplation.

A word of caution:

The art displayed below contains nudity. While tasteful artistic nudity is not the same as pornography because the first fulfills the Thomistic criteria of beauty and the latter does not, I feel that this post still merits a warning for the less sensitive and the more giggly among us. You have been warned.

Truth Rescued by Time, Witnessed by History
(Verdad rescatado por hora, fue testigo de la Historia)

Francisco Goya, 1812-1814, oil on canvas, 294 x 244 cm
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

In art, Truth is often depicted together with Time, and sometimes with History. Traditionally, and in Goya's earlier version of this painting, Truth is portrayed as a naked young maiden, clearly to symbolise her simple, virginal frankness. Time, who is really Truth's father, is winged because he is swift and always moving. In "Truth Rescued by Time", however, we see Truth clothed in white garments; this probably emphasises her elusiveness and "hiddenness" when carried by Time. On the other hand, History is naked… perhaps it is History that "bares" the Truth for us?

An allegory of Truth and Time
Annibale Caracci, 1584-1584, oil on canvas, 130 x 169.6 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, London, UK

Here's an interesting composition of several figures. The winged figure of Time has brought his daughter, Truth, from the depths of a well—her famous holy well—to reveal her to the light of day. Truth radiates light and looks in a mirror, while two-faced Deceit is trampled under Truth’s feet. Framing the scene on the right is Buona Eventus (Happy Ending) and on the left, Buona Fortuna (Good Luck) or perhaps Felicity (Happiness).

Time famously flies (hence the wings) and holds an hourglass; Truth is light (which explains her sunburst halo) and looks at herself in a mirror, which presents a true image of the world. Truth tramples underfoot a figure personifying Deceit (sometimes called Fraud, Hypocrisy or Calumny). After its most recent restoration a malevolent animal’s features were revealed at the back of her head, so that she is literally ‘two-faced’. This central drama is framed by two symbolic figures: on the right, Bonus Eventus refers to the happy issue of enterprises and holds corn and poppies and scatters flowers, while the figure on the left may represent Felicity (Happiness), with cornucopia to signify plenty and a winged caduceus for peace, or alternatively Buona Fortuna (Good Luck), who bears similar attributes but is also traditionally shown, as here, with wings.

The moral seems to be both "all’s well that ends well" and "the truth will out".

Time Unveiling Truth
Jean-François Detroy, 1733, oil on canvas, 203 x 208 cm
The National Gallery, London

Here we meet both Truth and Time again in their typical portrayals. Now Time is holding a scythe, a farming tool usually associated with Death.

We see how the coming of Truth is both welcome and unwelcome. I try to make out the right-side ladies who gladly welcome Truth: they are most likely the lion-riding Rhea, the goddess of female fertility, motherhood, and generation; the blue-clothed Justitia (Justice) who holds a sword and a scale; Clio, the Muse of history who holds a scroll, or probably even Historia herself; and lastly the standing Victoria (Victory) wearing a laurel wreath and holding a torch in her left hand. The frightened-looking woman on the right that seems to try to impede Truth is none other than the two-faced Deceit.

I can't help noticing the delicious arrangement of the figures, with their arms interconnected and thus easing up the flow of the composition. First, Time unveils the face of Truth; this probably symbolises how Truth eventually will be revealed. Truth is not passive, however: while she submits to Time, she also unveils the masks of Deceit, and nothing can stop her doing that. Meanwhile, Truth's right arm opens up—as if presenting—the joyous bunch of Generation, Justice, History, and Victory, who looks so pleased at meeting Truth.

The wisdom and truth
Pierre-Paul Prudh'on, 1799, oil on canvas, 355 x 355 cm

Now for a refreshing change: it's Truth and Wisdom. If you think Wisdom looks like Athena, you are spot on, for Athena is the goddess of wisdom.

Truth is still pictured as a brightly-lit nude, virginal-looking maiden. Wisdom is fully clothed with large fabrics and a helmet. They are both flying, and it looks like Wisdom is carrying Truth and is protective over her. The environment around them is made simple, probably to accentuate the two figures, and also to symbolise the aura of simplicity ("Truth is simple"). Wisdom looks to Truth and Truth looks to herself, for Wisdom is none other than the soundness of an action or decision—in other words, good judgement—with regard to the application of Truth; whereas Truth is Truth.

The Truth (La Vérité)
Jules Joseph Lefebvre, 1870, oil on canvas
265 x 112 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France

Last but not least, we have the goddess all by herself now, looking determined and sombre, holding up her legendary mirror. The Mirror of Truth shows the real face of the world, and the true personality of the human that looks to it.

This painting is quite straightforward and is probably painted as a study of the female anatomy. It is interesting to note that the painting is contemporary with the first small scale model made by Lefebvre's fellow-Frenchman Frédéric Bartholdi, for what became the Statue of Liberty, striking a similar pose, though fully clothed.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Goddess Veritas

The statue of Veritas outside the Supreme Court of Canada

A couple of days ago, a Dominican sister asked our community (a Blackberry Messenger-based group consisting of sisters, friars, and lay people) about any possible origin of the slogan "Veritas", besides its obvious meaning as "truth". Intrigued by her question, I browsed the web and found some interesting stories about the goddess Veritas based on Greco-Roman mythology.

Roman mythology holds that Veritas was the daughter of Saturn (Time) and the mother of Virtue. She was by nature elusive. In art, Veritas is portrayed as a young virgin dressed in white. It is said that she likes to hide in the bottom of a holy well where she could not be found without considerable expense in time and purpose for those bent on discovering her whereabouts and character.

The Greek counterpart of Veritas is Aletheia (Αλεθεια), also means "truth". The Greeks—bless them!—offer a deeper reflection of the word: "aletheia" is constructed from the prefix "a-" that signifies negation, added to "letheia" which alludes to "that being hidden or forgotten". So "aletheia" literally means the unhidden, the remembered, the unveiled. However, the concept of truth in the Greek mind is largely subjective, that is, truth is a matter of perception by the one who sees. This is clearly an incomplete understanding because we as Christians know that objective truth does exist. We of course cannot blame the Greeks since supernatural, objective, divine Truth must first be revealed.

The great philosopher Aristotle defined Αλεθεια in this wise: "To say of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not, is true." Therefore, truth does not only concern knowledge and facts, but also harmony and, by extension, purity and beauty (maybe it's not a coincidence after all the goddess wears white!). The Catechism defines the pure of heart as referring to "those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God's holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith." We see here that in purity, there is harmony between oneself and God, between one's intellect and will to those of God. The pure of heart can clearly see—and is not afraid to proclaim—truths such as others being his neighbours, sins and human concupiscence, and the signs of the times. Truth, then, is also related to the small harmonies of life: between prayer life and active life, and between speech, thoughts, and deeds. It is no wonder that the Pharisaic man can be said as lying to others and to himself! Additionally, Thomistic beauty consists of integritas (integrity, wholeness), consonantia (harmony), and claritas (clarity); more on this later.

Also interesting to note that "aletheia" can also mean "the remembered". So truth connects to memory. This concept is obvious in terms of, say, witnessing to a criminal case. But can we also say that Original Sin distorts or clouds our "memory" of divine truths, of infused knowledge? Perhaps we can say that—to a certain extent—the man living in sin is a man who has forgotten; the man living in the state of grace is a man who is starting to remember; and finally, the saints are the ones who have fully remembered. If this could be so, then divine revelation—the truth—is like a reminder of that ancient infused knowledge that man used to possess, and will possess again, if he accepts the revealed truth and live accordingly.