An Allegory of Man 1596

The painting warns the viewer of the soul’s vulnerability to the vanities of the world.

It strikes me as a sort of 16th Century morality comic book.  It’s a bit like a Tudor version of The Beano, where Dennis The Menace and Gnasher are tempting the saintly and wet  Lord Snooty with all sorts of naughty stuff.

Mostly I find Christian art difficult to appreciate. All those grisly bodies full of arrows, the dripping bloody men on the cross, the insipid looking adorers standing at the feet of god. I don’t care how skillful the artist may have been; Titian, Rembrandt, Reubens all had their good points but the heavy religious plug is not for me.

There are exceptions and oddly I find art related to the Old Testament a lot easier to tolerate. Such wonderful, grim and bloody stories painted in oil on canvas. Belshazzar’s Feast being a great example.  It doesn’t come much spookier than the “Writing on the Wall”. What a bounder he was; not surprising someone ticked  him off and wrote threats all over his wall.

But the Allegory of Man is in a wholly different category. If you discount the ridiculously anthropomorphic god hovering above the tempted mortal and consider him more metaphor than divinity, then I believe the picture can speak to us. The horrid devils and skeletons and assorted beasties are trying to tempt the poor mortal to commit terrible sins. Covetousness, sloth, greed, lechery and more –  all the human failings. And then of course the painting lists the Christian virtues in more little bubbles in this lovely comic strip.

‘BE SOBER THEREFORE & WATCH FOR ¦ THOW KNOWEST NEITHER THE DAY NOR ¦ THE HOWRE.’

Love it and I’m not making fun. All joking aside, there is something profound and magisterial about these words. Sometimes when I’m up in the mountains far from light pollution, or down at our little cottage on the Kent coast, I go out into the garden and lay marveling at the sheer immensity of what is out there.  And the sheer insignificance of our tiny world and our silly stupid cruelties and petty concerns. So yes, I do appreciate this picture.  I do wholeheartedly subscribe to what it is trying to tell me.

It hangs in the Tate Gallery in London if you want to see it. The painter is not known, nor the “purpose” of the painting, Nor where it originally hung.

I don’t need a god to tell me what to do. I can decide right and wrong for myself. But I do appreciate the message. It is meet and right even if it is a bit preachy.

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