Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
With the advent of mass media, more and more of us feel like we need material possessions in order to feel worthy. Others put their self-worth into their politics, and others into their religion. Quite often, however, many of us use these things to condemn others who don’t have what we have or think like we think.
Ludwig von Langenmantel’s painting “Savonarola Preaching Against Prodigality” presents a time in history during which people were encouraged to confront their “vanities.”
Girolamo Savonarola was a 15th-century Italian preacher and religious reformer. He was believed to have prophetic visions, and he preached against the corruption of the clergy. His growing popularity made him a political threat to the papacy, which sought to censure his public sermons.
Savonarola’s extensive education and way with words made his sermons popular and convincing. He told the citizens of Florence that the apocalypse was imminent, and that self-restraint and sacrifice was the way to salvation.
The impassioned citizens of Florence were convinced to burn all the objects in their possession that distracted them from their religious duties. They sacrificed their possessions in a large fire now referred to as the “bonfire of the vanities.” They burned books, clothing, artwork, and anything else that was considered a distraction. Some citizens even decided to burn down the Medici bank, which was a center of power in Florence.
It wasn’t long, however, before Savonarola was silenced by his enemies. He was ultimately hanged and burned by the church. Ultimately, he would be considered a martyr and was celebrated for centuries after his death.
Ludwig von Langenmantel was a 19th-century genre and history painter. His painting “Savonarola Preaching Against Prodigality” provides a visual representation of the bonfire of the vanities.
The painting’s focal point is Savonarola, who is positioned left of center. Dressed in a white robe and black hood, he stands on an ornately covered platform. He holds a rosary and skull in one hand and gestures above with the other. With his upper face shrouded by the shadow of his hood, he looks intently toward the heavens.
The bonfire items are placed at the left of the platform. Two women lean on the heap of items. The one closest to us clasps her hands in prayer, and the other looks up toward Savonarola. Though their bodies are leaning on the items, their attention is captured by something else.
Several wealthy women congregate at Savonarola’s feet with items to contribute. One of the women presents her crown, suggesting that she is renouncing her royal stature, while another woman kisses Savonarola’s robe.
Behind the cluster of wealthy women, there are two common people: an older woman and a young girl. They have nothing to contribute to the bonfire. Instead, they have come to hear the apocalyptic sermon.
There are many citizens of Florence depicted around Savonarola. The rich, the poor, men, women, clergy, and laypersons all come to hear his sermons and participate in the bonfire. A young boy prepares the flame at the far left of the composition.
Sacrificing Our Vanity
So what wisdom might we gather from this painting and the bonfire of vanities?
Symbols tell us what kind of painting this is: The golden items prepared for the bonfire, the boy preparing the flame, and the skull in Savonarola’s hand show us that this is a “vanitas” painting.
According to the Tate website, vanitas are “artworks that remind the viewer of the shortness and fragility of life … and include symbols such as skulls and extinguished candles … to remind us explicitly of the vanity (in the sense of worthlessness) of worldly pleasure and goods.”
Savonarola holds the skull because he is the reminder of the apocalypse; he is the reminder of the coming end and the worthlessness of material possessions.
I was not able to find an extinguished candle in this painting, as in other vanitas paintings. The extinguished candle often symbolizes the ephemerality of life and asks the viewer to not waste time on material pursuits. Yet, the bonfire itself is the candle in this painting. We are made to anticipate that the items of the bonfire will burn and that the fire will die out.
In fact, the idea that we see a single flame before it lights the fire suggests something important. Langenmantel’s vanitas painting reminds us of what comes before the fire, of the beginning that must occur if we wish to go beyond our pursuits for material comfort. In other words, we must first be willing. We must be willing to burn away our desire for material comforts if we wish to experience what is beyond this material world.
Langenmantel makes another point. Anyone and everyone, irrespective of their walks of life, gathers for the bonfire. Unlike ideologies that create conflict based on class, gender, race, and so on, here, people of every class and age gather for a singular purpose: to go beyond their material possessions. It is the willingness to change their character that brings them to this event.
None of this can be said seriously, however, without mentioning some concerns revealed by Savonarola’s bonfire. It must be stated that the “bonfire of the vanities” was not an exercise of religious censorship against the public but the encouragement of self-restraint.
In other words, Savonarola was not behaving like a totalitarian ruler. He was not encouraging people to burn items that would interfere with his own ascent to power because he was not interested in gaining political power. Instead, he was encouraging those inclined to elevate themselves beyond the material world to stop attaching their self-worth to the things of this world.
However, some of his followers took his message to the extreme and burned down the Medici bank in Florence. It should be noted that there is a difference between looking within to improve ourselves morally and forcing our moral understanding on others. In the latter case, it’s an act of taking our limited moral understanding as an absolute.
Today, we seem to have a culture built around “vanities.” We constantly want to possess more, or we want to condemn others for not thinking like us. We’re politically angry and spiritually frustrated.
How can we stimulate a response to look within and offer our material idols up for sacrifice? How might we have self-restraint be a staple in our culture?
The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).