Thursday 15 December 2022

Thursday 15th December - The Roses of Heliogabalus

 Thank you for all your good wishes yesterday and hurrah! my heating is now fixed and we have hot water once more! The luxury! I hope you are somewhere warm and toasty today and that your boilers weather the winter stoically.  On with today's tragedy...

The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) Lawrence Alma-Tadema

This is perhaps the prettiest murder painting you are ever likely to see.  I was reminded of this one when we were talking about Sardanapalus because, on the face of it, it is a similar set up - a ruler watches as loads of people are murdered.  This is a far more seductive death, when your demise is rose-scented and gently flutters down until you can bear no more.  I thought we had seen a wrong 'un with Caligula, but honestly, Elagabalus makes him look like a saint. Allegedy.

The Host...

Okay, now there are some ripe old stories about this chap, so brace yourself.  Actually named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, his nickname 'Elagabalus' derived from his family's status as high priest of the Syrian sun god 'Elagabal'.   When he was raised to Emperor, in a bit of shenanigans (but to be honest, half the time they seem to get the role in a scuffle), he replaced the main Roman God Jupiter with Elagabal, which as you can imagine, did not go down well. He was 14 years old when he came to power and so behaved like an awful lot of teenage boys, especially ones who have a bit of money.  He played pranks, like releasing wild animals into the dining room when he was holding feasts, or placing them in drunk guests bedrooms, terrifying them. However, other sources say he had trained the animals so they were harmless.  Mind you, if you had heard stories of Emperors such as Caligula, it is understandable that you might be terrified by finding a lion sat under the table.  He also allegedly tied dinner guests to water wheels and dunked them in the river for fun.  More shockingly, other cruelties are recorded, including sacrificing his own children to his Gods.  He was married numerous times, including to a Vestal Virgin, and was an all-round nightmare.  Or so we are told, but could there be other reasons for the stories...?

My future home, thank you very much...

A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria.  It had been home to 'Mad' King Ludwig II, well known for being utterly bonkers and possibly killing his doctor because he was so mad, everyone knows that.  However, actually apart from his love of Wagner , which was a bit much, Ludwig might not have been that mad, but what the problem actually was involved his love of spending money. You only have to wander around the utterly beautiful castle to realise this was a chap who loved to spend money, not his own money obviously - the State's money - and this was making him unpopular. Had he been a bit more thrifty, I think Ludwig would have been a very beloved King, but his spending habits made him a liability and so his death was awfully convenient.  The doctor who was with him at the time was a witness and so he went too. So, what has all this to do with Elagabalus and roses?

'Have you seen the bowls of crisps?'

Elagabalus loved a party and loved a prank.  The roses incident was recorded in the Augustan History, where he had a trick ceiling in a banqueting hall and his guests where smothered under a tsunami of violets and other flowers.  Some died, unable to get to the top of the heap.  Nero apparently did the same thing, which led me to thinking whether Elagabalus intended to kill people or was just having a laugh.  The other thing that makes me doubt the claims of his tyranny and awfulness is this...

Heliogabalus, High Priest of the Sun (1866) Simeon Solomon

There is absolutely no doubt that Elagabalus was an irritating teenage boy with far too much power, however, he was also bisexual and possibly transgender.  He took male and female lovers, had an unofficial husband, dressed in women's robes and even (allegedly) sought advice on getting his sex changed. None of this was welcomed by Roman society and created a destabilising effect.  Couple all this with his spending and you have a problem people wish to solve.  It was actually his grandmother who assassinated him, aged 18, which is pretty harsh. The accounts of his wickedness probably only amount to replacing Jupiter's statue and being a bit sexually unpredictable and exploring, but the money he spent was huge and I bet that was his real crime. The rest gave those who wanted him gone some sadly tidy reasons.

Despite all this, I adore Alma-Tadema's painting of the feast with the roses raining down on the guests. I remember seeing it at Leighton House a couple of years back in a room that smelt like roses.  When you went in it was so beautiful, and it is a huge painting, but after a while it all became a little overwhelming.  I'm guessing that was the point.  My favourite part of the painting, and what sets it apart from things like The Death of Sardanapalus, is that on the right-hand side, a woman appeals for our help.  She is clutching her pomegranate (not a euphemism) and looking out to us as if to say 'Well, are you going to help us or not?' Beside her, a man is appealing to the Emperor, who really does not look that bothered because he's a very naughty emperor, obviously.  The fact that woman is looking at us is really quite chilling, as the painting doesn't seem threatening at all. Her tense gaze alerts us that all is not well, that she's noticed her fellow diners have been buried in the rosy landslide and she is next.  It is a painting of disguised death, of a beautiful act of violence, no less awful than some of the other murders we have seen this month.  The more you think about it, the more evil it gets - the petals probably were a source of joy as they started to pour from the ceiling, but are now killing them.  Who could imagine that something so small and so beautiful could be weaponised? It would be like being crushed by kittens or butterflies.  The use of roses make it a sensory overload, I remember the exhibition room so vividly because of it. 

I keep saying this but this is probably the most disturbing image of mass murder we'll have this month, not because it is particularly gruesome, but because of its beauty.  There aren't many you'd want to hang in your dining room, but something about the pink-prettiness of The Roses of Heliogabalus seems so innocuous.  For the Victorians, this shower of roses, this rain of love, caused a sensation as people crowded to see it at the Royal Academy.  The Belfast News-Letter described the 'rain and ruin of roses' and reported that the man who bought the painting, John Aird, threw a celebratory party for the picture, where he filled his home with roses and made Alma-Tadema wear a crown of roses throughout.  I feel he might have missed the point of the picture a little.  Or he was really, really wicked...

See you tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Kirsty
    I was hoping this picture would feature in Stabvent - murder, but so beautifully painted. Little did his guests know what was going to happen to them. I wonder whether it was indeed a case of darkening his reputation due to his sexual experimenting and spending money that wasn't his? Of course, he could just have been a wrong'un !
    Best wishes


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx