I’ve just finished re-reading the Roman writer Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, written while he was in disgrace and under sentence of death. Two things have always struck me about this book. Firstly, the description of Lady Philosophy, a personification of wisdom, that comes to visit Boethius in his lonely cell. In terms of the visual, Philosophy is described in a memorable way. This is V. E. Watt’s translation from the Penguin classics- the image on the cover of that translation is from a thirteenth century edition off the Consolation.
“While I was quietly thinking these thoughts over to myself, and giving vent to my sorrow with the help of my pen, I became aware of a woman standing over me. She was of awe-inspiring appearance, her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men. She was so full of years that I could hardly think of her as of my own generation, and yet she possessed a vivid colour and undiminished vigour> It was difficult to be sure of her height, for sometimes she was of average human size, while at other times she seemed to touch the very sky with the top of her head, and when she lifted herself even higher, she pierced it and was lost to human sight.”
I guess this was a medieval thing having Lady Philosophy towering up like a Gothic cathedral. However, when the scene was depicted in renaissance art she was cut down to size, because such disproportion would affront a visual culture to whom perspective and logical composition were important. Take this lovely 15th century illuminated manuscript in the Wallace Collection. Lady Philosophy is shown in logical proportion, and our illustrator has turned her into a courtly lady such as we see in Memling et al. Note also the personification of Fortune and her Wheel. Lady Philosophy explains that all of Boethius’s previous possessions, wealth, status and position can be taken at any time, a hugely influential idea. There’s an informative discussion here.
In this illuminated manuscript of a few years later, we have a similar elegant courtly lady, this time with a train of ladies in waiting, which reminds you slightly of the legend of St Ursula, Memling again. This time it is not Boethius himself that is shown, but his translator Jean de Meng who hands his translation of the Consolation to his patroness Margaret of England. Obviously, there is still an echo of Boethius and Lady Philosophy meeting.
During the renaissance, Boethius Consolation is mainly found in illuminated works and manuscripts, and in the baroque the subject doesn’t appear much. There is, however, one interesting exception. The Neapolitan painter Mattia Preti painted the subject, though his version is far removed from the elegance and courtliness of the northern renaissance. Influenced by the dramatic chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, and the broad painterly style of contemporaries like Lanfrancco, Preti’s version refers to the start of the Consolation where Lady Philosophy seats herself on the bed of the downcast prisoner.In this scene Lady Philosophy is more rhetorical; she gestures with her right hand, an open movement which contrasts with the still pose of Boethius whose quiescent form suggests concentration on the words of Philosophy.
I know a lot about paintings of philosophers in the seventeenth century, but I must confess I didn't know Preti’s picture, probably because it’s in a private collection. It’s also a rare subject for the baroque, but I suspect it’s existence might have something to do with the climate of stoicism in seventeenth-century Europe. Though philosophers like Socrates and Seneca would be obvious reference points for painters, Boethius could be assimilated into the stoic movement fairly easily. His doctrine of philosophical calm in the face of turbulent events would appeal to painters and patrons of a meditative nature.
I’ll tell you about the second thing in Boethius in another post.