How Pompeo Batoni's allegories
worked for me

I like Pompeo Batoni’s (1708-1787) paintings. I appreciate him mostly for his thinking, for his representations in allegory of hard and abstract ideas. I consider him one of my friends despite the distance in time and space.

Pompeo Batoni was one of eighteenth-century Rome’s most notable citizens. He was considered by his peers the city’s most eminent and honored artist. Popes, Europe’s Emperors and Kings, and many rich visitors were received in his studio. Pompeo Batoni supported his numerous children and family and kept a open house for musical evenings and painting academy just by painting very appreciated portraits.

In subject paintings the rich effect of color and complex rhetoric behind the attitudes, gestures, and expressions create very dynamic compositions. His humanized saints, Holy Families, and Madonna express a meditative approach to religious emotion.

I appreciate him for his thinking and skill demonstrated in allegory of hard and abstract ideas. The allegory is a work of art in which a deeper meaning underlies the superficial or literal meaning.

I am starting with three examples: The Time unveiling the Truth, The Truth and Mercy, The Justice and Peace because the message encrypted in colors and forms is less complicated and may stimulate the reader’s thinking.

  1. The Truth is pure light and Time is a young seeker. After unveiling the Light we are no more innocents. It is supposed to know the difference between good and evil. Sinning after we received the True is different. In time, through experience and study at the school of hard knocks, we get the chance to bring the Light and more personal responsibility in our life.

  2. The Truth versus Mercy is a totally different allegory. The Truth is holding firm and up a more material symbol, a tragic shiny face. From his attitude we feel the Truth is very important and self-centered. The kneeling Mercy appears as if she is one with the viewer, she demands compassion. The material, more earthly Truth, cruel and unforgiving, is facing us and the Mercy’s humble request. Is judging more important than forgiving? The viewer is involved, a mature person may decide different than a young one.(see the link to The National Gallery, Special Features, Paintings from the Exhibition, picture #6)

  3. The Justice is not blind in Batoni’s work. She has the instrument to weigh the arguments and facts in her left hand. Temporarily she stopped judging, because Peace is unfolding on her side bringing comfort and warmth. Again, what is the value of judging and criticizing all the time over the peace of acceptance? I brought these examples to gradually introduce Batoni’s thematic to you.

Is this the only one interpretation?

"The Madonna and Child in Glory” fascinated me. Batoni painted this in 1747 when he was only 39 years old. A dated study of this picture is also in the USA at Princeton University Art Museum. The original is at Toledo Museum of Art (Ohio). "The Madonna and Child in Glory” Italian painting gave me the visualization and an answer to my inner question about “Our Father” Christian prayer lines:

And not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6)

"Ernest and Marina at Toledo Museum of Art in 1997"

"The Madonna and Child in Glory" video (2 min. 2Mb)

My questions, like everybody’s, are: Who am I? Where I come from? What am I doing here? Where am I going? The answers may be different. If yours are not defined yet, just look at my answers as workable hypotheses. We are souls in the bodies. The very core of our being is that we are drops of spirit temporary separated from the Divine spiritual ocean. We, as souls, volunteered to Earth, in human body existence, to learn and relearn about unconditional love and compassion. By developing the soul and divine conscience in material body, we consciously have to reverse the involutionary process (attaching to matter), and accomplish the act of Creation, create a higher spiritual planet and heal the Earth from evil.

This is intuitive knowledge grounded in faith. For what are we doing here we have to look to the spiritual leaders work: Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Plato, Jesus, Mohamed to name a few of great souls who brought into humanity the Truth and Light in dark times, to create for us the premises of the Path of spiritual development.

In John 8 Jesus explained His and our situation: “…for I come from God and now am here. I have not come on my own, but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are not able to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father‘s desire...” and in John 2 He explains more “… no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again… For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

There are about two thousand years since the Jesus mission. We still struggle to comprehend His work and have a difficult time in making our choices for the Light and Truth side in the first place. After that we do need help to keep the Path, in this world of temptations.

I believe there are a lot more great souls who did and are doing their personal work for spiritual progress. I think every one has to do his individual work and choice. The artists and scientists minds get flashes from the Truth, we know that, because they got the chance to record them in their art works or inventions. At least that is my understanding.

We experience the evil’s temptation every day. So did Pompeo Batoni, he knew the feeling of being in need for help in our choice to stay on the Light side. The paint "The Fall of Simon Magus" after ten years of work was rejected as altar piece for Saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome. Apostle Peter did many good things but he denied his affiliation with Jesus three times in one night. Falling from Light is a very sensitive subject even today.

“The Madonna and Child in Glory” is the only painting I know which represents the Divine and the evil relationship from humans point of view on the same canvas.

By representing child Jesus tempering the horrible evil, Batoni did not create a standard devotional painting; he gave us his visualization on the Jesus Christ mission. He believed the Son of God has knowledge and means to help the humans in their struggle with evil side.

Central, in full light, the Mother is holding with grace the precious Son of God. She is focusing up beyond the angels. The top space of the painting is open by the left angel who is calling for attention. The angels from top are emotionally involved in what is happening down there, where the Jesus Christ’s cross - spear is agonizing the devil. The baby’s gesture and representation are very humanized. His only tool is the Christian Cross. The devil is represented according to ancient description with wings and here is holding on the Earth’s sphere. The very childish angels on the bottom hold each other leaning aside to avoid the evil’s horrible breath.

A group of five musicians close to Madonna glorify the divine mission. We the humans can identify with scientists and artists. On a deeper level we can perceive the Christ body in the crucified pose in Mother’s hands. Mother is looking up for help and understanding.

The viewer is involved in many ways on different levels of emotion, stimulating the mind to pursue more work. The line “But deliver us from evil” was my first understanding from the very first second I have seen this masterpiece of materialized meditation.

Later Pompeo Batoni at about 52 years old painted “The Holy Family,” currently part of Galleria Capitolina in Rome. Here there is only one allegory. The old Joseph is lost in contemplation of the Love between Mother and Son. Is this the visualization of unconditional love? Are we open enough to understand this concept?

The encrypted message from Pompeo Batoni 29 years later

"Allegory of Peace and War"

The "Peace and War" (1776) is the allegory about our life and more than that. The man is the designated person to face every day fights and bring the bread home. He is armed and the sword is sharp and readily up. The man is young and strong, may be too young to symbolize the horrible War features, the red coat is in full display.

Right now the War's shield is protecting the shining Peace. It is dark and quite ugly out there beyond that shield. The Peace is touching or pushing the War's sword away while she is looking lost into man's eyes. Is she trying to say something? She forgot about her little olive branch, her last defense tool. Is the Peace winning the War's full attention?

Are they ready to embrace or dance? Is this "Make Love not Wars" Pompeo Batoni's message from 300 years ago?

The Peace and War communication is meant to be a short one.

What is telling me that?

The long neck Dragon with wings the "ornament" on the War's rounded helmet is the very same Evil pointed down by Jesus’ spear on the Earth Sphere from "The Madonna and Child in Glory" canvas.

What a puzzle, to fully understand the "Peace and War" you should know "The Madonna and Child in Glory."

Assume for a moment the Dragon is there only for display as an ornamental detail not as the Evil himself.

Let's think about the entertainment in the 18th century, without horror, action or Star Wars movies and TV. They had story tellers, theater, music, some opera, wars, wine and of course sex. The paintings and sculpture of that time were inspired by and were created to tell a story. Every detail was there to add and to deliver to the idea of that story.

Let's look again to "Peace and War" painting.

The Dragon is dominating from above; it is the highest feature on the painting. What is he doing there? He already owns the War and is focusing on Peace. Only the olive leafs are between the Dragon and Peace.

Does she see the Dragon's head pointed to her?

Suddenly the paint changed its meaning. There is no more the "Make Love not War" message. It is more like "Choose Love and Light Side or else..." message. This is very scary stuff in fact. I doubt the contemporaries fully understood Pompeo Batoni.

The man, I mean us, not the War symbol, can make a choice here. Throw the "helmet" and choose the lovely lady. Make this planet a better place.

Short biographic info about Pompeo Batoni

For Pompeo Batoni to come to this understandings was a very hard setup. His mother died delivering him by Cesarean section. The effects of this traumatic birth lasted for years. He was considered mentally retarded until the age of seven. Batoni’s motherless, miserable and disfigured childhood was ameliorated by his pleasure in drawing, to which he devoted himself in spite of his father’s objections. He becomes a competent sketcher at a very early age. His father a goldsmith in Lucca wanted his only son prepare for the traditional family profession. The godfather persuaded his father to apprentice the youth to one of local painters and later in 1727 to send him to study painting in Rome. He studied and made his life copying the masters, Raphael’s frescoes and ceilings, drawing antique sculptures in the Vatican collections, and working in private academies. In 1729 he married Caterina Setti (1711-42) the beautiful daughter of the custodian of the Villa Farnesina. Two sons and three daughters were born to the artist. He later regretted this precipitous marriage, which ended with his wife’s death in 1742. Five years later he married a beautiful Roman woman, Lucia Fattori. Ten children with talents in music and painting were born to the artist until 1763. In 1759 he purchased a large house that contained his studio, an evening drawing class, and exhibition rooms. On the upper floors there were living: his wife, eight daughters, four sons, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and two servants.

His principal biographer, Onofrio Boni (1739-1818) wrote: “Batoni was very devout, charitable toward the poor, affable with his pupils, unostentatious, indifferent to the honors bestowed to him, and modestly attired. Other than his art, he cared for nothing, and he enjoyed an enviable tranquility, which he did not permit to be disturbed in any manner…. His character was simple, and sincere, and since he immediately appeared to others as such a man, he was able to speak the truth without giving offense, and he did not appear arrogant when speaking with satisfaction of his own works, since he knew well their true value.”

Will Pompeo Batoni’s allegories be rediscovered in the future? Sure, when the hypothesis given may work for you and many others.

Our choices are between running a life driven by temptations or recognize your inner frustration and decide for more study and accept the spiritual development. Is this the right time to make the choice? This may be the title of the next article.

Ernest Ionescu

E. Lansing

1997 - 2008

Important Links on the Web.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Kren and Daniel Max




Most information about Pompeo Batoni life and most painting details in this article are from Clark, Anthony M. (1923 - 1976) excellent book "Pompeo Batoni". His work on Batoni was completed and published by Edgard P. Bowron in 1985. This book is no longer available to buy from a bookstore, despite many pictures are reproduced in black and white. Without Mr. Anthony M. Clark's book and research my interpretations over just one picture would not be enough to support my own findings in this presentation.

The recent book "Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome" by Edgar Peters Bowron and Peter Bjorn Kerber (2007) contains all pictures discussed in my article. The price is very good.

This beautiful book is published in conjunction with the 300 years anniversary from Pompeo Batoni's birth with exhibitions at:

  • The Museum of Fine Arts, Huston, 21 October 2007 - 27 January 2008;
  • The National Gallery, London, 20 February - 18 May 2008

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