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 that generations have wrestled with, but we hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.
A repeated theme throughout art history is the Three Graces. The Three Graces were goddesses from Greek mythology. Initially, they were goddesses of nature, but later, they attended Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. They were usually three in number and represented charm, beauty, and human creativity.
The Three Graces dealt with matters of love and beauty, but what about other human experiences such as courage and fear? Are there three representations that deal with those matters? James Sant’s painting “Courage, Anxiety, and Despair: Watching the Battle,” seems to do exactly that.
British painter James Sant worked during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was known mostly for painting portraits but also created genre paintings. By the age of 20, he was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy.
Around the age of 50, Sant was appointed the official portraitist for Queen Victoria and the royal family as an elected artist of the Royal Academy. He would remain a member of the Royal Academy until he was 94 years old, producing around 250 canvases over his lifetime for exhibition at the academy. He died two years after leaving the academy at the age of 96.
‘Courage, Anxiety, and Despair: Watching the Battle’
In his painting “Courage, Anxiety and Despair: Watching the Battle,” Sant depicts three women hiding behind a large rock.
The woman to the far left is Courage. She leans forward with urgency and intensely watches the battle, which we cannot see. She holds a knife in her right hand, the weapon with which she plans to defend herself.
Around her neck, she wears a necklace made of scallop shells. In Greek mythology, scallop shells were associated with Aphrodite; the goddess was born of the sea and carried forth on a scallop shell. In Christianity, the scallop shell is often associated with salvation, as it was used for baptismal waters.
With her left arm, Courage keeps the woman at the far right, Despair, at a distance. Despair sits sadly with her eyes closed. Her posture suggests withdrawal from the intensity of the battle that the other two women watch.
Between Courage and Despair is Anxiety in the shadows. Anxiety’s hand grasps at the pit of her neck as if she is attempting to stop her worry from escaping her slightly parted lips. She peeks from behind the rock and watches the battle with a look of concern.
We, as viewers, cannot see the battle. We do not know exactly what concerns these three women.
Salvation, Love, and Beauty
So, what might these bodily representations of courage, anxiety, and despair mean for us? What wisdom might we gather from this image for today?
First, I think it’s significant that we cannot see the battle. It might be that the battle—in and of itself—does not matter; what matters is our response to it.
It’s almost as if Sant intentionally left a depiction of the battle out of the painting so that we, as viewers, could each consider those things that require courage or cause anxiety and despair in us personally. For me, the battle suggested by the painting is an internal battle, and every battle brings with it the question of freedom. The winner will dominate and rule.
Of course, battles are not always fought against human foes. At times, we can become enslaved to other things such as money, drugs, and sex, and then we must fight a battle against an addiction to overcome and free ourselves from it. We can even be addicted to ideas and feelings. We may, ironically, try to make these ideas absolute for everyone, based on feelings we wish to continue experiencing.
Yet pain is the potential result from our addictions. Thus, an internal battle can be waged for freedom, that is, freedom from the painful addictions that possess our hearts and minds. The sources of these addictions often remain hidden deep within us, like the battle Sant has hidden from our view.
Anxiety and despair are manifestations that obscure our addictions and cause us to succumb to them. Despair would rather close its eyes to the struggle of battling addictions; and anxiety, fearfully refusing to fight for freedom from them, is fine remaining enslaved to them.
In the painting, Despair appears uninterested in freedom and accepts defeat. The battle is too overwhelming for her to bear, and she closes her eyes and slumps in resignation. Anxiety sits in the shadows because she is afraid. She’s afraid of what the battle might mean for her. She is the personification of fear.
If either of these two were to take the lead, freedom would be lost because the battle would not take place. Despair wallows in the pain of her potential enslavement, and Anxiety is too afraid to battle for her freedom.
Courage, however, leans toward the danger. She is not afraid of battle. She is more concerned with her freedom. She is not brash but appears concerned and calculating. Her freedom requires an honest and patient assessment of the situation.
What constitutes the freedom for which Courage is willing to fight? Her necklace: Salvation, Love, and Beauty.
Is her necklace symbolic of the love and beauty of Aphrodite, which would mean it’s also symbolic of Aphrodite’s attendants, the Three Graces—that is, charm, beauty, and human creativity? Is her necklace symbolic of the salvation that comes with living a moral life in respect to the divine commandment to love?
To me, putting all of this together results in the following: Courage wears a necklace over her heart that is symbolic of the salvation found in charm, beauty, and creativity when they’re associated with the divine commandment to love. For these, she is willing to fight.
Are we willing to summon the courage to keep despair away, to let our fear stay in the shadows, and to take on the inner battles that our circumstances reveal in us? Do we have the courage to fight for salvation, love, and beauty not only as cultural staples but in our hearts and minds as well?
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).