It’s easy to be overwhelmed by beauty. A beautiful moment, person, or object can inspire a certain emotional response in so many of us. “The Roses of Heliogabalus” is a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema that, at first glance, possesses the kind of beauty that stirs something deep within us.
I’ve shared this painting with some of the people close to me, and they all have similar responses: “Wow, that’s beautiful.” I then share with them the story behind the painting, and we come to question our relationship with our sensuous perception of beauty.
The Cruelty of Heliogabalus
What is the story behind this painting? At 14 years old, Heliogabalus (also spelled Elagabalus) became Roman emperor in the year A.D. 218. He did not consider himself an emperor but an empress, once stating, “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” His rule was cruel, and he was known for indulging in extreme forms of pleasure and entertainment.
According to Edward Gibbon, author of “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Heliogabalus, “corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune, abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury … To confound the order of seasons and climates, to sport with the passions and prejudices of his subjects, and to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements.”
His amusements included extreme lust, desecration of Roman history, murder, and the sacrifice of human children.
Alma-Tadema was a Dutch painter who painted scenes of Greek and Roman antiquity. He later moved to England, became an elected member of the Royal Academy in 1879, and was knighted in 1899.
What is possibly one of Heliogabalus’s crueler moments was reimagined by Alma-Tadema in “The Roses of Heliogabalus.” According to the “Augustan History”:
“In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling [Heliogabalus] once overwhelmed his [underlings] with violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”
Alma-Tadema attempted to recapture Heliogabalus’s cruelty. Heliogabalus can be seen reclining on his stomach in the upper center of the composition, watching the event with calm satisfaction. His guests sit to the right of him, while a woman dressed as a Dionysian Maenad plays music to the upper left. A statue of Dionysus, Olympic god of wine and ecstasy, can be seen in the distance.
In the lower half of the composition, hundreds, if not thousands, of roses are seen falling from the reversible ceiling. The ceiling is not shown in the painting, but it seems that it would’ve been composed of doors that opened on Heliogabalus’s command.
Alma-Tadema had these roses shipped from France and painted them individually. These roses fall on the figures strewn throughout the lower half of the composition. None of the figures seem startled or concerned. It’s as if the roses fell immediately and the figures below didn’t have enough time to react and save themselves.
Layers of Beauty
“The Roses of Heliogabalus” is a stunningly beautiful scene. Years ago, when I first saw it, I thought it was a painting of wind blowing flowers through a gathering of friends. It was pleasant and relaxing. It wasn’t until I read the name of the painting and did some research that I became aware of the story behind it.
We are often taken in by the immediate beauty of something. Time can stop when a person with otherworldly beauty crosses our path; beautiful items like clothing, jewelry, or cars can stimulate in us a possessive desire; even utopian ideologies, beautiful on the surface, can inspire in us a drive to accomplish what is seemingly impossible, irrespective of how we might affect others in the process.
“The Roses of Heliogabalus,” however, brings to my attention that beauty is layered. The pleasure provided by the immediacy of outer beauty does not get to the core of beauty’s nature. This does not mean that we should ignore or condemn outer beauty, however. Outer beauty has the ability to pull us in and stimulate our curiosity.
If we are not careful, however, aligning ourselves with people, things, and even ideologies that seem beautiful on the surface but turn out to be deeply ugly on the inside may result in our being overwhelmed, imprisoned, and suffocated by what we perceive to be beautiful.
Everything has consequences, even the seemingly beautiful. This is why outer beauty must be considered in relation to inner beauty; sensuous perception must be balanced with rational thought and a kind heart. Outer beauty is given to us by our senses, but inner beauty unfolds by way of reflective questions to which there might not be answers.
In a changing epoch, what questions will we have the courage to ask about our relationship to outer beauty, and how might this affect the development of our own beauty within?
Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).