The information age has also brought about a massive amount of misinformation. There’s so much available information that it’s difficult to know what is true and what is false, and because of this, some of us might fall victim to what we call “fake news.”
It’s not only the media that spreads misinformation. A coworker, a friend, or even a family member does so, too. More specifically, someone may spread lies about us. How should we handle these circumstances? The painting “Calumny of Apelles” by Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli might offer us some insights.
Before we can interpret Botticelli’s painting, it is necessary to know a little about what inspired it.
Botticelli was inspired by the story of the ancient Greek painter Apelles. Apelles was considered one of the greatest painters of his time. He was so great, in fact, that some of his contemporaries became jealous of him. One of these artists, Antiphilos, sought to ruin Apelles by telling King Ptolemy I that Apelles was involved in a conspiracy against him.
As a result, Apelles was thrown in jail and was nearly executed. Some accounts suggest that Apelles painted “Calumny” as an argument for his innocence, but it’s unclear how he would have done this from prison. Others suggest that Apelles was freed after the real conspirators testified in favor of his innocence. Either way, Apelles painted “Calumny” because of the spread of misinformation.
One of the few known descriptions of Apelles’s “Calumny” was offered by the Greek writer Lucian. Around 1,500 years later, Botticelli would come across Lucian’s description of Apelles’s painting and would try to re-create it himself from the description alone.
Botticelli’s ‘Calumny of Apelles’
In “Calumny of Apelles,” Botticelli reinterpreted Lucian’s description of Apelles’s painting. A group of 10 figures are painted in an environment of ornate, classical friezes depicting stories from Christianity and Greek mythology on columns that open out onto a calm seascape.
Instead of painting King Ptolemy as the arbiter of Apelles’s fate, however, Botticelli painted King Midas. In Greek mythology, Apollo turned King Midas’s ears into donkey’s ears when King Midas suggested that Pan was a better musician than Apollo. And here, at the far right side of the composition, Botticelli painted King Midas with donkey’s ears.
Two women hold up Midas’s ears and whisper the lies about Apelles into them.
King Midas outstretches his hand toward Rancor, who is represented as a male figure in black clothing. With a furrowed brow, Rancor juts his fingers toward the eyes of King Midas as if to blind him.
Rancor leads Calumny, a woman dressed in white and blue, by the arm. She holds a torch in one hand and pulls an almost nude Apelles by the hair. Two women representing Fraud and Perfidy are adorning Calumny’s hair with braids and flowers.
Behind these figures, dressed in black, is an older female figure called Remorse. She looks back at Truth, who points and looks up toward the heavens as she modestly covers herself.
The Stages of Misinformation
In order for us to come to an understanding of this painting and how to handle misinformation, it is first necessary to have a fuller understanding of what these figures represent.
The fact that King Midas has been substituted for King Ptolemy I colors the story considerably. It is no longer just a crime against one artist, Apelles, but also implicates Ptolemy in a sin against the divine. King Midas’s inability to adequately judge the musical contest between Apollo and Pan suggests that he was either unwilling or unable to recognize divine truth and excellence. His presence in this painting may even symbolize resistance to divine truths.
The two women, Ignorance and Suspicion, whisper into King Midas’s donkey ears—symbols of the divine retribution placed upon Midas for his inability to properly discern the divine. The fact that they hold up his donkey ears to whisper into them reiterates the ignorance and suspicion that King Midas used to judge divine truth. Midas’s ignorance and suspicion cause him to judge poorly in both the contest between Apollo and Pan and here where Apelles’s life is at stake.
Ignorance and suspicion of divine truths are the beginning of Midas’s misinformation. Ignorance and suspicion also cause him to lean forward and point to the figure Rancor. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “rancor” suggests a long-standing feeling of resentment and animosity.
The fact that Rancor represents a long-standing feeling of resentment instead of a momentary lapse in judgment suggests several things. First, it suggests the power of our ignorance and suspicion in leading to and maintaining resentment and animosity over time.
Second, it suggests that this painting is about an attitude toward the divine that goes beyond the moment of Apelles’s imprisonment; it suggests that this painting is about long-standing resentment and animosity toward divine truths.
Finally, Rancor’s body language—the fact that his hand juts out toward Midas as if to attack his eyes or obscure his vision—also suggests that long-standing resentment and animosity can eventually make one blind with hatred toward the truth.
Rancor leads Calumny by the arm, which suggests that resentment and animosity are precursors to calumny. Calumny represents the malicious and false representation of something toward the aim of damaging its representation. Perfidy and Fraud beautify Calumny, which suggests that calumny must be beautified if its lies are to be believed.
Calumny also holds a torch in her hand. A torch typically represents illumination and knowledge; it represents the counterpart of ignorance. Here, however, Calumny’s so-called illumination is not the counterpart of ignorance but supports ignorance. Her flame suggests that her falsehoods are mistaken for illuminating truths.
So far, it appears that Botticelli painted for us the stages that occur when misinformation spreads. First we are ignorant and suspicious of the truth, and not of any truth but of divine truths. Second, our ignorance and suspicion of the truth cause us to develop long-standing resentment and animosity toward divine truth, and this further blinds us from seeing the truth. Finally, with divine truth so fully obscured, we easily accept misinformation as if it were the truth.
Toward the Love of Truth
So what is truth according to Botticelli’s painting? Botticelli painted two representations of truth: Apelles is the first, and the second is Truth herself. Apelles, like Truth, is almost completely bare. Every other figure in the painting is completely clothed, but Apelles and Truth are exposed, which lets us know that they are presenting themselves authentically and with integrity.
Also, Apelles places his hands in prayer. Despite the onslaught of lies around him, he doesn’t plead with any of the other figures. He doesn’t turn toward Calumny to extinguish her flame, nor does he bow at the feet of Midas to beg for his life. Instead, he prays, and this suggests that he recognizes an authentic truth beyond his immediate environment. It also suggests that the truth can’t be found in this hubbub that is resistant to the divine but must be found in the divine itself.
Calumny pulls Apelles by the hair with her other hand. She pulls Apelles behind Rancor toward Midas to be judged. Of course, any judgment cast upon Apelles by Midas wouldn’t be based on truth because Midas is surrounded by so many representations of falsehood and misinformation, and is himself a representation of someone misled and manipulated.
At the composition’s far left side, Truth looks and points up to the heavens. As she is a representation of Truth, it seems that Botticelli has her point directly to where he believed truth dwells, which is with God in heaven. Despite everything that happens with Apelles below, the representation of Truth reminds him that actual Truth exists with the divine—beyond this onslaught of misinformation.
Remorse looks back at Truth as she slowly moves her way toward King Midas. We can presume that Remorse will make her way to the king at some point, when all the other figures have dispersed. With her focus on Truth, Remorse will expose the lies and misinformation, and confound Midas with remorse for falling victim to calumny. In the end, we presume, truth will prevail.
In the midst of so much misinformation, how might we turn to God to discern what is true and what is false? How might we align with truth despite the falsehoods we might have to endure? How can we learn to live with a love of divine truth?
Have you ever seen a work of art that you thought was beautiful but had no idea what it meant? In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret the classical visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We try to approach each work of art to see how our historical creations might inspire within us our own innate goodness.