Fortune & Fate in Art

Allegorie de la Fortune [1615] by Francken Frans II, The Younger, depicting Fortuna as a lady balancing on a ball, with one hand holding a sail and with another bestowing to some the treasures of the sea.

People have always been obsessed with the question of fate: what does the future hold? Is it possible to reverse the course of one’s destiny? In ancient and medieval times, mortality was particularly high and people felt they had little control over their lives, coupled with the fact that they also usually had little opportunity to move up the societal ladder and were “stuck” in their roles from birth until death. Moreover, those born rich had all the chances to lose everything, and violent death, war, famine, incurable illness and infant death were all just around the corner for all. In this unpredictable environment, appeasing the gods and goddesses of destiny and chance must have been an important task, especially for farmers, soldiers and sailors. After all, these deities were capable of ensuring the survival against all odds and the enduring of the worst and, anyways, a miracle can happen at any moment. It is also partly for that reason that premonitions, dreams and fortune-telling rituals have all been part of various cultures around the world, and Fortuna or Lady Luck in Europe has often been portrayed as ever-changing and fickle, as capable of giving much suddenly as taking it all away in a split second. So, how was Fate presented in art?

Fortuna spinning the Wheel of Fortune in Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (On the Fates of Famous Men) [1467, 1355 – 1374]

I. Fortuna was a Roman goddess of luck and good fortune that was frequently portrayed as a neutral-looking or blindfolded lady who spun randomly the Wheel of Fortune (Rota Fortunae), a device capable of deciding who will die and who will live, who will get rich and who will become poor, who will experience joy and happiness and who – all the pain and suffering. She never paid attention to individual factors of people, thus damning some to pain and suffering, while granting immense blessing and fortune to others. In Greek mythology, Fortuna’s counterpart was Tyche, a goddess at times depicted with wings, who was responsible for all kinds of events, especially those concerning a city: sudden draughts, floods and political changes, but also for the outcomes of individual athletic contests. The only constant with Fortuna seemed to be constant change. It is also for that very reason that Niccolò Machiavelli in his treatise The Prince [1532] gave the advice for rulers to try walking alongside the ever-changing Fortune, changing as She does and directing their actions “to the spirit of the times”, rather than relying blindly on chance alone. Machiavelli also made it clear in his work that Fortuna only shows Her true power when Courage has not made the necessary preparations to resist Her. 

A Spanish manuscript (c. 12th century) showing Fortuna and the Wheel with Four Kings

The image on the left is an illustration from a twelfth century Spanish manuscript. It shows the crowned Fortuna spinning her Wheel that depicts the four Kings, who, in turn, represent the four stages of life. The Latin inscription of each says: “Regnabo” (“I shall reign”), “Regno” (“I reign”), “Regnavi” (“I have reigned”) and “Sum Sine Regno” (“I am without reign”). Fortuna can simply turn the Wheel, and, suddenly, each of the Kings would find that their position in life changed dramatically. That is Fortune’s caprice.

The arbitrariness of fate and the Wheel of Fortune also formed a significant part of the eleventh/thirteenth century Latin Goliardic manuscript of poems Carmina Burana (Burana Codex). In 1936, the twenty-four poems in this work were set to music by German composer Carl Orff. For example, the “O Fortuna” piece have these words “you are changeable, first oppresses and then soothes, playing with mental clarity…poverty, power it melts them like ice” (translation from the Latin.)

The Three Fates or the Moirai [c. 1910] by Alexander Rothaug

II. The ancient Greeks also spoke of The Moirae (The Fates), a trio of sisters who were considered to be the Rulers of Destiny and whose parents were Erebus (Darkness and Shadow) and Nyx (Night). The first sister (Clotho) spun the yarn, the second (Lachesis) drew out the thread and the third (Atropos) – cut it. In other words, Clotho, the Spinner, started a man’s life, also representing the Present, Lachesis decided the number of years allocated to a man, also representing the Future, and Atropos was tasked with ending a man’s life by cutting the thread, choosing the exact manner and time of his death, also representing the Past. Their Roman equivalent were The Parcae sisters: Nona, Decima and Morta.

A Golden Thread [exhibited 1885] by John Melhuish Strudwick

In this painting to the left by English Pre-Raphaelite artist John Strudwick (1849 – 1937), the Fates are spinning the thread of life using grey and golden threads (the golden one is used to measure a person’s life-span). The third sister, Antropos (Morta), who is responsible for cutting the thread, appears contemplative here, almost bored, waiting for her to turn to end a person’s life after her sister “measured” and “counted” all the allotted years. Moreover, there are also three Fates to be found in the Norse mythology – The Norns. They spun the thread of life at the roots of Yggdrasil, a giant sacred ash-tree supporting the Universe.

An artist’s depiction of the Seven Lucky Gods [c. 1878]

III. In Japanese folklore, Shichifukujin (七福神 “shichi” means “seven”, “fuku” – “luck” and “jin” – “person”) are the Seven Lucky Gods (or the Seven Gods of Good Fortune). Originating from various traditions, including Buddhism, Shinto and Hinduism, their names are: (i) Ebisu; (ii) Daikoku; (iii) Benten; (iv) Bishamon; (v) Fukurokuju; (vi) Jurojin; and (vii) Hotei. Together, the Gods represent general good fortune, but each also possesses their own characteristics. For example, Benten, who is often presented as playing a lute and riding a dragon or an ox, is the goddess of love, fertility, beauty and knowledge, the only female in the group and, in the Buddhist tradition, a patron of wealth, literature and music; Bishamon is the god of “happiness and war” (“the defender of the nation”), wearing an armour and carrying a lance, protecting warriors; and Ebisu is the god of work (“honest labour”) from the Shinto tradition, often depicted carrying a fishing rod or a sea bream and smiling at his good catch, being worshipped by tradesmen, farmers, fishermen and kitchen workers.

The Seven Lucky Gods aboard Treasure-Ship by Hiroshige, completed in a ukiyo-e style [c. 1840]

The woodblock painting above by Hiroshige (1797 – 1858) depicts the Seven Lucky Gods on a ship Takarabune (宝船 the Treasure Ship). It is said that on the New Year’s Eve, the Gods board their Treasure Boat and come down to earth on those first days of the New Year, bringing happiness and good fortune to people, as well as giving presents. Thus, it is common to pay respects to the Gods at temples in Japan before that date and some children hide pictures of the Gods under their pillows so that, upon waking up on the New Year’s morning, they can discover presents. As was customary, Hiroshige depicted the boat of the Seven Lucky Gods with a single mast, a single sail and with a dragon’s head for a figurehead at the bow of the ship.

10 thoughts on “Fortune & Fate in Art

  1. The Hiroshige painting is so colourful and vibrant and possibly my favourite! As for the Kings on Fortune’s wheel, I’m sure I’ve seen a couple of medieval images which have included King Arthur as part of the quartet rising and falling. I have to admit though that my go to metaphor for what’s to come are the Fates at their spinning and weaving: it’s such a stunning image and so applicable to strands of story, personal narratives, themes and patterns. Thanks for this overview!

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  2. I find it surprising that the Western gods that you mention here are all women. Even the group of Japanese deities appear to have a female member. Women rarely get to wield such power. Great post! I love the images that you chose.

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    1. Thank you! And yes, it appears odd, I agree, but there are a number of Greek goddesses that come to my mind that take over even very manly affairs such as Themis, the goddess of justice and Athena, who, among other things, presided over war and military strategies. Unfortunately, yes, I don’t think this translated to any position of power among women in real life. I think it is also telling that these goddesses in the Western tradition (Fortuna, The Fates) were in charge of quite sinister tasks. I also read that Benten in the Japanese tradition was a much later addition to this group of Gods.

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