Allegories in Art I: The Passage of Time

I. A Dance to the Music of Time [c. 1638-40] by Nicolas Poussin

This colourful painting shows four differently-dressed figures who dance to “the Music of Time”, with Time represented by an old man with wings playing a lyre. The figures’ hands are inter-locked and they are supposed to be in a perpetual motion, symbolising the cycle of life. They dance near a pillar topped by a double-faced Janus, the god of beginnings, transitions and endings. One of his heads is facing the future, while the other is facing the past. On the right, a putto holds an hourglass, while on the left, a putto is carelessly blowing bubbles, further alluding to the transience of human life. The painting scene takes place in the morning since Aurora, the goddess of dawn, leads the way for Apollo’s chariot through the sky. In turn, Apollo holds in his hands the Zodiac ring, and the Horae, the goddess of the seasons, conclude the procession.

One interpretation (given by Bellori) is that the four figures represent (i) Poverty; (ii) Labour; (iii) Wealth; and (iv) Leisure, with each taking the place of another in their circular dance as time passes (music continues) (“the four states that the mankind is fated to experience”). Taking this interpretation into account, Wealth will be in white and Poverty will be in black, both being oblivious to one another since their backs are facing each other (the wealthy will never understand the poor (and vice versa)). It also happens that Labour and Leisure do not see eye to eye, either. However, all four are inter-dependent. Another interpretation is that the figures are, in fact, the Four Seasons: (i) Spring; (ii) Summer; (iii) Autumn; and (iv) Winter. The painting can be seen in the Wallace Collection in London.

II. Passing Days [1878] by John Melhuish Strudwick

John Melhuish Strudwick (1849 – 1937) was a British Pre-Raphaelite painter and a pupil of artist Edward Burne-Jones. As in his other paintings, this one mixes medieval and Renaissance styles, while paying a close attention to details (see also Strudwick’s painting A Golden Thread [1885], which I included in my discussion of Fortune & Fate in Art).

Passing Days seems to suggest that we should not be dismissive to the present moment, and our insensitivity to the passing hours heralds our doom in terms of pain and regret experienced later in life. The best-known commentary to the painting is that provided by George Bernard Shaw in Art Journal of 1891: “In Passing Days, a man sits watching the periods of his life pass in procession from the future into the past. He stretches out his hands to the bygone years of his youth at the prompting of Love; but Time interposes the blade of his scythe between them; and the passing hour covers her face and weeps bitterly. The burdened years of age are helped by the strength of those that go before; and then comes a year which foresees death and shrinks from it, though the last year, which death overtakes, has lost all thought of it. As a pictorial poem, this subject could hardly be surpassed; and it is not unlikely that it will be painted again and again by different hands…”.

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