Monday, November 07, 2011


Jacob de Backer (c. 1555 – c. 1585)
Envy, one of the Seven Deadly Sins
Oil on canvas
1.180 m. x 1.560m
Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples

Théodore Géricault
(1791 - 1824)
La Monomane de l'envie, also called La Hyène de la Salpêtrière
Oil on canvas
72 x. 58 cm

Géricault`s painting is meant to be a scientific work, a work of the scientific Enlightenment. A depiction of an unfortunate lady in La Salpêtrière in Paris, the hospital for the insane. One of the main symptoms of her illness was Envy. Envy is etched on her face. It has eaten her away. That is what, prior to the age of photography, Géricault meant to convey. It was to be an exemplar of what doctors were to look for when diagnosing patients.

In both paintings one sees Envy as an isolated, closed and frightened figure determined to do down others as if by damning others their own existence and superiority are secured.

One often sees such examples (but on a much lesser scale) in the workplace. They are the ones who come into an office and their eyes are darting everywhere.

Or when someone is invited to someone`s house for the first time, the person`s eyes seem to make a quick but detailed inventory of the house`s possessions. And afterwards can tell one what exactly the person had down to the last teaspoon

In the Second Terrace of Mount Purgatory, Dante meets the Envious in Purgatory (Cantos 13 - 15)

Envy is the feeling of offence at the perceived superiority of another person.

It is to be distinguished from jealousy which is distress at the possibility of another person getting one’s possessions.

René Girard wrote:

"Envy involuntarily testifies to the lack of being that puts the envious to shame. . . .That is why envy is the hardest sin to acknowledge."
(René Girard, A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) 4)

St Bernard of Clairvaux identified the sin of Envy with the gift of Sight:

"What is envy if not seeing evil. If the devil were not a basilisk, death would never have entered our world through his envy. Woe to the wretched man who has not forestalled envy. . . . Let no one look with envious eyes upon the goods of another."
(Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on Conversion, CF 25 (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1981) 226.)

According to John Milton, it was Envy which filled Satan and led him to plot the fall of Adam and Eve

Pope Benedict XV seemed to subscribe to Milton`s theory. In Ad Beatissimi Apostolrum (1st November 1914)

he wrote:

"Our Lord Jesus Christ came down from Heaven for the very purpose of restoring amongst men the Kingdom of Peace, which the envy of the devil had destroyed, and it was His will that it should rest on no other foundation than that of brotherly love. These are His own oft-repeated words: "A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another (John xiv. 34); "This is my commandment that you love one another" (John xv. 12); "These things I command you, that you love one another" (John xv. 17); as though His one office and purpose was to bring men to mutual love."

In his Encyclical written before the full onslaught of the First World War came to pass, he refers to "envy" repeatedly and the necessity to avoid and to overcome it as a precondition of peace

In Dante`s Purgatory, the envious sit huddled against the cliff of Purgatory. They lean against each other in their helplessness. People have to help and support each other. As part of their "cure", the dead have their eyes sealed: like hawks with a hood - so that they can be trained. Without sight, the temptation to sin is removed.

In the Cantos, Dante refers to Matthew v. 44, 45:

'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good.

On each Terrace, a Prayer is intoned. On this Terrace is intoned The Litany of the Saints (Litania Sanctorum). It has been described as the model litany of great antiquity

The Litany is the prayer asking for intercession of the saints on behalf of their sinful brothers and sisters still on their pilgrim way towards the heavenly Jerusalem, a sign of the Church on her pilgrim way.

The Biblical example of the Envious which Dante gives is the killing by Cain of Abel. The opposite is also referred to: Generosity and Mercy. Generosity is referred to in the story of The Marriage at Cana. ("They have nothing to drink") and Christ`s response to Mary`s persistent requests

Mercy is an aspect of fraternal co-existence, a reciprocal grace ‘for they shall obtain mercy

Virgil explains that envy destroys fraternal love while shared good increases good, increases love. By giving one does not diminish, one increases

Virgil tells Dante:

"Because are thither pointed your desires
Where by companionship each share is lessened,
Envy doth ply the bellows to your sighs.
But if the love of the supernal sphere
Should upwardly direct your aspiration,
There would not be that fear within your breast;
For there, as much the more as one says 'Our,'
So much the more of good each one possesses,
And more of charity in that cloister burns." (15.49-57)

When one prays for intercession, as in The Litany of the Saints, our intercessors are apt to hear and answer such prayers as that is the nature of the Good and of Love.