Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Envy and Jealousy

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Le Temps soustrait la Vérité aux atteintes de l'Envie et de la Discorde
Time rescues Truth from the Clutches of Envy and Discord
1641 - 1642
Oil on canvas
Diameter: 297 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The painting was commissioned by the great Cardinal de Richelieu for the main office room of his Palace. It was one of a number of works commissioned by the Cardinal from Poussin when the artist was in Paris

The figures are larger than life. It was hung in a very prominent position in the Cardinal`s office. This was the office of the man who had determined the fate of his nation and of Europe for many a long year.

Truth is pulled towards the Light. Truth`s face is lit up in ecstasy and he is stretching out his arms towards his destination of  the Light. His face is like marble, like some kind of divinity.

Time is pulling Truth towards the divine destination. Is it Time or Eternity ? The small cherub holding the tail of Time is a symbol of Eternity.

Truth is being rescued from Envy and Discord shown as seated at the bottom of the work.

Envy naturally is coloured green. So are his clothes. As are the serpents which envelop Envy. Venomous green. His face betrays pain, agony and depression.

Red is the colour of Envy`s twin,  Discord. The colour of anger and violence. Red is the visage and dress. Like the flames of his lanyard and the wounds inflicted by his dagger.

The red and the green do not conduct  friendly debates but all out civil war. It is from these horrific characters that Time rescues Truth in an Assumption or Apotheosis towards the Light.

But did Richelieu intend there to be a religious effect or was it purely political ?

One should remind oneself of Richelieu`s reputed last words:
« Pardonnez- vous à vos ennemis? — Je n'en ai pas eu d'autres que ceux du Roi et de l'État. »

Despite the self justification of the person who commissioned the work, the allegory depicted shows the intimate relation of Envy and Discord and the destruction associated with them. It was a constant and recurrent theme in medieval Church preaching and teaching.

Envy is one of the seven deadly sins.

Basil Cole OP in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology  defines it thus:

"Envy is a sadness at the success or good achieved by another. Someone’s good fortune or even virtue is seen by someone captivated by this vice as a personal threat. 
Its offspring are tale-bearing, detraction, joy at another’s misfortune, and grief at another’s prosperity. 
The Catechism adds to this notion that it is a refusal of charity (§2540), which would be a rejoicing in the goodness of someone else as a gift from God to the community"

Envy is an offence of the Second Great Command: "Love Your Neighbour as Yourself". It was set out in the Tenth Commandment which according to the Catechism (§2534)  "concerns the intentions of the heart; with the ninth, it summarizes all the precepts of the Law." 

It is not a frequent theme in the visual arts. Here is a work from the 15th Century

Antonio della Corna (active last quarter of the 15th Century)
Saint Julian the Hospitaller believing to surprise his Wife and a Lover, Kills His Parents
c. 1488
Oil on panel
53 by 60 1/8 in.; 134.5 by 152.7 cm.
Private collection

The Cremonese artist Della Corna may have been a  pupil of Mantegna

The Latin inscription in the painting HOC Q[UOD] MANTENEE DIDICI[T] SVB DOGMATE/ CLARI-/ ANTONI CORNE DEXTERA PINXIT/ OPVS can be translated thus: This work, which he learned under the instruction of the famous Mantegna, was painted by the hand of Antonio della Corna'

But the theme of envy and jealousy is certainly not infrequent in literature. But it was not and is not a popular theme. 

An early example is found in that great unread and ignored work: The Parson`s Tale in The Canterbury Tales

It was probably meant by Chaucer to be the last Tale and the climax of his work.

The Parson calls  envy  the worst of sins, a sin against the Holy Spirit itself. Its gravity is because,
 "for in truth, all other sins are at times directed against one special virtue alone. But envy takes sorrow in all the blessings of his neighbour" ("Parson’s Tale," 488-489).

.In her last novel The Finishing School, Dame Muriel Spark considered the vices of envy and jealousy. It is a fascinating insight into  the most destructive of emotions. 

 Envy and jealousy dominate the relationship of Rowland and Chris. Rowland is a teacher at the Finishing School where one of his pupils is Chris. Rowland teaches creative writing and is an author manque Chris  seems to be successful in writing his first novel. Rowland has dried up. 

His envy of Chris grows and eventually the result is mutual self-destruction:

"But we come back to Chris as he and his two friends were watched from the window by Rowland: of all the pupils Chris caused Rowland the most disquiet. He was writing a novel, yes. Rowland, too, was writing a novel, and he wasn’t going to say how good he thought Chris was. 

A faint twinge of that jealousy which was to mastermind Rowland’s coming months, growing in intensity small hour by hour, seized Rowland as he looked. 
What was Chris talking about to the two others? Was he discussing the lesson he had just left?
Rowland wanted greatly to enter Chris’s mind. He was ostensibly a close warm friend of Chris — and in a way it was a true friendship — Where did Chris get his talent? He was self-assured.

  ‘You know, Chris,’ Rowland had said, ‘I don’t think you’re on the right lines. You might scrap it and start again.’...

According to the catechism of the Roman Catholic faith, into which Rowland had been born, six sins against the Holy Spirit are specified. The fourth is ‘Envy of Another’s Spiritual Good’, and that was the sin from which Rowland suffered.
Suffered is the right word, as it often is in cases where the perpetrators are in the clutches of their own distortions. With Rowland, his obsessive jealousy of Chris was his greatest misfortune. And jealousy is an affliction of the spirit which, unlike some sins of the flesh, gives no-one any pleasure. It is a miserable emotion for the jealous one with equally miserable effects on others.....

       Chris pondered on the nature of jealousy. ... although he knew the sensation, and could recognize it in others. He had sometimes envied other boys, and recognized the feeling as a sort of admiration. He knew what it was to want what others had and that he had not, such as a stable family life. And Chris also understood that when it came to looking closely at the thing or condition desired (such as other children’s ‘stable family life’) in fact it didn’t seem so very desirable, if indeed it existed at all.

What is jealousy? Jealousy is to say, what you have got is mine, it is mine, it is mine? Not quite. It is to say, I hate you because you have got what I have not got and desire. I want to be me, myself, but in your position, with youropportunities, your fascination, your looks, your abilities, your spiritual good.
Chris, like any of us, would have been astonished if he had known that Rowland, through jealousy, had thought with some tormented satisfaction of Chris dying in his sleep." 
Muriel Spark,  The Finishing School

1 comment:

  1. This has inspired my meditation - thank you for a most helpful post.