Henryk Siemiradzki's Painting 'Nero's Torches'
Pochodnie Nerona Henryka Siemiradzkiego
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On the basis of the presented sketches and their comparison with the known facts from the artist's life, the author succeeded in showing Siemiradzki's work on the painting. As can be seen that the concept of the work was not established a priori. The main conception and the meaning evolved with time. Initially, the painter intended to present the burning of martyrs in the evening setting and to literally visualize darkness. Ultimately, he opted out for a variant in which only the preparations to the execution are shown and the dusk can be interpreted only in an allegorical way. Siemiradzki approached the issue of chronology in showing the bas-reliefs in a somewhat arbitrary way. Some of them came from the Flavian period (e.g. the fragment of the 'Triumph of Titus' ), others from the time of Mark Aurelius (the bas-relief 'Adventus'), while others even from the time of Constantine the Great. The artist consciously juxtaposed with each other various objects, sometimes in such a way that one finds it difficult to conclude whether one is dealing with a compilation, or else a homogenous monument. The copied objects are not precise 'citations' (e.g. the Arch of Constantine). Although they come from different places and periods, altogether they make up a fanciful and imaginative whole. The artist had subordinated the principle of archeological correctness to the overriding idea of showing in a single place and time the whole wealth of imperial Rome. In other respects, Siemiradzki was also inconsistent. While faithful to the academic doctrine the artist was not enslaved by these principles. In an extremely skilful way, he tried to reconcile them with those non-academic values which may have additionally enriched the visual quality of the painting. The factor which determined the 'academic' value of 'Nero's Torches' was, among others, the selection of the topic, the triple unity of time, place and action and the composition of the presented groups of people, shown here in studied poses. The elements which constitute a departure from the accepted convention are among others: an arbitrary approach to historical truth and the discrepancy between the formal and expressive means which is made up of the martyrs. The innovative value of the 'Candlesticks of Christianity' consists in the intensity of its color scheme. What is non-academic is also the artist's use of photographs during the painting process. However, one should point out that the aspects defined as 'inconsistencies' or 'innovative elements' did not dominate the artist's form. One of the more interesting aspects of the history of this painting is its interpretation both in respect of its iconography and allegorical significance. The critics who commented on 'Nero's Torches' almost invariably tried to tell the 'story' of the painting. Here was Caesar and his retinue who came to the gardens to see the burning of Christians. Only a few of the characters - the gladiator, the Bacchant by the sphinx and the Greek maidens in the foreground - appear to sympathize with the martyrs. Their spiritual transformation is the harbinger of the eventual victory of those who are now dying for their faith. Such is the allegorical significance of the painting which is conformed by the inscription on the picture frame.
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