Like “The Wedding at Cana”, a jpeg of one of Veronese’s most iconic works doesn’t do justice to its eminent presence at the end of the Frick Collection’s grand foyer. In America’s most famous room of masterpieces, it is at the head of the table.
The painting has had a quite colorful history before crossing the Atlantic to it’s current residence, bouncing around Europe as a spoil of war and political instability. Over the past few centuries, its owners have included the Holy Roman Emporer Rudolf II, Queen Christiana II of Sweden-best known for her controversial conversion to Roman Catholicism and relinquishing of her throne, and the conniving aristocrat Louis Phillipe II, Duke of Orleans, who made his departure via the guillotine during the Reign of Terror in France during the 1790′s.
Other wrinkles in the painting’s past included a stint as war loot–it was taken from Prague during the ban on art amidst the Thirty Years War, and later was shifted from France to England during the French Revolution, as ruling powers began to move their threatened valuables to safe havens.
The painting’s timeless subject matter has been just as durable. In a scene inspired from the writings of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we find Hercules in a moment of pious humility to the presence of Wisdom, most likely following his moral dillema at the crossroads between Virtue and Vice. (the subject of another work by Veronese, which sits directly next to “Wisdom and Strength”)
Veronese’s positioning of the figures places the mighty Hercules below Wisdom, almost slumping downward, with light overshadowing him to be cast upon her. The underlying message here is that Hercules’ strength, by no means compares to the virtues of divine understanding.
The work’s description from a recent exhibition of “Veronese’s Allegories..” at the Frick:
“A richly dressed female figure — Wisdom — looks upward to heaven while divine light shines on her face. She stands over a globe symbolizing the world. Below her are crowns, scepters, jewels, coins, and military banners. Cupid sits on the right, while Hercules with his lion’s skin and resting on his club, stands as a symbol of power, force, brute strength, and even violence. The inscription on the pedestal of the column to the left is a quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes: ALL IS VANITY. All earthly things (power, kingship, nations, wars, love, and strength) are therefore meaningless compared to celestial ones, as embodied by Divine.”