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Old 19th January 2006   #1
HSG
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Default Indulgence is no vice


The present-day association of beauty with diet-starvation and with exercise torture would have struck anyone living prior to 1900 as incomprehensible.

From the dawn of Classical civilization, right up until the 20th century, feminine beauty was equated with a tendency towards sensual indolence, and with a healthy delight in self-indulgence.

However, the transition from the Classical to the Christian age, at the time of the late Roman Empire, did initiate a moral revaluation of traditionally luxurious depictions of femininity. Rather than being worshipped as goddesses, well-fed beauties suddenly became regarded as temptresses, as femmes fatales. The dangerous associations of voluptuousness originated during this time--and lived on, well into the modern age.

But although the advent of Christianity reoriented society's moral compass with respect to these feminine characters, post-Classical artists never questioned their beauty of voluptuous vixens, even as they censured them for perceived moral shortcomings.

Was full-figured femininity considered dangerous? Yes. Sinful? Definitely. Morally suspect? Of course. But even to its greatest critics, its attractions remained undeniable.

* * *

One work of literature that captures the precise moment when the assessment of Classical femininity shifted from sacred to profane, from benevolent to dangerous, is a poem titled Psychomachia, penned by a Late Roman writer named Prudentius. Written in the 4th or 5th century A.D., this poem was composed as a time when Roman civilization was in its death-throes, and when the sun was setting on history's greatest empire.

The title of the poem, Psychomachia, means "battle for the soul," and that is exactly what Prudentius depicts in his poem--a battle between good and evil, in the form of a pitched conflict between personified components of the human psyche.

Representing the "good" side are personified virtues, such as Chastity, Patience, and Lowliness, while arrayed against them is a set of corresponding vices, such as Lust, Wrath, and Pride.

Most of the vices in the poem are eminently disagreeable, and their defeat at the hands of the virtues is not unwelcome. But one vice, very different from the rest, captivates the reader though her remarkably subversive and enticing qualities--and that is . . . Indulgence (in Latin, Luxuria).

Far from being unappealing, Indulgence is the one and only character in the entire Psychomachia (whether vice or virtue) who is described as ravishingly, physically beautiful. In fact, she is so attractive that

her beauty inspires the army
of her compatriots.

But the beauty that she exhibits is not a generic form of comeliness, but rather, it is specifically the soft, luxurious beauty that had been the ideal of femininity since earliest Antiquity.

Prudentius describes Indulgence in rapturous terms that prefigure Renassiance love sonnets, and lead the reader to question the writer's own moral commtiments:

Her curls are perfumed, her restless eyes are not still,
her voice is languid . . .

And he ascribes to her a love of ease, and la dolce vita:

She lives for pleasure,
she wants all feelings to be calm and gentle.

The virtue who opposes Indulgence admonishes her by stating,

You have revelled in your excess of sweetness.

Prudentius also bestows three handmaidens on Indulgence, who personify aspects of her own nature: "Vanity," "Allurement," and "Pleasure."

Prudentius's irresistibly beautiful temptress more than lives up to her name, for the reader is told that

As she arrives on the scene she is lazy . . .
because of a long feast she has just left.

If Indulgence reminds you of any other icon of womanly beauty, she should. Although Prudentius does not make the connection explicit, his description of Indulgence clearly associates her with Venus, the Classical goddess of beauty, whose

delight is all in joyfulness,
In beds, in bowers, in banquets, and in feasts

(as Spenser writes in The Faerie Queene, III.vi.22).

And Indulgence's three attendants--Vanity, Allurement, and Pleasure--are undoubtedly a refashioning of the Three Graces, with whom Venus enjoys dancing on the island of Cythera, according to Greek myth.

Although the Romans traditionally revered the goddess Venus, the empire's adoption of Christianity made her a highly problematic deity, owing to her pagan nature. In fact, the first virtue/vice pair that clash in the poem is "Faith" versus "Worship-of-the-Old-Gods"; and Venus inevitably belongs to the latter group.

In the Psychomachia proper, Idulgence initially wins the battle against her opposing virtues--not through martial combat, but in a manner that has been associated with femmes fatales ever afterwards; i.e., through her feminine wiles:

She does not shoot arrows from her bow, no lances
are hurled at the enemy's lines, she holds no sword.
Rather she throws baskets of violets and roses
and scatters blossoms over her fierce enemy . . .
The virtues are won by her charms. Her sweetened breath
dilutes their manly courage . . .

Prudentius also associates Indulgence/Venus with the opulent trappings that have ever been associated with voluptuous beauty, and contribute to its allure:

They put down their spears and their feeble hands are still
while they gaze at the chariot in which she came.
They stare at the gold-encrusted tinkling harness
and they are awed by the axle of solid gold.
The costly spokes, made of purest silver, support
the wheel's bright rim which is made of precious amber.
As this happens, the entire army suddenly
finds itself pervaded with an intense desire
to surrender. More than anything else they hope
to abandon their standards and become the slaves
of luxurious Indulgence.

Ultimately, of course, Indulgence is defeated by her opposing virtue, in order to reaffirm the poem's moral imperative. But the subversive power of this "vice" is undeniable, and to any reader who approaches the work aesthetically rather than didactically, she remains the poem's most captivating figure.

Prudentius's association of Indulgence with beauty has a number of fascinating implications.

First, the poem suggests that indulgence is an essential characteristic of feminine beauty, an aspect of "allurement."

Second, it intimates that beautiful women are particularly inclined towards indulgence.

And third, it implies that indulgence has a hand in creating beauty (through enriching womanly curves).

And while all of these characteristics are presented as morally questionable (according to Prudentius's moral scheme), the author never subverts or diminishes the sensual appeal of his reconfigured Venus.

* * *

Whether it was considered a virtue (as in the Classical age), or a dangerous but alluring vice (as in the early Christian age), or a mixture of both (as in the Renaissance, and ever afterwards), voluptuous beauty was held in awe throughout Western history. Only in our modern age, which is in the grip of alien ideologies that run contrary to the legacy of Western culture, has this timeless association between beauty and indulgence been obscured.

But as society increasingly breaks free of media brainwashing, and rediscovers its essential human inclinations, these timeless associations will reemerge, and generously-indulged beauty will regain its time-honoured status as the epitome of feminine allure.

Barbara Brickner modelling for Carnival Bridal, in an image that surpasses even her Mode editorials in presenting her in the guise of a Classical goddess:

.........................

Source:

Prudentius, "Psychomachia." The Last Poets of Imperial Rome. Trans. Harold Isbell. 1971.


Last edited by HSG : 27th November 2009 at 08:12.
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Old 19th January 2006   #2
kirsten
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Default Re: Indulgence is no vice

What I enjoy about the classical (and then Renaissance and Romantic) writers is their skill in expressing their concerns with the art of metaphor and symbol, in stark contrast to modern times in which imagination has been compromised by insistence on literalism and polemics.
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Old 19th January 2006   #3
Emily
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Default Re: Indulgence is no vice

I'm not surprised that indulgence has been associated with feminine beauty throughout history. It seems like a much more natural connection than trying to pretend that deprivation and anorexia are somehow attractive. Whenever I hear Hollywood's starlets praised for being "beautiful" when they all look like diseased famine victims, practically on the point of death, I shake my head in disbelief.

And reading this post reminded me just how subversive Mode magazine really was. It not only revived the Classical ideal of beauty in the physical form of contemporary plus-size models, but also the quintessentially feminine attributes that were associated with it, such as a love of pleasure and "the sweet life" (in every sense of the word).

Today, when there is so much warfare in the world, it's hard to fault a goddess (even one who has been transformed into a "vice") who can stop a battle with "scatter[ed] blossoms" and "baskets of violets and roses."

And pictures like Barbara's masterpiece, featured in this thread, make me believe that if Titian or Botticelli had ever encountered a model as beautiful as she, the history of painting would be blessed with even greater works of art than it currently possesses.
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