Claus de Werve, Virgin and Child, c. 1415 – 17. Limestone with paint and gilding. 53 3/8 x 41 1/8 x 27 in.
Envy, lust, love, anger, happiness, sadness, fear, jealousy. In one word: Feelings. Some say they are what make us human, others spend their lives learning not to be dominated by them. Whether you side with the former or the latter, it is undeniable that feelings are one of the most fascinating aspects of life. How do we, as humans, express them? Thanks to the forty-two muscles in our faces, we can convey an incredible number of emotions—more than 10,000.
And yet, researchers estimate that there are only six universally recognized facial expressions: fear, anger, disgust, happiness, and sadness. Recent studies—such as those conducted by the American sociologist Arlie R. Hochschild—illustrate that emotions are social products. This means that each culture will have its own variations and blueprints to guide how we manage and express feelings within our own communities.
From the Mesopotamian and Egyptian statues of gods with impassive and dignified expressions to Caravaggio’s drama, artists have long been exploring human feelings through a variety of media and different perspectives.
Love and anger, opposite as well as complementary forces, provide us with some of the most captivating examples of the representation of emotions through art.
LOVE
Love can take many forms: it can be the affection between parents and children, the passion of two lovers, or, for those who believe, it can take the form of faith. Among the most famous paintings on love is Birthday by the early Modernist Marc Chagall (1887-1985).
Marc Chagall, Birthday, 1915. Oil on cardboard. 31 3/4 x 39 1/4 in.
The painting shows Chagall and his then-wife-to-be Bella a few weeks before their marriage. The setting is ordinary. A bright living room holds everyday objects that are easily recognizable: a cake, cups, a money purse.
Chagall kisses Bella while floating over her. She holds a bouquet of flowers and seems to be just taking off. Chagall’s closed eyes, the saturated colors, and the dream-like portrayal of an ordinary day tell us how love should make us feel: Head over heels, floating in an unremarkable room, perhaps even holding some flowers.
A different yet equally powerful and intimate representation of love was attributed to the Netherlandish sculptor Claus de Werve (c. 1380-1439) with his Virgin and Child.
Claus de Werve, Virgin and Child, c. 1415 – 17. Limestone with paint and gilding. 53 3/8 x 41 1/8 x 27 in.
Detail of Biblical script in Claus de Werve’s Virgin and Child.
At first glance, the scene also appears ordinary, just a mother and her child reading together. Baby Jesus looks up towards Mary, while she protectively wraps her arm around him. It is primarily a depiction of parental love, but notes of love as faith can also be detected.
The theological theme—Jesus as God incarnate and Mary, the vessel that birthed him—is revealed by a Latin inscription on the bench taken from the Book of Ecclesiasticus “From the beginning, and before the word, was I created.”
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Rage of Achilles, 1757. Fresco. Villa Valmarana ai Nani.
ANGER
Anger can be born out of jealousy, the desire for revenge, envy, or injustice. One of the most fascinating examples of anger and its consequences is the Iliad, the famous ancient Greek epic poem, that begins with the word μῆνιν (menin), wrath. The anger belongs to Achilles, the greatest of all Greek warriors, who had been insulted and humiliated by Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae. The king demanded the relinquishment of Achilles’s war prize, the slave Briseis, in order to take her for himself.
Giambattista Tiepolo’s The Rage of Achilles (1757) is a fresco located at Villa Valmarana ai Nani in Vicenza, Italy, that explores the effect of anger on the warrior. The scene depicts an enraged Achilles flinging himself towards Agamemnon. Achilles draws his sword, but the goddess of war and wisdom, Minerva, grabs him by his hair and holds him back. Achilles’ corrugated brows and contracted muscles suggest the coexistence of the anger towards his enemy and the surprise caused by Minerva’s actions.
Recently, portrayals of enraged women have been used to challenge the assumption that anger does not belong in the female world. Traditionally, artists have depicted irate women as monsters—for instance, Medusa or the Sphinx—a convention that contributed to the idea that angry women are ugly, hysterical, or simply ridiculous. The wrath and revenge of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1620) is arguably one of the best examples of the artist’s catharsis through anger.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, Truth Coming Out of Her Well, 1896. Oil on canvas.
An 1896 painting by Jean-Leon Gérôme depicts the allegory of Truth entitled, Truth Coming Out of Her Well. Truth is rendered as a naked, angry, and screaming woman who emerges from a well holding a whip in her hand, ready to chastise mankind. The anger is palpable and her nudity does not suggest lust, but power and strength. It is possibly inspired by the saying, “The naked truth.”
Once again art comes to our rescue. Whether we’re feeling enraged like Truth or in love like Chagall and Bella, we can take comfort in the fact that we have not been the first and we won’t be the last. Artists have always used their talents and portrayed these feelings. In turn, we can be inspired, moved, or confused. Alas! More feelings.  
Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.
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