Feel Art Again: "The Roses of Heliogabalus"

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Alma-Tadema---Roses-of-Heliogabalus.jpg

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's "The Roses of Heliogabalus" is one of his most famous paintings, and also a representation of one of the most well-known stories about the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus. As the second part of our feature on Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, today's post will focus on "The Roses of Heliogabalus" and the emperor himself. (If you missed it the first time around, check out Tuesday's post for details on the artist.)

1. "The Roses of Heliogabalus" depicts guests of Emperor Heliogabalus being suffocated by a shower of rose petals for the entertainment of the emperor. The original tale of the event mentions violets as the flowers of death. At the time of the painting, though, roses were symbolic of sensual beauty, corruption, and death, which may be why Tadema chose to use them.

2. For "The Roses of Heliogabalus," Tadema ordered roses from the Riviera even though it was winter. For four months, he had blossoms delivered weekly to his London studio so he could achieve the realistic look for which he became famous.

3. Heliogabalus, also known as Elagabalus, was born Varius Avitas Bassianus. He served as a priest of the god El-Gabal; at age 14, due in large part to his grandmother's finagling, he became emperor. Four years later, at the age of 18, he was assassinated, which some sources also attribute to his grandmother's finagling.

4. Despite his short life, Heliogabalus managed to marry at least 5 women, one of whom was a Vestal Virgin. He also referred to a male charioteer, Hierocles, as his "husband" and supposedly married another male athlete, Zoticus, in a public ceremony in Rome.

5. According to some accounts, Heliogabalus offered a significant sum of money to whomever could make him a woman. He was also said to have worn make-up, removed bodily hair, and worn wigs to prostitute himself, first in taverns and brothels, and then out of the imperial palace. Upon being greeted by Zoticus with, "My Lord Emperor, Hail," Heliogabalus replied, "Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady." However, the veracity of many of the claims about Heliogabalus is unknown; a black propaganda campaign had been waged against him after his death. Many stories, including the one that inspired Tadema's painting, are considered to be false or at least exaggerated.
A large version of the painting is available here.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

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January 10, 2008 - 11:33am
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