Monday, 13 February 2017

Flower Power : The Petals of Death

Horror and crime fiction have come up with some extraordinarily imaginative means of killing people but perhaps more have been as fragrant as being killed by rose petals. More accurately, millions of rose petals.

One of my favourite paintings, even though it looks very “chocolate box” in appearance, actually depicts the deaths of a group of unsuspecting guests at a party in which the host looks on.

The painting, shown below, is called “The Roses of Heliogabalus” and was painted by Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema in 1888. Heliogabalus, also called Elagabalus, was the teenaged Emperor of Rome who was the hereditary high priest who worshipped a meteorite.
The party depicted in the painting may not even have occurred. It could easily be a story made up to add extra atrocities to the list which Elagabalus is said to have perpetrated. Alma-Tadema based his painting on one specific reference in “Historiae Augustae”, a pseudo-history of Roman emperors probably written in the 4th century some 200 years after Elagabalus’s assassination. Most of “Historiae Augustae” is full of fanciful elaboration, but it was perfect material for Victorian artists.

Let’s have a closer look at the painting and the story it depicts.

The setting is the banqueting hall of the imperial palace. The teenage Emperor Elagabalus is hosting a party. Dressed in a flowing gold robe he lounges at the banqueting table with his companions, probably including the man he married (being a high priest Elagabalus could perform marriages with anyone he wished), his former chariot driver Hierocles. Undoubtedly present also was the emperor’s mother and grandmother, the powers behind the throne.

To symbolise the debauchery of the banquet Alma-Tadema paints a statue of the god Dionysus standing high in the background. Dionysus stands with his arm on the shoulder of his young boy-lover Ampelos, the personification of the grape vine (as featured in my “Star-Gayzing” article on the constellation Virgo).

As Elagabalus watches his guests below he signals for the false ceiling in the banquet hall to be opened, releasing millions of fragrant rose petals. As the petals flutter down the drunken guests gasp in wonder and pleasure. But these gasps turn to gasps for breath as the petals keep pouring and pouring down upon them.

The painting shows the early stages of the petal shower as the guests seen oblivious to their fate. Perhaps too drunk to move some guests find they cannot move under the growing weight of the petals until, eventually, they succumb to this shower of death.

The pseudo-historical account in the “Historiae Augustae” refers to “violets and other flowers” rather than rose petals. Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema chose roses which had a strong romantic symbolism which masks the hidden danger. He had thousands of roses shipped in from the continent especially for the purposes of preparing for this painting.

In many ways this painting illustrates both Elagabalus and Victorian England. They both are pleasant to look at but look closer and you find some very dark elements lurking behind the fa├žade.

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