I’ve been really, really obsessed with this painting for a few weeks, titled “Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power,” painted on the ceiling of the Palazzo Barberini in 1639 by Pietro da Cortona.
It’s a commissioned representation of the then-dominant House of Barberini that controlled the papacy and various other forms of Italian nobility.
It’s one of those paintings that you can scan from top to bottom and find a million small scenes and details and miniature allegories. This isn’t a professional interpretation or master-class on the history or symbolism of the piece.
This is simply a tiny essay about its attributes that I enjoy. I’m not going from top to bottom, but instead in order of what catches my eye as I look at the ceiling.
The most unusual and eye-catching thing about this piece are the three, floating, golden bee symbols in the center. Three yellow bees were and still are the symbol used by the Barberini in their heraldry, and in Rome one can find bees chiseled into palaces, grottoes, and monuments built by the family.
However, these three completely unrealistic bees totally contrast and disrupt the beautifully rendered human figures that make up the rest of the piece.
I find Father Time devouring the angel’s arm at the bottom of the scene particularly disturbing. It’s hard to explain why — “Saturn Devouring His Son” never bothered me as much as this despite that painting being far more grotesque.
It’s probably just because the angel is a putti and looks more like a helpless baby.
The giant cluster of symbols and figures at the top of the painting is absolutely stunning to me. Between the comically large crossed keys and rising up from behind the laurel wreath of an equally ridiculous size, a celestial human figure is raising the papal tiara up to crown… I don’t really know who.
I realize the implication is the entire House of Barberini, but there isn’t really a representative human for them that I can see, so… I guess he’s going to gingerly set it atop the floating bee totems?
But even then, the crown-bearer doesn’t appear to be setting the crown down gently. He’s raising it up like a NBA player going for a dunk over the defense’s heads. He’s mid-jump, about to slam the crown down on the keys, and that’s a bizarrely satisfying mental image.
It’s good that the Catholic elites, if they still exist behind the scenes, have stopped outwardly expressing their own sense of self-satisfaction and feelings of divine entitlement to seats of power. I suppose.
But I will say that I support this particular instance of breath-taking and at times utterly incomprehensible self-aggrandizing vanity.