All are lunatics, but he who can analyze his delusion is called a philosopher.
- Ambrose Bierce
This Victorian print, as interpreted by me, an amateur critic with an attitude problem, tells a sad story. The scene pictured is – to me – an allegory, each object representing a particular characteristic and fraught with dark symbolism. Consider this picture from the point of view of a person immersed in the scene.
The pink flower in the middle foreground is a passion vine, and contrary to what I thought, the name wasn’t chosen to invoke passionate emotions. It refers instead, to the euphemism used to describe the crucifixion of Christ. The name derives from one of the many scary visions of St. Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226). He saw this vine growing upon the cross, hence the name Passion flower. Named by missionaries to South America “Flor de las cinco llagas” (Flower of the Five Wounds), the parts of the vine are said to represent the five wounds of Christ on the cross. The 16th century Jesuits who named the flower thought the ten petals represented the ten faithful apostles (two didn’t make it to the last passion of Christ). The corona symbolizes the crown of thorns, the five stamens the five wounds etc. Pretty gory, but those Jesuits spent a lot of their free time converting heathens using “extraordinary means” (a more contemporary euphemism for “torture”), so pretty flowers heavy with meaning probably helped them sleep at night.
In this picture, I think pink passion flower vine beckoning anxiously overhead represents something, or someone, clinging and trying to hold the person back. Unseen, but growing louder behind this person, I imagine the snarling hounds of hell, breathing loudly and coming closer. The vine symbolize a need that cannot persuade, and seeks instead to impose control.
The person is stuck in the swamp, perhaps on their hands and knees. The swamp in the lower foreground represents worldly responsibilities weighing the person down, and the other inescapable demands of the world, assaulting the person’s feet of clay. He is mired in the muck of the everyday.
Then, the person gazes into the distant meadow - seen in the background. He struggles, stands up. No longer mired in the swamp or held back by the anxious vines, the person breaks free suddenly, and runs across the grass. There he is, tiny, wearing a purple shirt, softly playing a small flute, his back turned to the clinging vines and the sucking swamps.
When one is mired in a swamp and literally choked by overbearing vines, what more peaceful place to visualize than a miniature model of a quiet pasture, amid placid sheep?