by Charlotte Dovey
My husband, Aurel, and I visited the Belvedere museum in Vienna, where we saw Segantini’s painting The Punishment of Lust. We both stopped in our tracks, not only because of the composition, colors, and remarkable detail, but because of its stunning, even alarming, coldness and despair. The questions immediately arise, why were the women in the trees evil, and why the women floating above an icy field being punished, and if this is their punishment, why?
Giovanni Segantini’s own mother died when he was very young. These paintings are about that loss. He was also raised Roman Catholic.
In examining The Punishment of Lust, I began with the following: In his Ethics, Aristotle discusses the golden mean, the mean or moderation between two opposing vices. For example, bravery is the golden mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. In light of this, we can see that if one is inclined towards one vice, such as lust, we counterbalance that inclination with incorporating its opposite. In the case of lust, it may not be immediately obvious what would be the opposite. It becomes clearer one thing this may be, however, when we consider that during the Middle Ages, Christianity, and specifically the Roman Catholic religion (of which Segantini was a member), incorporated Aristotelean and Platonic philosophies, but in such a way that also incorporated Christian doctrine.
In Roman Catholicism, the vice of lust is opposite from what they deem is the virtue of chastity. As with Aristotelianism, we can counterbalance a vice by seeking its opposite. This means that the punishment of lust ought to be engaged with the opposite of lust, chastity. Segantini’s painting is a barren wasteland with two identical women who are not just sleeping but rather hovering in oblivion over a field of purity (snow), death (the white snow – such as in a shroud) surrounded by frigid mountain peaks. They are not engaged with lust, but with chastity, lust’s opposing force (or “virtue”). Why are there two identical woman? These two women are connected; they are two aspects of the same woman – the two opposing forces. Her punishment (for lust) is to hover in oblivious, unproductive, barren, and cold chastity.
Aristotle would not have regarded chastity as a golden means, but he may have seen that the opposite of being overly lust is something like an unhealthy abstinence of a natural human desire. Hence, in my short story I respond to Segantini’s The Punishment of Lust from the point of view that abstinence from sex is not a golden means, but rather an unhealthy vice – or a lack of virtue, that historically meant skill. A woman cannot produce a child, after all, if she is chaste or barren. Segantini’s painting may represent his own relationship with his mother who died.
After our visit, Aurel realized that this painting was by the same artist as The Evil Mothers, that he’d seen in Liverpool many years before. It is very similar to the The Punishment of Lust in its colors, symbolism, and shapes. There are twisting branches in both paintings – does this reflect the branches of a family tree? Is the young Segantini the product, outgrowth, branch, of the trunk (of which she may be part, or is she also a branch of a further trunk?)? It also seems that there are two trees, two women (again) that are strikingly similar to the figures in The Punishment of Lust. But it is not clear why these manifestations, the mothers, are evil. Perhaps Segantini was reflecting upon the fact that children feel that the mother who abandoned them, even through death, are somehow evil beings that bring chaos and loss rather than love and security. Or are the mothers merely bad, in that a good mother does not abandon her child, even against her will; a mother’s proper role is to raise her child. (This painting can also be translated as “The Bad Mothers.”) There is a child’s head poking out next to the mother’s torso – is the child clinging to her, seeking nourishment but failing to receive it, as she is dead? I discuss the value of dead (or “bad” in that they are absent) mothers more in my story, “The Good Mother,” a response to this painting.