The Victorian era was marked by many paintings such as Rossetti’s “Proserpine”, Millais’ “Ophelia” and Hunt’s “The Awakening Conscience”. However, “Roses of Heliogabalus”, painted by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1888 is the one I prefer. It depicts a remarkably facetious scene, the scandalous party thrown by Heliogabalus, or Elagabalus. Heliogabalus was a Roman emperor who rose to power at fourteen years old and was assassinated at eighteen. His short reign of four years was punctuated with numerous scandals, one of them being the banquet during which he drowned his guests in violet petals.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting depicts the emperor laying apathetically while observing the carnage before him. The majority of the canvas is covered by the rose petals that took the painter weeks to finish. Reportedly, he demanded to receive a shipment of roses every week to complete the painting, so that every single petal would be perfect. The first question that rose to my mind when observing the painting is why did the artist replace violets by roses? After conducting some research on the matter, I learned that in Victorian floriography, violets represented modesty and faithfulness, which is not how any of Heliogabalus’ parties would be described. Roses, however, can be a symbol of lust and debauchery, which, in this case, is what killed the emperor’s guests, who were completely inebriated and spent from the depravity that was going on during his parties at the time. This witty addition to the story is what makes this painting so special in my eyes.
Another detail that sets this painting apart from others is the colours used. The Victorian era colour palette usually contains many muted tones, such as umber, taupe, beige and red. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s use of vivid shades, such as sage, gold and raspberry make this piece stand out in an ocean of dullness.
By Meriem Terzi