The Vestals Get a Modern Makeover

vestals-modern

The most authentic images we have of the Vestal Virgins are of course from antiquity – these are statues, relief carvings and images minted on coins.

As beautiful and informative as these are, it is wonderful to see more modern treatments.

Leighton’s lovely 19th century engraving of a Vestal is a favorite of many: the grace and dignity of the Vestal truly comes to life.

Monti’s 19th century “Veiled Vestal” is another: the kneeling priestess holding the sacred flame is a particularly sweet and affectionate depiction that communicates the beautiful simplicity of this ancient faith.

LeRoux’s School of the Vestals is another popular image, this one offering a glimpse into the inner sanctuary and structure of the Vestal’s sacred duty – to keep the Eternal Fire of Vesta burning, night and day.

Yet my personal favorite modern 20th century depiction of the Vestals was created by Angus McBride, a popular history and fantasy illustrator.

There are seven Vestals shown in McBride’s watercolor.  Since there were six Vestal priestesses at any given time, this suggests a mixture of full and notice Vestals, the latter of which would seem to be learning the rites and rituals involved in tending to the Eternal Flame.

I like this depiction because to me it’s a strong, even chic update to the kind of depictions that we see in earlier years, including LeRoux’s 19th century School of the Vestals which shows a similar scene.

Perhaps that is not surprising, since McBride’s painting was created not long after feminism had gained real ground in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In fact, I’ve always felt that McBride’s depiction most closely aligns with the kind of strength and confidence that we see in the earliest statuary of the Vestal Virgins, the ones from antiquity.

Vestals have been a popular artistic subject for centuries, and the way they have been depicted over the years seems to change with the times.  Their depiction can sometimes be seen to fit an agenda as well (i.e. showing Vestals with their breasts exposed, for example, to strip them of power or dignity).

The concept of the Vestal Virgin and what she represents – dignity, power, strength, purity – has in the past been a useful one for artists and their subjects.  For example, this 16th century painting of Queen Elizabeth I (who was known as the Virgin Queen) shows her holding a sieve. In so doing, she is aligning herself with the purity of the Vestal Tuccia, who famously performed a miracle with a sieve.  My book Brides of Rome: A Novel of the Vestal Virgins brings this story to life.

Regardless, you don’t need an art history degree to explore and enjoy how the Vestals have been depicted in art throughout the ages.  I encourage you to do a Google search and see what other representations are out there. But in the end, art is a subjective thing, isn’t it? It isn’t about what is in the background in a political sense.  Rather, it’s about what pleases the eye, tells a story and impacts you on an emotional level.

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