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On Love, Ethics & Survival

An old man is seen languishing inside the prison, while his young daughter, tightly holding her little baby, is standing on the other side of the bar. One can easily find a sign of strange restlessness in the girl’s eyes, if s/he observes the image, closely. The girl extended her bare breasts towards her old father through the grating, and the thirsty old man was in the act of drinking her milk! Many are familiar with this work, titled ‘Roman Charity’ (1864), by French figure painter Jules Joseph Lefebvre (March 14, 1836 – February 24, 1911). There are so many artists who have worked on the same subject. Jean-Baptiste Greuze (August 21, 1725 – March 4, 1805) was one such French painter of Renaissance Era. However, very few people know the legendary tale that inspired Lefebvre to create this masterpiece!

Unlike most of the paintings of Renaissance Era, the ‘Roman Charity’ is not based on the Bible. Rome was highly influenced by Ancient Pagan religion during the first 1,000 years since the birth of Jesus Christ. And, this tale surfaced in 1 AD. The story of imprisoned Cimon and his daughter Pero became much popular in Rome. In some cases, Pero had been described as Cimon’s wife. It is a different story, as Cimon was not a king, but a common man who had received death sentence, after being convicted of a serious offense. Some strange forms of capital punishment were prevalent at that period of time. While Socrates consumed Hemlock poison, some others were crucified, and a few were thrown in front of lions, tigers and elephants. As the Judiciary wanted Cimon to die of starvation, the prison guards were instructed not to provide foods and water to the old man…

Jules Joseph Lefebvre

Surprisingly, the prison guards found that Cimon survived for more than a month without food and water! Although he became weak, there was no symptom of death. One day, the guards reportedly found an answer to the mystery, as they saw Pero breast-feeding her father inside the prison. The prison authorities had allowed her to meet Cimon once, in a day. During their meeting, she used to do this ‘illegal’ act. As expected, the guards immediately informed the concerned authorities about the incident.

The next episode was a controversial one. Some say that Pero’s love for her father touched the Judges. So, they released Cimon. Another version is that the Judges also awarded death penalty to Pero for violating the law. Whatever might be the conclusion, the story influenced a number of painters to work on this particular subject, A Daughter’s Love for Her Father, especially in the 17th Century. Greuze painted the first ‘Roman Charity’, an oil painting, in the early 18th Century. The tale also encouraged artists, such as Johann Zoffany and Barbara Craft, to highlight the different story of love, between Cimon and Pero, through their works. Lefebvre’s creation became famous, as he introduced the art-lovers to Pero’s baby. Max Sauco worked on the same tale in 2011, keeping in mind the contemporary Global Socio-Political landscape.

Max Sauco’s work

All these ancient tales have some appeals which have prompted artists to create something new during their contemporary period. Usually, a mother breastfeeds her child… this is a natural act. When a lady breast-feeds an old person, the act triggers a sensation. No wonder, artists try to portray the inner meaning of such an act through their works. There lies many tales, like this, in each and every sensational art work…

One can recall the ancient Indian tale of King Bimbisara of Magadh. After the king was reportedly imprisoned by his son Ajatahatru, Bimbisara’s Queen Vaidehi used to smear her body with honey, and would visit him, so that the old king could lick it off her body, and survive!

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