Thursday, May 30, 2024

Room 237 as a Truth Allegory

How can elements present in The Shining's Room 237 scene be traced back in visual culture to Truth representations and allegories?

Truth has, for a long time, been personified in western culture. In ancient greek and roman theology as Aletheia/Veritas, daughter of Cronus/Saturn or Zeus/Jupiter or even made by Prometheus, depending on the sources. She was thought of as living at the bottom of a well or an abyss and usually represented as being saved by Cronus, either from their enemies (like Trickery, Deception, Lies, Falsehood, or Envy) or disrobed by him before History. She was usually dressed in white, covered with a veil, representing her purity, or rather naked – Nuda Veritas -, a representation based on the fable that once she went out swimming with Falsehood, who stole her clothes while she was still in the water and, refusing to wear Falsehood’s clothes, she went naked, a symbol of having nothing to hide. During the Middle Ages, Truth took some other forms, like the Lady Truth (or Reason) guiding and teaching famous authors, but these were few and far apart and mostly forgotten.

14ème siècle, De eruditione principum Source: gallica.bnf.fr Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Français 1728, fol. 221r., Guillaume Peyraut (via https://readingmedievalbooks.files.wordpress.com)

Culturally, it’s easy to understand that, with the rise of the Christian faith, Truth didn’t need to be personified, since God or the divine Trinity took over that role. 

It’s only with the revitalizing of the classical culture during the pre-modern age (what is usually called the renaissance, although that title is not without issues) that we start seeing this figure again in art like John Bydell’s woodcut, where the well/abyss is still very much present:

1535, Engraving by John Byddell of Truth, “the daughter of time” being led out of the darkness by Time, which “revealeth all things. A vomiting demon labeled hypocrisy threatens her. From the Goodly prymer (John Byddell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Some fifty years after, we can find her in a painting by Annibale Carracci, with the well occupying most of the background, Saturn holding them on the edge of it, and on their hand the mirror (another symbol associated with Truth and that will show up again):

1584, An Allegory of Truth and Time by Annibale Carracci (Annibale Carracci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Or in Giuseppe Cesari’s contribution to the famous book by Cesare Ripa, where the well motif has disappeared, but others are shown (like the Sun, also used in Alchemy, the pen, and the world):

1593, Allegory of the Truth by Cesare d’Arpino in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (Giuseppe Cesari, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

By the 17th century, the well has reduced greatly and is almost unseen in Rubens’ painting of the allegory:

Between circa 1620 and circa 1638, The triumph of truth, Peter Paul Rubens (Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Or in François Lemoyne’s representation:

1737, Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy, François Lemoyne (François Lemoyne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the 19th century, this allegory is still alive and most of its elements are stable (the well, the mirror, the nakedness), as can be seen in Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry’s La Verité:

circa 1879, La vérité, Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry (Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Or in Lucien Pallez’s sculpture of the same name, here shown in the plaster version, since the marble version is not in the best condition:

1883, La Vérité, Lucien Pallez (G. Michelez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

But probably the most famous version of the theme is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s, where the mirror has been replaced with a whip, shown just a year after another version of his, where Truth was shown dead at the bottom of the well, “killed by liars and actors”:

1896, Truth Coming Out of Her Well, Jean-Léon Gérôme (Jean-Léon Gérôme, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Although it was usually connected to the Dreyfus Affair, Gérôme was actually railing against Impressionism. It is later Édouard Debat-Ponsan that takes this position, with representation of the Church and the military clearly depicted:

1898, She Is Not Drowning; or, Truth Leaving the Well, Édouard Debat-Ponsan (Édouard Debat-Ponsan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Just the year after that, we have Klimt’s luscious version, with the symbols reduced to the mirror and the waters in the well:

1899, Nuda Veritas, Gustav Klimt (Gustav Klimt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And here I’d like to introduce another version, much more recent, and in film – the famous bathroom scene in Kubrick’s The Shining – as a reworking of this theme, with new sensibilities brought into it. At first, we see just the bathtub (here serving as the well) with a shape behind the shower curtains (veil), then those are pulled back and a beautiful woman comes out and starts seducing the already wildly deranged Jack. It is only when he looks at the mirror (another of the allegory’s symbols) that he can see Truth as it is. And here lies the crux of this new take: Truth might look seductive in the beginning, but ultimately we end up finding it ugly and scary:

Lia Beldam coming out of the bath in the infamous Room 237 scene in the Shining
Montage of scenes from the same scene. Notice the bottom left one and the similarities to other images shown above (via https://www.ascentofelegance.com/)
The moment Jack sees the Truth reflected in the mirror and understands it’s not as appealing as he thought.

Unlike the film Room 237 or several websites, there’s no conspiracy or further reading here, but just a visual history of the scene. This doesn’t mean that this was what Kubrick wanted to do, but only an attempt to fit it into the history of Art and interpreting as such.

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