There’s a great deal of confusion over the classical god or gods of time. Some ancient authorities claim that time existed before Chaos and the ‘creation’ of the earliest gods. There’s a confusion of names too: best-known is Chronos Χρόνος which means time, but is readily confused with Cronus or Kronos, who were Titans who devoured their children, and some accounts state that Chronos was also Charon, the boatman on the ferry to the Underworld.
Just when you think you’ve got this straight, along comes Aion Αἰών, a different god of time. Traditionally, Aion represents cyclical time, as shown by the steady motion of the sun through the constellations, whilst Chronos is the linear time which has a past, present and future. Accordingly, in visual art Aion is normally associated with a wheel of the Zodiac, and Chronos is the popular Father Time, gray and bearded, and normally bearing a scythe and hourglass – an ancient timer in which sand pours through the narrow neck in specially made glass. Even in classical times, images of Aion appear rare.
Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (Allegory of Lust) from about 1545 puts Venus and Cupid at the centre, kissing, but above them is a bald old man with a white beard, stretching out his right arm across the top of the painting. Time’s characteristic ultramarine blue robe forms the background to the right side of the painting. Behind his head is the hour-glass which confirms that this is Father Time, and a grey wing, although it is harder to interpret his gesture. For the sake of completeness, the figure opposite Time is usually considered to be Oblivion.
Tintoretto’s Allegory of the Dreams of Men from about 1546 is one of his least-known paintings, and one of the hardest to read. It was apparently commissioned for the ceiling of a bedroom in the Casa Barbo, in Venice, where it must have looked really splendid.
It incorporates a rich variety of symbols from astrology, arranged in a near-symmetrical fashion around its central figure. Against a background of signs of the Zodiac, there’s a decorated crescent moon, gold coins pouring from the clouds, and a minor pantheon of foreshortened figures. At the foot is Father Time with his hourglass, although it’s not impossible that the signs of the Zodiac refer also to Aion.
Father Time is included in several other allegorical paintings of the period, including Annibale Carracci’s Allegory of Truth and Time from 1584. His winged figure bears no scythe but he is still putting his shoulder to Truth to raise her from the well. She is clutching a mirror in her right hand.
Trampled under the feet of Truth is the strangely chimeral two-faced figure of Deceit. The two figures framing the image are more controversial: the official identification gives them as Good Luck or Happiness on the left, and Happy Ending on the right. That on the left bears a winged caduceus and a cornucopia (horn of plenty), which is an unusual combination which may allude to good health as well as abundant food. That on the right is scattering Spring flowers, which might relate her to Flora.
Peter Paul Rubens incorporated Time into a painting based on the same allegory of The Triumph of Truth (1622-25) in his Medici Cycle, although the well and Truth’s mirror are both missing, as are Time’s hourglass and scythe.
As is so often the case, it is Poussin who shows Father Time most clearly, in his brilliant A Dance to the Music of Time (c 1634-6). He sits at the right side, bald and bearded, with very obvious wings, playing his lyre (another less popular symbol of time), and his blue robe is on the ground. His hour-glass is being held up by the putto beside him.
The four young people dancing are sometimes interpreted as being the Seasons, but this is probably not the case: they are most likely Poverty (male at the back, facing away), Labour (closest to Time and looking at him), Wealth (in golden skirt and sandals, also looking at Time), and Pleasure (blue and red clothes) who fixes the viewer with a very knowing smile. Opposite Pleasure is a small herm of Janus, whose two faces look to the past and the future, another reference to time.
Above them, in the heavens, Aurora (goddess of the dawn) precedes Apollo’s sun chariot, on which the large ring represents the Zodiac, and may well be a reference to Aion. Behind the chariot are the Hours.
This painting was the inspiration for Anthony Powell’s cycle of novels called A Dance to the Music of Time. Powell’s own reflections on the painting are given in the opening to A Question of Upbringing, by the narrator Nick Jenkins:
These classical projections, and something from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure, stepping slowly, methodically sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.
Poussin’s later tondo Time Defending Truth against the Attacks of Envy and Discord (1641) puts Father Time at its centre, with a firm grip around Truth’s waist, while Envy and Discord sit below them. On this occasion Time doesn’t have a hand free for an hour-glass.
Pieter Thijs shows an even more significant group in his Time and the Three Fates from about 1665. Father Time is holding his traditional scythe and his bue robe covers the Fates’ working area, but I can’t see an hourglass.
Pierre Mignard’s lovely Time Clipping Cupid’s Wings (1694) is another very explicit allegorical painting featuring Father Time with his standard features, although here he has a luxuriant head of white hair instead of being bald, and has been equipped with a scythe (on the ground) rather than a lyre. Although we tend to associate scythes with the Grim Reaper of Death, they have also been used extensively for Death’s precursor, Time.
François Lemoyne (1688–1737) was a brilliant, highly accomplished and successful Rococo painter who suddenly committed suicide on 4 June 1737, when he was only 39. For reasons which remain obscure, the day after he finished painting Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy (1737) for a friend and patron, Lemoyne stabbed himself in the chest and throat nine times before he collapsed and died.
Lemoyne’s Truth is being borne aloft by winged Father Time, who holds his scythe in the other hand. Behind them is the unmistakable marble lip of a well, from which she has presumably emerged, only to be confronted by Falsehood and Envy, who are being pushed to the ground by Time, who is unusually wearing red rather than blue.
Pompeo Batoni’s fine Time Orders Old Age to destroy Beauty from about 1746 reiterates Father Time’s key features of advanced age, wings, blue robe, and hour-glass.
With the popularity of the scythe-bearing figure of the Grim Reaper in the nineteenth century, and the disdain for allegory, Father Time has gone into retirement.
Even John Everett Millais only alludes to his presence in his painting of Flora and her Spring, from 1856-59. At the far right, beside this group of elegant young women, is the scythe of Father Time, but his figure is nowhere to be seen.
It was left to the end of George Frederic Watts’ career to bring Time out of retirement for a brief finale.
Watts’ Time, Death and Judgement (1900) evolved over a series of versions first started around 1870. Surprisingly, he retained the same composition in all of them, and they differ only in small details. The figure of Time is at the left, holding the traditional scythe; unusually, Watts depicts Time as a young and muscular man, rather than giving him white hair and a beard. At the right, Death is a young woman, the lap of her dress containing fading flowers. Time and Death are linked by holding hands. Behind, and towering over them, is the figure of Judgement, holding the scales of justice in her left hand, and brandishing a fiery sword.
As they used to call out at closing time in British pubs, it’s time, gentlemen, please.