The last and least-known of the children of the primordial deities Kronos and Rhea is Hestia (Greek Ἑστία), known to the Romans as Vesta, who was sister to Poseidon, Zeus, Hera, Ceres and Hades. In Greek, the word Hestia means a hearth in which a fire burns, and she was the goddess of the hearth to both Greeks and Romans. She is little-mentioned in classical literature, but one of a small group of protective household gods, along with the Romans’ Lares and Penates, whose responsibilities overlapped.
Hestia stood above those minor deities, though, in having several prominent temples in which eternal flames were tended in her honour. Most importantly, she remained a virgin, and her priestesses were required to follow suit as Vestal Virgins, on pain of death.
Hestia is almost completely absent from art: there are a couple of statues of her, and only one accessible image in a woolen tapestry made in Egypt in the six century.
Hestia Full of Blessings, or The Hestia Tapestry, shows her distributing blessings from her throne. Assisting her are six putti labelled Mirth, Good Cheer, Prosperity, Wealth, Blessing and Virtue. These are the blessings which each family seeks of her.
Painters have been far more interested in depicting Hestia’s priestesses, the Vestal Virgins, several of whom have had quite colourful lives, if legend is to be believed.
Sebastiano Ricci’s Sacrifice to the Goddess Vesta from 1723 is unusual for showing a temple to Hestia/Vesta which is everyday and busy with ordinary people, rather than a mystical place containing only Vestal Virgins. It is thus an attempt at some form of realism in mythological painting.
Jacques Gamelin’s undated painting of Vestals is more typical. He shows the priestesses as very young, and well covered with white clothing almost like nuns. Even the sacred flame is generating smoke to obscure what these girls are doing.
Jules-Joseph Lefebvre’s Sleeping Vestal from 1902 is even more of a surprise: an artist known for his nudes and other beautiful women swathes this young woman in a loose-fitting habit.
There are dozens of other paintings of Vestal Virgins, but the best known by far shows them outside their temple altogether, and proved extremely controversial.
Jean-Léon Gérôme started work on Pollice Verso before 1869, but had temporarily abandoned it during the Franco-Prussian War. It was not, therefore, intended as comment on that war, nor about France’s sudden transition from Second Empire to Third Republic.
Instead, Gérôme looks at the power of expression – here, a small gesture of the hand – in his favourite context, the Roman gladiatorial arena, which he had fallen in love with when he was first in Rome in 1843. It also develops a theme from his earlier Ave Caesar: that of spectators and their complicity in the horrific events taking place in front of them.
His earlier paintings of the arena had struggled to achieve the historical accuracy he desired, in armour, weapons, and other details. Far from being a flight of fancy, Gérôme had spent a great deal of time and effort trying to make everything shown in this painting as historically accurate as possible, given the knowledge of the day. For the artist, the success of the painting depended on its fine details.
To be able to bring out those fine details, and the thumb gesture which was central to its title and theme, Gérôme had to draw in from the wide-screen spectacle of Ave Caesar, and concentrate on the gladiators, and a small section of the spectators, including the emperor, his court, and those closest to him – a row of six Vestal Virgins, to the right.
The victorious gladiator stands with his right foot on the throat of the loser. He looks up at the crowd, to see whether he should kill that loser, indicated by thumbs pointing downward, or should spare his life, shown by thumbs pointing up. The title confirms what we can see: thumbs are down, and the gladiator on the ground is about to be brutally killed.
Critical commentary focussed on the row of Vestal Virgins; in Gérôme’s earlier Ave Caesar, they had been sufficiently distant that their expressions and body language couldn’t be read. Here there was no doubt: they were baying for blood, which some critics found frankly revolting. However, it speaks clearly about the Romans’ enjoyment of such events, and a moment’s reflection should make us think more deeply about our own disturbing fascination in the suffering of other humans and animals.