I loved art history in college. One of my art history professors mentioned something along the lines of, ” Art is like a secret conversation and art history is the code to unlocking and understanding the conversation that is being spoken.”
“Art is like a secret”
Gradually as I continue to immerse myself in varying forms of visual media, I keep finding instances of how true this statement is. If there is something that references a historical artwork or other established media, those that understand the reference have a deeper and richer understanding of the tone, ideas, and conversation that is being presented to the viewer.
A couple weeks back when I was writing a draft for my post Too Much of A Good Thing, I used the painting Oath of the Horatii by Jacques Louis-David. It so happened that while I was typing this draft, I was watching the second episode of Gotham as well. It turns out coincidentally, that I caught this painting in the background over the mantle in Wayne Manor. This painting shows up in episode three and sequentially many episodes after as well. It keeps distracting me and so I decided to get this information off of my chest.
The thing that I love about entertainment mediums is the use of visual clues to help enrich the story and elevate it as more than just a tv show. It allows you to take advantage of something that isn’t available in literary narratives but can give a message to the viewer on a subliminal level. Wanna see what I mean? Check this perspective on visual storytelling. Anyways, let’s get a look at this painting again.
The fact that this painting has been put into the show is a visual but subtle reference to the philosophy and ideology that drives that characters and themes of this movie. The story behind this painting is that Rome and Alba Longa are at war with one another. The Horatii (depicted on the left) are three brothers who inevitably have to fight an opposing family known as the Curaitii. The brothers are shown taking an oath to fight to the death for their country. In true Shakespearean fashion, tragedy must take precedence. The women are mourning because they know that this oath could lead the men to their deaths and bereft the women of whom they love. In the case of one of the women, Sabilla, is the sister to the brothers but is also married to one the men in the Curaitii family. (This is literary gold! It’s like a soap opera) She is torn between both sides and either way she will lose someone she loves.
I could spend a ton of time picking apart this piece with lines and color and architecture, but I won’t. My main focus is on the message and idea of the piece itself. Within Roman art, it reflected their ideology of what was important for a Roman citizen- how they should act and be and what they should strive for. Virtue was one of the things most prized for a patriot of Rome. The greatest honor you could do would be to die for your country. Everything that you did was to be for the betterment of Rome in thought, word, and deed. Looking on the expressions of the brothers, they look resolute in their decision. They lack no fear and are driven by the conviction that what they are doing is the right thing to do. Despite everything that will go wrong (and they know it), they still face the war that will come.
“There’s a war coming. A terrible war.”
– Oswald Cobblepot, Gotham
This is why I love that this painting is included in Gotham. For me, I interpret the Horatii brothers as Jim Gordon, Bruce Wayne, and Alfred Pennyworth. These three men (I use the word loosely) are perfect mirrors to what the Horatii stand for. If you are familiar with these characters and the roles that they play within the comics, you know how much they have fought, won, lost, and suffered in fighting for Gotham City. Though their experiences vary between them, they all have lost. Gordon loses his family in more ways than one. At times he is alone in his fight. Bruce Wayne suffers physical and mental ordeals each time he puts on the suit and trauma forever plagues him when he loses his parents. Alfred suffers with being both guardian and servant wanting to protect and heal the little boy that was destroyed, yet dutifully serve in the crusade against crime. All of these men face war head on yet they do it for the betterment of Gotham City.
While not the most subtle message that they could have taken, it is a prime example of what these three driving forces are as they are integral to what the future of the Batman narrative becomes. If you’ve never noticed this before or taken the time to consider what the meaning of various included background objects, I suggest next time you do. As you can see, suddenly Gotham has a little more weight, a little more meaning, and a little more context that makes it better than what it would have been if it wasn’t included. Gotham…I see what you did there.