In 1812 just as England invaded the United States in the War of 1812 an English Painter, Richard Westall, painted a picture titled “Sword of Damocles”. The picture has a powerful message for those who care to listen embedded deep within the oil pigment that decorates the surface of the canvas.
Damocles in Greek means “Fame of the People”, which is fitting based on the lesson it teaches.
In the portrait you see a worried Damocles who is sitting on the throne of King Dionysius and above him hangs a heavy sword held up by nothing more than a single horse hair.
Damocles found himself in this predicament when he told the King that it must be great being such a man of power and authority, always being surrounded by magnificence and how truly fortunate he was. King Dionysius then offered to switch places with Damocles so he could have a first hand experience what that fortune felt like.
Damocles couldn’t pass an offer like that by and eagerly obliged. He said down in the throne and was soon surrounded by every luxury that the King enjoyed. Dionysius then ordered a sword to be hung over the throne dangling by a single hair from a horses tail.
Horrified for his life Damocles begged the King to let him get up from the throne because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate. He realized quickly that with great fortune and power comes great responsibility and risk.
The painting epitomizes the ever present danger and peril those who are rich and in power face. Jealousy plagues people everyday and that jealousy leads people to do terrible things to try to get just some of the power and riches they think they deserve. Countries try to take over other countries to grow their power and thus the leaders (elected or assume power by birth rights) must risk their lives to protect their land. CEOs and business entrepreneurs face the wrath of the people who vie for their jobs or to take out their business with competition. The list of references go on and on.
We often covet what our neighbors have. We tend to think we deserve what they have too even if we don’t work hard enough to achieve that; and if we had what they had life would be better. All too often we don’t look at both sides of the story making rash decisions that we may soon regret if we do get what we want.
Everyday I turn on the radio, TV or open a newspaper or magazine to see people jumping under Damocle’s sword and many times the sword falls. Even though Westall paints a sword in the picture it’s simply figurative in life, but we still feel the sting when falls. This lesson is a great message for people in the 21st century to learn because it’s an early rendition of “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”.
Sometimes we have to look at both sides of the situation, not just on how glorious it may be before we make any wishes or decisions that could impact our life or our families life.
Westalls painting is simply breathtaking. It shows power, beauty, fear and fortune in one work of art. The portrait is a reminder of the sacrifice we must face to obtain power and fortune. May it always remind us that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the bridge.