If you are not an art history buff or someone who studies the culture of paintings, Renaissance art can be intimidating. While the marble silhouettes, rich colours, contrasting shadows, and dramatic poses of typical Renaissance artwork are beautiful, the complicated and meaningful details in the paintings do not always allow for easy interpretation. In his Mar. 22 lecture, “Renaissance Art and the Ancient Philosophers: A Study in the Representation of Ideas (1470–1670),” VIU English professor John Lepage introduced a specific chapter of renaissance art to the audience in the Malaspina Theatre and enabled viewers to approach the art with a newfound sense of appreciation and understanding.

Lepage, who teaches medieval and Renaissance literature courses, recently published The Revival of Antique Philosophy in the Renaissance, which studies a variety of artistic techniques and approaches renaissance painters used to portray ancient philosophers. For Renaissance artists, “the ancient philosopher was a new radical force to be reckoned with, and an ancient stereotype,” Lepage says. In his lecture, Lepage narrowed the focus to portraits of Democritus and Heraclitus, who he describes as “the laughing and weeping philosophers.”

Though Democritus and Heraclitus lived at different times, (Democritus from 460–370 BCE, Heraclitus from 535–475 BCE), Lepage recognizes that, during the renaissance era, the two philosophers were often painted together because of their opposite views on the world. “We know very little about them, but they were big thinkers—they thought about every aspect of life,” Lepage says. He identified the two as materialist philosophers who observed the human race, each finding comedy or tragedy in the follies of mankind.

“In the ancient world they were always linked together, because why? One laughed, and one wept,” Lepage says. From the 1470–1670, paintings of the two men emerged from the brushes of artists across the world. Lepage showed Jacques de Gheyn’s still life “Vanity,” in which a human skull sits below a soap bubble. As Lepage identified, the skull represents human mortality and the soap bubble is a symbol of human ambition. On either side of the bubble, the ancient philosophers are mounted, “pointing at the dream world of human ambition—Democritus laughs, and Heraclitus weeps,” Lepage says.

Portraits of the two men were the most popular form of interpretation, as Lepage revealed by showing paintings of Democritus and Heraclitus by various different artists such as Giovanni Bellini’s “Double Portrait” from 1505 and Johannes Moreellse’s “Democritus and Heraclitus” from 1663. In each example, Lepage drew attention to the specific details the different painters used to characterize the two men. As Lepage identified, Democritus often points, as if criticising something, while Heraclitus’ hands are usually folded, in a sort of hopeful prayer. Clothing and colour are also important indicators of message and tone, as Lepage pointed out. Democritus’ robes are typically red and he often sits or stands in the light, while Heraclitus typically wears black and is staged in shadow. Props are also consistent objects in portraits of the men—they often sit on either side of a globe, as if contemplating the world, and Democritus commonly has a book tucked nearby. However, as Lepage revealed, it is the inconsistencies and experimentation of typical associations that can be the most provoking, as in Hendrik Ter Brugghen’s “Heraclitus and Democritus,” which blends typical associations of the two men so the identity of either is not clear.

While the portraits of the two mysterious men are rich in detail and meaning, Lepage’s recognition of symbolism and personality allowed the audience access to an understanding of the artwork, and opened up the many different interpretations of Democritus and Heraclitus to audience understanding. Just as the ancient men looked at the world and pondered over the disappointment and idiocy of the human race, those who attended Lepage’s lecture now have the comprehensive tools to turn a critical eye to Democritus and Heraclitus and try to understand, through the many Renaissance artist’s interpretations, what it is that caused one man to laugh and one man to weep.