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​The art of life andof knowing oneself

· Culture ·

 Cesare Ripa, “Prudence”, in “Iconology” (Rome, 1603)

The invention of the image of Prudence in the aesthetics of Cesare Ripa represents a woman with two faces in the act of looking at herself in the mirror. One of her two faces is reflected in the mirror and the woman holds a snake twisted round her arm. In Ripa’s Iconology these symbols allude ambiguously to prudence, which is ultimately revealed as the wisdom of life.

Prudence according to Aristotle is a habit which contributes to guiding men and women on the path of goodness and enables them to pursue the aim of a happy life after their earthly pilgrimage. In his Great Ethics the philosopher recognizes happiness as the ultimate end of existence and of all human actions. Thus, in Ripa’s aesthetics the mirror is the symbol of an attribute of prudence, which imposes the knowledge of ourselves as a preliminary condition for regulating our actions and knowing our potential and our limitations through discernment. The symbols of Ripa’s iconography are the same “visual mirrors” used in advertising images today, which are rediscovered too in the habit of young and not so young people of tattooing parts of their bodies.

Angelina Jolie

The body becomes a mirror in which the person is reflected and in this self-reflection he or she expresses in the symbols “inscribed” his or her interiority and membership of a social group. Tattooing has become a criterion of belonging in the profane world and is also a sign of sharing in contexts other than the profane sphere. Christian Copts, for example, are proud to bear on their bodies symbols and images of their religious affiliation.

Still today believers want to express their faith through signs. St Paul’s Church by the gates of Hamburg makes a gift to the faithful of a “faith tattoo” that can be washed off: a cross, a heart and an anchor, symbols of faith, charity and hope.

Virtue as a scientific approach to discern the world’s problems, as Pope Francis’ words teach, is an invitation “to accept with prudence”.

Yvonne Dohna




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 24, 2020