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  • Writer's picturematilde tomat

Roma o Morte!

Updated: Sep 26, 2020

This must be what I felt when I was asked to choose a painting to explore: as Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian military hero of the Risorgimento, who cried ‘Roma o Morte’ (‘Rome or Death’). It must be, otherwise I cannot explain why I have chosen this one. My eyes caught other two paintings I found intriguing, but they were hanging so high above a door, I thought I better stick with what I can really see.

Long, Edwin, 1829-1891; Diana or Christ?

This is the painting titled “Diana or Christ”, by Edwin Long (described as a Catholic Biblical Painter), painted in 1881, which can be seen at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.


Ephesus amphitheatre

The large painting depicts a scene set in an amphitheatre in Ephesus (the names Ἄρτεμις – Artemis – and Ἔφεσος – Ephesus – can be read on the scroll held by one of the characters) where a young girl is asked to “cast one grain of incense” to the Goddess Diana, so that she can then be free. The sentence “let her cast the incense / one grain and she is free” was used as a caption on the reproductions and as a warning in the many sermons and articles which stemmed from the painting, and used by various evangelical journals (including “Sunday at Home”) and by the Christian Science Board of Directors, as a perfect depiction of the “Constancy of Maiden Martyr”.


The choice is between pledging allegiance to the Omnivaga Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, the Moon and Nature, or follow Christ and hence martyrdom in the arena.

The only person (or reference) not depicted in the painting is Christ himself, what I would call “the Voice of the Invisible”, which is very clear and loud instead on the face of the only person who seems at peace, the girl who has to make the choice. Her hand on her heart and her eyes in adoration tell us that she has already chosen. And no abusive persuasion, or whispers, or soldiers, or a handful of bored vestal virgins, or thousands of onlookers will change her heart.


We are all there, with them, waiting. The scene, suspended in time. All of us, now, holding our breath.

museum mosaic

SELF • REFL : I didn’t like that painting particularly. Not my style, not my era, not the scene I would depict. STILL, I have to admit, that the more I was looking at it, the more I was drawn into the story: what about those virginal girls? The bored one, the cocky one, the one who seems to say “Just get on with it!”, the scared one who doesn’t know what to do… and then I noticed how I was drawn towards the deep inquisitive eyes of the old master of ceremonies: he so much looks like my dad! (who in turn looked a bit like  Panoramix). Then, I noticed how the characters at the front were almost pushed out of the canvass by the Roman Army, who were there to contain the people within the arena: rebels? Christians? Pagans? What if those Legionnaires should start walking back if unable to contain the crowd?

But, my main question is: did she meet Paul? Was she converted by the apostle Paul who lived in Ephesus for a couple of years?!? I now want to know!

Paul introduced about twelve men to the ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit’ who had previously only experienced the baptism of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1-7), and later became embroiled in a dispute with some artisans whose livelihood depended on selling statuettes of Artemis (Latin: Diana) in the Temple of Artemis (Acts 19:23–41). Between 53 and 57 AD Paul wrote the letter 1 Corinthians from Ephesus (possibly from the ‘Paul tower’ near the harbour, where he was imprisoned for a short time). Later, Paul wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians while he was in prison in Rome (around 62 AD). [1]

I am also very much convinced that things happen to us for a reason. In a very subtle way, I have been drawn to this painting, among the many in the Victorian Room. And not because I am Italian. Is it because I am going through a sort of spiritual crisis / doubting myself? Am I able to cast the incense, or: do I want to? What does it mean to feel free?

I also noticed how I found it easier to sit there, Sharpies in hand, and reproduce the painting in my own way. The more I sketch, doodle, create, the easier it gets.


Please, also see the following:

  1. Diana or Christ?: Seeing and Feeling Doubt in Late-Victorian Visual Culture, by Kate Nichols, found here

Diana or Christ?, from the Mary Baker Eddy Library, found here

  1. Diana or Christ?, by Douglas Roberts, found here

  2. A painting as a war memorial?, by Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, found here 

[1] : (2018). Ephesus. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Sep. 2018].

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