After looking out from the deck of Sienna’s Palazzo Publico, my cohort and I passed through a chapel and a larger room to the Sala di Nove, where the Siena city council once met. Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s famous fresco “Allegory of Good and Bad Government” covered the room on all sides.
On the heavily damaged west wall, discord and poverty emanated from the rule of demonic-horned Tyranny, who keeps Justice bound at his feet and turns to the vices as advisors. Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory hover above him.
To the north, contrasting the west wall, Justice and the Common Good rule righteously with the virtues as their advisors, outnumbering the vices. Wisdom inspires Justice, while Faith, Charity, and Hope hover above the Common Good, mirroring the Tyrant’s court. On the east wall, prosperity and peace emanate from this righteous rule.
Here we see Avarice, who hoards for herself to seek her own satisfaction unlike Faith, who trusts that God will provide all that is good and necessary. Pride obsesses over herself and her superiority, unlike Charity (Love), who thinks little of herself and pours herself out to others. But why did Lorenzetti paint Vainglory—also known as Vanity, the need to please others, compare oneself to others, and draw attention to oneself—as the opposite of Hope?
“Vainglory can only look in her mirror,” Dr. Skillen explained. “She wants to protect her youthful charm for as long as possible, for when it fades, she senses her impending death. Therefore, Vainglory stems from an absence of eternal hope. It chooses now over eternity.”
Back in our converted convent in Orvieto, we discussed virtue and vice, taking into account both classical and modern cultures. The classical virtues include Love, Faith, Hope, Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice, whereas vices include Pride, Anger, Vainglory, Envy, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, and Lust.
Activism was one of the notable virtues from our discussion of current times. Modernity encourages people to state their opinions loudly in hopes of affecting change, even when it proves itself to inhibit listening and further positive development. From this, I believe modern culture sees Silence, which refrains from giving orders and speaking whatever is on its mind, as a vice. If you are not “selling” your opinions or promoting something, you are nothing.
Interestingly, our lists of the vices we saw in modern society included “Anti-Magnanimity,” Vainglory’s modern equivalent. In contrast to Magnanimity, the expansion of the spirit towards great things, Vainglory is quick to state opinions and boast about great things without pursuing them. And unlike Magnanimity, which commits to only the best, even when it takes a long time and does not gain adulation from others, Vainglory wants to be praised for “greatness” more than it wants greatness itself. Indeed, Magnanimity and Silence go hand in hand, preferring to listen and set an example to follow than speak. Much of the modern celebration of Activism perhaps stems from Vainglory.
Vainglory is all about image. It revels in gossip, exaggeration, competition, and novelty. It becomes busy, filling up its schedule even though it will never enjoy its time, gaining as many followers as possible even though it will never know them well. All learning, creation, exploration, relationship-building, and yes, even God, become means to the end of prestige. It descends to compromise and shallowness to draw attention to itself. Deep down, Vainglory is afraid to be exposed for what it is—empty.
And yes, I struggle with Vainglory: as a person with autism, the nuances of interpersonal communication don’t come naturally to me. So I worry about behavior, volume, posture, when to speak, and body language, even around close friends. This worsens in large groups. If I make mistakes, I worry that my friends will abandon and ignore me. All while neglecting the deeper, greater things. When I dwell on this, I worry about how my friends see me. I doubt my friends’ care for me, fail to listen, and do not actually say anything good. I center on myself, like Vainglory looking in her mirror. I feel like nothing, afraid to be exposed. I have no hope. This is why Vainglory and Hope are opposites.
But by Magnanimity, we know that God enables us to do great things. Even if our actions do not seem significant, we know, by Hope, that we do not follow Him in vain. God sees us. God cares.