ROSA, Salvator
(b. 1615, Arenella, d. 1673, Roma)

Democritus in Meditation

c. 1650
Oil on canvas, 344 x 214 cm
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Democritus, the great pre-Socratic philosopher and founder of a strictly materialist concept of the world sought new explanations for birth and death, appearance and disappearance. According to his theory of "atomism", atoms are the smallest parts of all substances, uniting and dividing in eternal swirling movements. His ethical system called for a life of moderation and tranquillity foregoing most sensual joys.

Rosa depicts him in the traditional pose of melancholy, amidst a setting of decay, destruction and desolation. Animal skulls and bones, symbols of the past greatness of antiquity (vase, altar and herm) and symbols of fallen power (the dead eagle) are featured in this wasteland overcast with heavy grey clouds. An owl high in the tree is his only living companion, both a sign of night and of wisdom. Rosa's Democritus is not the philosopher who has reached the goal of his contemplation, nor does he represent serene tranquillity or the superior cognitive powers of the analytic mind. Instead, we see a forsaken thinker contemplating the things that have been the subject of his intellectual endeavours: death, the past, turbulent disquietude, fragmentation. The vanitas symbolism of the objects does not go unanswered: in the figure of the pensive philosopher lies the germ of a response, still caught in melancholy lethargy.