“The Allegory of Good and Bad Government,” one of the most famous works of Medieval European art, is a perfect metaphor for Tai Ji Men’s teachings and tribulations.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*A paper presented at the webinar “In Search of Justice for Tai Ji Men,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on February 20, 2022, World Day of Social Justice.
Last year, we already had one of our Tai Ji Men webinars on the World Day of Social Justice. I discussed the origins of the modern theory of social justice, which was not created by Karl Marx (1818–1883) but by an Italian 19th-century Jesuit Catholic priest, Father Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio (1793–1862).
Taparelli used the word “social justice” in his criticism of the consequences of the industrial revolution, which had created a crisis of the century-old concept of distributive justice. Before the 19th century, it was clear what distributive justice was: respecting the laws and giving to all citizens their due. However, the industrial revolution created for a few ultra-rich such a dominant position that literally respecting the existing laws could no longer prevent injustices against those who did not belong to the super-capitalist elite. Because distributive justice was sick, it was proposed that it metamorphosed into social justice in order to heal.
However, the core concepts of distributive society were never superseded, and remained at the center of the new idea of social justice. There is an old Italian text that express simply and persuasively how distributive justice should work. This text is not a book. It is a series of three fresco panels painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290–1348) in 1338 and 1339 in the City Hall of Siena, in Tuscany. They are still there.
When you enter the old City Council room you see in front of you a fresco depicting a good government respecting distributive justice. On the right wall, the virtuous effects of justice are depicted; on the left wall, Lorenzetti painted a bad government violating the principles of justice, and its vicious consequences.
I believe this artistic cycle expresses in a wonderful way universal principles, which resonates both in the teachings of Dr. Hong (and of many other spiritual masters) and in the sad experience of persecution of Tai Ji Men.
If we first look at the good government, we find on the left of the painting the key to it, justice. Note that justice is not blind. Representing the justice as blind only came later, in the 16th century. Originally, the blind justice was introduced in satirical prints to denounce judges who failed to see the truth, as if they were blind. However, Emperor Charles V (1500–1558), who had a genius for propaganda, reversed the meaning of the symbol and promoted it to claim that his judges were blind to the social or economic positions of the parties in court cases, i.e., they treated all equally.
But this was two centuries after Lorenzetti, who showed the Justice with open eyes looking above to Wisdom and ready to look down to Concord, i.e., social harmony.
The fruit of Justice is Peace, which is also depicted in the main painting. But if we move to the right side of the room and look at the fruits of a good government, we notice a group of happy female citizens, who are dancing.
Scholars have connected them with the general architecture of the fresco, which refers to the planets, and with previous iconography and have concluded that these are the children of Venus, i.e., of Love. Peace and Love produce joy, expressed by the dance.
I believe we have here in one of the great masterpieces of Medieval art the statement of a perennial truth, the same truth Dr. Hong promotes in his world tours. Respecting justice creates peace and love, and a society of peace and love is a society of happiness and joy.
But what if justice is not respected? Here we move to the left side of the Council Hall room, where the bad government and its effects are depicted. Ironically, this wall was exposed to humidity and is ruined, while the walls where the good government is depicted are in an almost perfect state. But enough has been preserved that we see Tyranny sitting on a throne, with her feet on a goat, a symbol of how when we are not governed by conscience we are controlled by our animal impulses.
The deformed face of Tyranny shows that conscience has totally abandoned her. Tyranny is inspired from above by Arrogance, Greed, and Vanity, and accompanied by Cruelty and other vices.
Where is Justice here? She is in the painting, but she is tied under Tyranny and very sad. Two ruined frescos shows the effects of the bad government, and how citizens become unhappy and restless.
I would add that an American artist, Caleb Ives Bach, produced in 1985 for the Federal Courthouse in Seattle a modern rendering of Lorenzetti’s Siena frescos, combining the Medieval motifs with themes from the Mexican muralists and Latino folk art. I believe that the same ideas are expressed there.
If we look at the depiction of bad government by Lorenzetti, what Bach called in 1985 the “Inferni in terra” (Hells on Earth) we understand exactly what the problems were and are in the Tai Ji Men case. This is not a forced interpretation by me. Justice is universal, and justice denied is universal as well. The same scheme keeps reproducing itself. When Justice is bound, Tyranny reigns. When Tyranny reigns, officers are dominated by greed, arrogance, and all forms of corruption. As a result citizens have no peace, no love, and no happiness. What can be a better description of the “lost youth” of Tai Ji Men dizi and of the attitude of the tyrannical bureaucrats who persecuted them?
On this World Day of Social Justice, I would like to express the wish that dizi can travel again, visit the region where I live, and perhaps come to Siena and produce a nice video of Lorenzetti’s frescoes that Dr. Hong and I can both comment. Century after century, these symbols have inspired generations of religionists, philosophers, and politicians. I am sure they will also inspire Tai Ji Men in their struggle to promote conscience and justice, and to fight the injustice vested on them.