Waxing Poetic about Wax and Other Loves

I’m a fan of Peter Paul Rubens: his high drama, the fleshy rose of female cheeks and statuesque curves, vermilion fabrics and wine-colored tassels dripping from elaborate couches and mantles. I once spent a happy afternoon at the National Gallery in London, losing my cool and track of time amidst sensual lines and mythologic women. The Judgement of Paris, Three Female Witnesses, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, The Birth of Venus—I was tickled pink (a Rubenesque effect, if ever there was one) to be in the presence of real art, direct—it seemed—from Rubens’s brush to my eye.

I found myself in reverie over Samson and Delilah’s[1] intricate textile detailing in the lower right-hand corner and the graceful lilt of Delilah’s machinating hand atop Samson’s shoulder. The scene is half in the light, half in the dark. The Philistines wait in the doorway to take away the once-great warrior. Samson, the victim of a forged love; I pitied Samson for falling for it. What a beautifully rendered fool.

I empathize with him now. At the end of September, I learned that a series of tests using a “convolutional neural network” powered by A.I. has proven Samson and Delilah to be, most likely, a fake.[2] The tell? Samson’s cropped toes, which appear in full in two 17th-century copies; Frans Francken the Younger’s Supper at the House of Burgomaster Rockox has Samson out cold on Delilah’s lap, all five dactyls on display atop the textile detailing I had so admired—so loved—in Room 18 of the National Gallery. Here I was, thinking I was in the light and in the know. But no, I am Samson, taken in by Delilah. I count my many blessings—at least I consented to my last haircut.

Light has been instrumental in revealing other Delilah-esque cons of the art and historical artifact world. Yale historians and scientists have used X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to ferret out a forged 15th-century map of Vinland.[3] Paul Mellon gifted Yale University with the parchment map in the early 1960s, and Yale unveiled it with pomp and circumstance in 1965. The artifact provided “proof” that the Vikings had visited North America before Christopher Columbus, supposedly setting up surveying shop on “Vinlandia Insula” and producing a remarkably accurate geographic account of Greenland and surrounding landmasses. X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy determined the elemental composition of the ink to be a match to Norwegian ink produced in 1923—a far cry from 1247, the date given to the collection the map was presented within. A document that had once been hailed as a medieval treasure shedding light upon globalization’s long history is unmasked by X-ray light. We are now, through the aid of the light we cannot naturally see, all on the same wavelength.

As it was a gift, Yale loses only potential face, not money. But the art market trades in (increasing) millions. The J Paul Getty Museum paid $10.4 million for Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi in 1985, the highest auction price at the time; in 2017, and while admittedly a bit of an outlier, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi fetched a cool $450 million at auction.[4] Nine-figure price tags are the norm now, making the incentive to be a skilled forger all the greater. As technologies to catch forgeries and frauds—the A.I. eyes that caught Samson and Delilah, the X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy that found out the “Vinlandia Insula” map— have improved, so also have forgers’ skills.

What I find most disconcerting is how many people these forgeries manage to fool. I had a transcendent real experience in front of a Rubens that turned out to be a fake, and I’m not the National Gallery in London and its art experts, who paid $5.4 million for the work in 1980.[5] Rabindranath Tagore writes, “The light is shattered into gold on every cloud, my darling,/ And it scatters gems in profusion.”[6] But in the case of Samson and Delilah, at the very least, the light reveals the gold is pyrite rather than real, the gems glass rather than sincere stone.

“Sincere” is a funny word, as its perceived etymological genealogy is anything but. The story goes that during the Renaissance, Spanish sculptors (or Italian, or French—this, indeed, is the rub) who made mistakes while carving expensive marble often patched up the flaws in their statues with cera, or wax. The deception wouldn’t be discovered until the happy new owner would put the statue out on their 15th-century patio. The sun’s glory-warm light would melt the wax, revealing the true nature of the statue beneath. Thus, a statue without patching or flaw was supposedly known as a “sculpture sin cera” or a “sculpture without wax.”[7]

When I heard this tale in a beginning Humanities course, I fell further in love with a language that had such storied gold bound up in its dusty folds. Once more, the metaphorical rug was pulled out from under my believing feet when I found out that the first syllable of the Latin sincerus does not mean “without”; the OED posits it may be equivalent to the first syllable in simplus, in which “sim” means “one.” The word, then, means “clean, pure, sound, etc.” The OED is clear: “There is no probability in the old explanation ‘sine cera [as] without wax.’”[8] But the story about wax and statues and the covering up of flaws lives on.

We perpetuate fraud each time we talk about the forged origin story of the word “sincere.” Ironic, that. But a true lesson is revealed with the melting of so much historic and pseudo-etymological wax: We are in love with the wax. We adore the wax and wax over our stories as we wax long. It seems we love a world with wax better than a “sin-cera” one. The question must be asked: why?

I’m no expert, only a lover of the beautiful and soulfully moving. But I return to my experience in front of Samson and Delilah, recalling the feeling of sitting at the feet of the two Biblical figures as the Hebrew drama played out across the canvas. For a moment, I was Delilah, resting a traitorous hand atop Samson’s back; I was Samson, in the peaceful moments before my world shifted on its axis. I was the nurse holding the candle to light the scene, the man holding the scissors, the Philistine at the door, the rug beneath sleeping Samson’s feet. I was there, and, I am convinced, got there without Rubens’ presence. The work itself took me there, or I got there with the work’s help. The wax did it, and I wouldn’t wish it gone because it has been misattributed to Rubens; I thank it for where I went, what I felt, and who I became.

Yale’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript curator Raymond Clemens plans to keep the fraudulent Vinland map around. He says, “The map has become an historical object in and of itself. It’s a great example of a forgery that had an international impact.”[9] In other words, the map, like many artifacts of our past—both those who prove to be what we’ve said they are and those who do not—tell us who we are and what we value. The map tells us what once excited us (that the Vikings went West first), and what excites us now (that we haven’t arrived at the truth yet), and what excites us still—that we are explorers and adventurers, that we don’t know everything, that we remain thrilled at the idea that there is still an answer to be found. It is an illustration of what it means to be mortal—we are frauds and truth-tellers, both. We love our real marble, but for what it’s worth, the wax is real, too. It only needs to be recognized and appreciated for what it is. (But don’t we all?)

What can I say? Look at us both, Samson and me—mortals made fools by love for what was not what we thought, but was something wondrous and moving and thrilling all the same. I hope to return one day to Room 18 of the National Gallery in London to sit on the tufted bench opposite Samson and Delilah. Once there, I’ll reintroduce myself to a work made foreign by the truth, and, hopefully, fall in love again.


This post was written by Abby Thatcher, Center intern.

[1] Enjoy the National Gallery in London’s online collection of Peter Paul Rubens’ works here.

[2] Cascone, Sarah. “The National Gallery’s Prized Peter Paul Rubens Painting is Actually a Fake, New Artificial Intelligence Has Found.” Art Net News, 27 September 2021. Available at https://news.artnet.com/art-world/ai-national-gallery-rubens-not-authentic-2013830. Accessed 14 October 2021.

[3] Cascone, Sarah. “’There is No Reasonable Doubt Here’: A Research Team at Yale Proves That the 15th-Century Vinland Map is a 20th-Century Fake.” Art Net News, 4 October 2021. Available at https://news.artnet.com/art-world/yale-proves-vinland-map-fake-2016654/amp-page. Accessed 14 October 2021.

[4] Subramanian, Samanth. “How to Spot a Perfect Fake: The World’s Top Art Forgery Detective.” The Guardian, 18 June 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jun/15/how-to-spot-a-perfect-fake-the-worlds-top-art-forgery-detective. Accessed 14 October 2021.

[5] Cascone, “Rubens.”

[6] Lines 9-10, Tagore, Rabindranath. “Light.” Available at https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/light/. Accessed 14 October 2021.

[7] “Does the theory that ‘sincerely’ originated from ‘without wax’ hold any merit?” English Language and Usage Stack Exchange, 16 August 2019. Available at https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/343644/does-the-theory-that-sincerely-originated-from-without-wax-hold-any-merit. Accessed 15 October 2021.

[8] “sincere, adj.”. OED Online. September 2021. Oxford University Press. Available at https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/180053?redirectedFrom=sincere. Accessed 16 October 2021.

[9] Cascone, “Yale.”

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