How Peter Paul Rubens Predicted Our Current Crisis
Peter Paul Rubens was an accomplished Flemish artist, a skilled diplomat fluent in six languages, and a history scholar. He would also be, in today’s mindset, a cradle-robber; the artist was prone to marrying girls young enough to be his daughter or granddaughter. Such age differences were not uncommon in the 17th century, though, and in Rubens’ case, might be viewed as characteristic of a man who put his hands on the future. A year before he died, Rubens painted an allegorical scene that seems clairvoyant. The artist imagined a brazen leader whose actions would allow a pandemic to flourish. The painting shows a divisive man, bumbling but cocksure, unwilling to listen to reason, preferring instead to follow madness. In the corner of the picture, Rubens also depicted the destruction of architecture.
Welcome to my wholly subjective art history class. There will be a quiz at the end.
First, some context: The Baroque is what we call the period in Europe from the early 1600s to the mid-1700s. These decades saw an explosion of dramatically expressive art and design. The previous era’s rebirth—in French, renaissance—of Greco-Roman classicism came after 400 years of hopeful Gothic portrayals of salvation replaced dark Romanesque scenes of damnation.
By the mid-16th century, however, the Protestant Reformation was imposing austerity on visual expression. Blame Gutenberg’s printing press. Thanks to inexpensive, mass-produced books, costly narrative imagery was going extinct. Communicating Bible stories and other societal metanarratives was no longer the domain of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Reading was on the rise and, with it, Protestantism.
The Catholic Church’s pushback was over-the-top. The Counter-Reformation employed vivid imagery to woo back its flock. Lessons of life told through the visual arts became de rigueur—and the more exuberantly rendered, the better.
Architectural results show up in Bernini’s Baldacchino for Rome’s Saint Peter’s Church; Sir Christopher Wren’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral, in London; and Louis XIV’s sumptuous expansion of his palace at Versailles by the architect Louis Le Vau. In Baroque painting, portraiture took new forms, with motion and emotion playing essential roles. Anthony Van Dyck painted Charles I smugly gazing at the viewer, not blithely into space, as was tradition. Rembrandt’s oils conveyed sublime interior feelings, not frozen facial expressions. From Clara Peeters to Hendrick ter Brugghen to Frans Hals, richly illuminated atmospheres of light and dark translated mood.
This leads us to Rubens and his comprehensive understanding of antiquity, especially Greek and Roman mythology. The artist created large panels theatrically populated by classical gods, who sometimes mixed it up with contemporary personalities. Figures leaped off walls and into hearts and minds. In cinema-like framing and blocking, bodies swept across canvases in dramatically foreshortened perspectives. Rubens conjured intense storms and sensuous nudes—inspired by Helena, the 53-year-old painter’s 16-year-old second wife—to shock and persuade, which they did. He became the most celebrated artist of his time. Like his paintings, Rubens was larger than life.
The artist was particularly fond of illustrating arrogance, anger, and cruelty through what Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker has called “truthtelling realism.” In Landscape with Philemon and Baucis, Rubens painted in high fidelity the aftermath of a violent thunderstorm unleashed upon a peaceful village. Rain and wind have left appalling destruction. In the picture’s lower left, a woman and her baby are dead. To their right, an ox is crushed between uprooted trees. Someone is stranded on rocks near a raging river, and houses are going underwater. As the storm recedes into the top half of the painting, we see four figures on the right calmly discussing what just happened. They are the Roman gods Mercury and Jupiter disguised as travelers and chatting with an old couple. The gods had earlier approached the village seeking shelter but were turned away by all except the town’s poorest family, Philemon and Baucis. After welcoming the deities into their modest home, Philemon and Baucis served a lavish meal, after which a thankful Mercury and Jupiter revealed their identities. The gods then invited the elderly pair to witness their neighbors’ punishment from the safety of a hill. Moments later, destruction came pouring down.
In another Rubens mythological painting, Peace and War, we see the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva, warding off Mars, the impulsive god of war. Mars is in battle mode, egged on by the crazed Alecto, the goddess of anger. In the center of the composition is a vulnerably nude Ceres, who represents Mother Earth. Longing for Ceres’ breast is the child Plutus, the god of wealth. At Ceres’ feet are innocents enjoying the fruits of peace—grapes and oranges overflowing from a horn of plenty. Surrounding Mother Earth are nymphs playing music and bringing riches. At the base of the painting are a satyr and a leopard, icons of Bacchus, the god of agriculture, wine, and fertility.
Rubens’ not-so-subtle point? War is bad; peace is good. The painting is an allegory about ending the Anglo-Spanish War, which was never formally declared but lasted 20 years thanks to royal stubbornness. Rubens’ masterpiece was presented in 1630 as an offering from King Philip IV of Spain to England’s King Charles. It turned into cement that bound peace negotiations. For his help concluding the war, Rubens was knighted by both countries.
That brings us to 1638–1639, just before Rubens died. We are in the middle of another conflagration, three decades of conflict between Protestant and Catholic states. The Thirty-Years’ War eventually engulfed all of Europe, killing 8 million people. Rubens’ antiwar sentiment was piqued again, so he took up his brush.
(From here on out, students, take careful notes on art and politics, religion and morals. Remember, there’s a test at the end of this article.)
Ten feet wide, almost 7 feet tall, and two-plus years in the making, The Horrors of War (Figure 1) is a vivid portrayal of the legacy one man’s toxic behavior can leave on the world: a trail of corruption and destruction. Rubens reprises the characters Mars and Alecto to comment again on unrestrained hubris acting on crackpot advice. In a letter to one of his contemporaries, Ruben described the work’s symbols and message. In peacetime during the Roman empire, Rubens wrote, the door to the Temple of Janus remained closed. In his painting, the temple’s door is wide open (Figure 2).
Situated in the middle of The Horrors of War is Mars again, armored and helmeted, holding a shield and wearing a red cape. The god of war is charging ahead, bloodied sword drawn. Unsuccessfully trying to hold him back, flesh against metal, is a naked Venus, the goddess of love. We see the unmistakable pleading in her face and in the eyes of cherubs trying to help her.
In contrast, angry Alecto has stark madness for eyes (Figure 3). Aided by demons bringing famine and pandemics, hunger and disease, Alecto holds a torch high and pulls Mars away from Venus. On the left is a woman in black with arms flailing. She is humanity, and humanity is suffering (Figure 2).
Under Mars’ foot, we see a book and a drawing (Figure 4)—literature and the arts are getting trampled. Nearby, a woman holds a lute with its neck ripped away, a symbol of broken harmony. Beside her, a terrified mother and child are trying to avoid the onslaught.
But it is the figure in the lower right corner of this painting that most draws my interest. A man has been knocked over. Fallen from his hands are the tools of an architect. His profession has collapsed. It’s hurt, perhaps, but not yet dead. Unknown is if the architect is able or willing to stand up before getting run over.
Test time, students. Please put away your notes on art and politics, religion and morals, and pick up your pencil. Here are my questions:
1. What do you see in Rubens’ artwork? (Hint: It’s more than Helena’s face on Venus’ body.)
2. What will the architect do? (circle one)
a. Remain prone and die.
b. Crawl out of the way.
c. Stand up and resist.
d. None of the above.
Featured image: The Horrors of War, by Peter Paul Rubins, oil on canvas, via Wikimedia Commons. The painting hangs today in the Pitti Palace in Florence.