In the 17th century the name Peter Paul Rubens was known throughout the royal courts of Europe and rightfully so. He was the master of the visual arts within the Baroque era and worked for no one less than the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs or Marie de Medici, to name only a few.
Everything began in 1577, when Rubens was born and raised as a Catholic in Antwerp in a time when the Catholic church was already in the middle of its division, triggering wars throughout Europe, Protestants and Catholics fighting each other. Rubens’s father was a Calvinist and although raised Catholic, Rubens understood that this continuous war was not about religion necessarily, but about the economy, the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism.
Rubens would become one of the main artists of the Catholic counter reformation. He is famous for his phrase ‘My passion comes from the heavens, not from earthly musings.’ I have always found this statement rather open for interpretation which also very much describes Rubens’s artworks, as, although, they are mostly representing Catholic glory, some scenes are of definite ambiguity. They are open for interpretation regarding his believes in the political ideals and movements of his time.
But Rubens was an artist and not a politician and because of this very fact he was able to express a certain kind of freedom within his paintings. Two of those examples are The Battle by Nördlingen (1635) and The Allegory of Peace and War (1630). The latter will be discussed in this opinion piece. Especially an artist like Rubens, who was enormously talented and spent much of his life travelling Europe, he understood how European politics worked within his time. And as an influential artist he was allowed to say more than maybe most other people of his time were allowed to say, for he was celebrated at every court in Europe. And he was worshipped because he not only studied the old masters of the Renaissance in Iatly but also knew how to paint like them.
His style and technique were of a mastery unlike most others of his time. He studied Titian, Botticelli, Raphael, Veronese, Tintoretto, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. And it was Botticelli who supposedly said, ‘To worship God is to express his creation and the beauty of nature through the arts’. And that is what Rubens did as well. Rubens, of course, worshipped God, as he was a Catholic, but it was really the stories of the paintings, every hidden meaning within his brushstrokes that turned him into the painter he was and which was the driving force of his success. It was not his belief in God but his understanding of the world around him, that transformed him into such a great artist, and how he translated all of this with every stroke of his paintbrush on his timeless and universal paintings.
The times Rubens lived and painted in were times of struggle and fundamental change that would shape the course for the modern evolvement of the economy and its politics within Europe. The Habsburgs, Catholic in belief, were fighting the rising Protestants, among them the United Provinces, today’s Netherlands and other parts of Europe, where Calvinist and Protestant numbers were growing. But faith was not what this war, and ultimately the thirty years war was about. It was the economic systems which were at war. They ruled and made European kingdoms rise and fall.
The fuel of this ongoing war was the decline of medieval feudalism, which was the economy of the Habsburgs and the centre of their power and wealth. Under no circumstances wanted the Habsburg monarchs to lose any of their lands, which they regarded as their personal property. In contrast, the United Provinces (among them the Protestants and Calvinists) believed that no pope, no priests and no feudalism was necessary for a human to succeed in life and the afterlife, and believed that humans themselves can choose their own destiny, create capital, trade and commerce on their own. The war was between the medieval, outdated form of feudalism and the exciting and new prospect of creating capital, today known as capitalism.
This went hand in hand with the fast-growing cities in which tradesmen soon would become wealthier than most noble families were. As with nearly every original idea, capitalism was meant to open up opportunity, it was meant to be freeing and create a space for people who would no longer want to be subjugated by the Catholic Kings and the pope. It was a war between two economic systems, one outdated and one exciting and creating opportunity and was therefore superior to the old one. Ultimately, it was the wheel of progress and a better evolving economy within the United Provinces that finally, after decades of war, made them independent of Habsburg rule.
And Rubens was right in the centre of it all, in the first decade of the 30 years’ war, the 1620’s. Because of his great reputation as an artist, Marie de Medici (Catholic), the Queen Mother of France, her son was Louis XIII and she was husband to the late Henry IV, was a Baroque Queen of her time. She commissioned Rubens to paint two allegorical cycles celebrating her husband’s life and reign and hers as well. While Rubens was in Paris in 1622 to discuss the allegorical cycles, he was also selected to act as a diplomat by the Infanta Isabella of the Spanish Netherlands (Catholic) after the Twelve Years Truce ended in 1621. He brought gifts from the Infanta to the Queen Mother in order to discuss how the future of the Habsburgs and France should evolve. The French of course, were not entirely interested in a war of faith between Catholics and Protestants but rather saw this war as an opportunity to loosen the grip of the Spanish Habsburgs and the Austrian Habsburgs that surrounded France. To put it simple, every country wanted to profit from the entire situation and win on their own terms. Welcome to the real history of a Game of Thrones, not in Westeros but in Europe.
In the 1620’s Rubens was on multiple diplomatic missions. His most important ones were at the end of the decade. Between 1627 and 1630 Rubens was especially busy as a diplomat and artist. He moved between the courts of Spain (Catholic) and England. In England, the Stuart King, Charles I, was supposed to support the Catholic interests but failed to do so due to the political instability within England. Rubens wanted and was supposed to bring peace between the Spanish Netherlands (Catholic) and the United Provinces. However, in the end, our dear Rubens was just a painter, another chess figure in an enormously complicated game of power and his accomplishments as a diplomat were rather minor. But Rubens had a clear sight for what the power games of Europe were all about and he was able to see through it all what he also expressed within his paintings.
It was a big political stage of Northern Europe and a dangerous time for Kings and Queens, as Rubens portrayed this in his famous work An Allegory of Peace and War. After Spain and England had been at war for five years in the 1620’s, Philipp IV of Spain was eager for a peace treaty with England, as the Island Kingdom might unite forces with France against the Habsburgs. Ultimately, this peace treaty could evolve into another peace treaty with the Protestant- controlled Netherlands, as the Protestants would then be surrounded by enemies and they would not have any other chance but to give in to peace or go to war. However, peace was nowhere close.
Nevertheless, Rubens set sail for England in 1629 and with him he brought the unfinished Allegory of Peace and War, in which he illustrated his deep concerns for the frailty of peace and war within Europe. But it was not only an allegory for Europe itself but also for England, as rising struggles became more and more serious for Charles’s reign. Rubens gave this painting as a gift to Charles I and will be analysed in this opinion piece for not only its brilliancy of storytelling but also speaks as a universal and timeless painting of a contemporary deeply troubled England.
The painting depicts a very lively scene, a struggle between two sides: Peace and War. There is the figure of peace, inspired by Rubens’s second wife Helene Fourment who is protected by Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, who strikes back at Ares, God of War. The obvious allegory is crystal clear. Wisdom must prevail and fight war at all costs in order for peace to thrive. But there is much more to the painting than one sees at a first glance. Underneath the figure of peace kneels Dionysus. He is one of the twelve Olympian Gods just like Athena and Ares. He appears in his most common form: A satyr. He offers fruits and food to the children on the right, who represent the next generation. The food comes flowing out of a cornucopia showing that the earth is plentiful and fruitful when farmers are not subjugated by their lords to go to war. Underneath Dionysus even purrs a Leopard who is one of his attributes and companions.
The leopards of Dionysus also have a special background story. In the Greek play, The Bacchae, by Euripides, from around 400 BC. Dionysus comes to Thebes and asks people to examine what they accept as reality and he proves that he really is a God of Olympus as some royalty in Thebes were in doubt. He then spreads madness within the city, as he is not only the God of festivity and wine but also the God of the mind. He especially inflicts madness upon the women in the city and the female main characters of the play begin to behave like animals and even kill people. In some interpretations of the play not only are their minds being transformed but also their bodies: Into leopards. At the end of the play when Dionysus has proven that he is a God and created chaos all over Thebes, the Theban women are exiled and join Dionysus. Again, within some interpretations the women leave with Dionysus as leopards.
Since then, whenever Dionysus is represented with a leopard there is a double meaning within, one that states that the God can also disrupt order and create chaos within a patriarchal society, like in Thebes or the world of the Catholics. While he brings food and the leopard is a playful companion, it is still a wild beast and so is Dionysus. For he is also the God of the mind and madness. Any moment his celebrations of peace and prosperity can turn into madness at will, he could lash out and the children could join him in creating chaos and so is the nature of peace and war, a fragile one.
Behind Dionysus are two dancing women who perform a Kastagnetten dance of ancient Greek times which was usually a dance of celebration in times of peace. They also carry gold and pearls with them. It is another sign of how wealth and money flow and thrives in times of peace.
When the gaze of the spectator returns to the centre of the painting one can see the figure of peace, Pax, feeding her milk, almost like an overflowing fountain to the young children below. Her voluptuous figure is a trademark of Rubens, the Rubens figure, but it is also a sign that in times of peace a woman is well fed, fertile and can give her children nutritious milk to drink from.
Besides, Pax and Athena, at the centre of the painting create the movement within the painting from light into darkness. It is the light figures who move forwards, expressing the movement of hope and peace, as Athena is the connecting figure and pushing away the darker figures in the painting, Ares and the furies. The same happens in the background of the painting. In the distance behind Athena and Pax a blue and sunny horizon can be seen, a new hopeful day to come, whereas in the background of Ares, wastelands and fires are spreading. Furthermore, when the spectator looks at the painting as a whole, the light and the dark figures and their movements are connected and driven by two interlinking circles. The first on the left, is within the shadow and the light, Dyonisus, his leopard and the Putto. They are light and dark, as their symbolism is ambiguous. The second circle that interlinks with the entire movement, pushing evil away, are the children, Hymenaios, Athena’s shield and Ares’s movement of falling back. All these figures and circles together form a harmony of movement within the painintg.
If one looks even closer, the figures in the centre, who create the movement of pushing away evil and the circles, are connected through the three main colours. Blue, yellow and red. It is the blue horizon in the back, the yellow dress of one of the girls and the red fabric of Dyonisus from which all other colour schemes within the painting evolve and connect everything in the centre.
Behind Pax rises Athena, Goddess of wisdom and warfare. She is smart and wise and knows when it is time to go to war and when it is time for peace. She calculates every move very carefully in contrast to her counterpart Ares, God of war and rage, whom she strikes back in the painting. He, unlike her, simply loves war and destruction and does not care very much about a balanced world of youth and fertility but rather desires power above all else. Behind him materialise two of the furies, also known as the Erinyes, Goddesses of vengeance, rage and punishment. They are known as Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone. One of the furies main job is to punish oath breakers. To put them in a painting that is about a peace treaty, about keeping and upholding an oath, Rubens’s political understanding of the royalty of Europe was more than clear. With the slow materialisation of the furies, it was obvious how he wanted to express his foresight. Eventually, one or the other king or queen would break their oath, war would erupt, and the furies would metaphorically rage through Europe once again. Wisdom would give in for the desire of power and war would reign.
The most interesting aspect of this painting comes last. It is the next generation, the children that must be and can be nurtured in times of peace. The children are based on real life. They are portraits of the children of Sir Balthasar Gerbier, Rubens’s host in England. Of course, it is clear to see that the children are guided by the little angels, Putto, and Amor, God of love. They are also accompanied by the God of weddings, Hymenaeus. He is yet another figure that underlines times of prosperity which go hand in hand with love and marriage. They guide the children into times of peace to the cornucopia of Dionysus and receive food and nourishment.
Something essential that might be missed though, lies within the movement of Ares. He is being pushed back by Athena and his sword disappears within the figures of the children, probably piercing one of them. Although, war is being prevented within the painting, Ares’s actions by falling back and stabbing back already imply that within every peace treaty lies a new spark for conflict and ultimately leads to war.
Rubens knew that the political nature of Europe was just like that. The painting stands as a reminder of how things can be when peace arrives but also acts as a warning, cleverly hidden, how easily war can and will erupt again and what will be at stake: The next generation.
And history is a funny thing because, although Rubens managed to succeed with his diplomatic mission to obtain a peace treaty between Spain and England, the peace treaty with the Protestant Netherlands that should have followed was not achieved. Rubens was already back home in Antwerp when the political situation of Northern Europe continued to remain as instable as before. The foreshadowing of the painting bears fruit, as Rubens has also written to a friend in a letter, almost resigning the situation in a rather depressive but understandable tone: ‘When I really think about it, I wished, we would be living in golden instead of iron times.’
And his painting for King Charles I receives an even more important and very dark meaning, considering how the story for the King of England ends. Rubens’s painting means peace is fragile and when it breaks chaos reigns, and no one is safe. And kings too are made of clay.
King Charles I desired power above all else. He looked to the continent to the absolutist rulers of the Habsburgs and French monarchs and wanted the same. However, England, and especially Scotland, were already on a very different course than the kingdoms on the continent. While Charles believed in the divine rights of kings, his parliament in London disagreed. They wanted to curb his royal prerogative, but Charles would not hear and understand the rising political atmosphere within his own country. By levying taxes dramatically, without the consent of parliament, he made himself both unpopular with Scottish and English parliament and the people of England as well. It was a dangerous combination.
His religious policies combined with the fact that he was married to a Catholic princess brought on more troubles. He failed to aid the Protestants on the continent which the English parliament wanted to support. In addition, he wanted to force the Anglican church upon the Scottish which led to the Bishops’ war that strengthened the Scottish and English parliament. The two parliaments were now united against the King and it was the beginning of his downfall. King Charles I made every mistake he could possibly think of.
From 1642 onwards, King Charles I fought the armies of the English and the Scottish parliament and a civil war broke out. The furies and Ares raged on the Island kingdom. But sill, King Charles did not understand what political direction his own kingdom wanted to head towards. After three years of fighting, he lost, was handed over to the English parliament and after refusing to accept the terms of a constitutional monarchy, going back and forth, trying to flee and being captured again, King Charles I was executed for high treason in 1649. England became a Republic. However, the English could not live without their monarchy, and in fact still cannot, and restored English royalty with Charles’s son in 1660.
The painting by Rubens acted almost like a prophecy for King Charles I. Above all else, he desired power. Wisdom and the prosperity of peace gave way to years of war and destruction. Athena had lost the fight against Ares. And now I may return to my original statement, why The Allegory of Peace and War is still of relevance today, especially for England.
One does not have to take a close look that today in 2020, there is another Charles I, not sitting on the English throne but even more dangerous, in parliament and acting like an absolute monarch himself. Just like the England of 400 years ago, today’s England experiences a time of division, unrest and mistrust. Because of the Pandemic but still more so because of Brexit the country is deeply divided. The Scottish Parliament wants to leave the United Kingdom to return to prosperity and wealth within the European Union, the North that used to be a stronghold for Labour is now in the hands of the Tories. Wisdom has given way to Ares and the Tories have already made out the culprit. Whatever bad things will happen to the UK, they swear, rageful like the furies, it’s the EU’s fault. Meanwhile, Dionysus does not bring a plentiful harvest to the UK, how could he, the industry and the economy is fading due to years of Tory government. In fact, Dionysus has shown his other face. The God of madness sits in Parliament in London, plays his flute and whispers crazy words into the ears of his blond fat slave.
The next generation faces uncertainty, thus the children in the painting are missing. Young people who usually came from all over the world but especially from Europe to become a part and add their work and creativity to the once fruitful cities of England are leaving. Brexit in combination with the economic consequences of the pandemic has turned the UK not only into a sinking ship but one that lies already deep down within the darkness of the North Atlantic.
If Boris and the Tories would visit the National Gallery only once and look at the painting The Allegory of Peace and War they might understand where they are heading. But the painting, almost as if a curse lies upon it, must continue to act like a prophecy. Even if they would take a look, they would not know how to look and understand a painting of the Baroque era. Rubens’s brilliancy is a mystery to Boris and the Tories. They are making the same mistake as Charles I did. The meaning and importance of art is lost to them.
The Allegory of Peace and War can be viewed at the National Gallery in London, UK. Admission is for free.
Büttner, Nils Peter Paul Rubens, C.H. BECK WISSEN, München 2007
Hellwig, Karin, Peter Paul Rubens, Rohwolt Tascehnbuch Verlag, Hamburg 2012
Schwanitz, Dietrich, Bildung, Alles, was man wissen muss, Goldmann, München 2002
Warnke, Martin, Rubens Leben und Werk, Dumont, Köln 2011