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Rubens, the Consequences of War

Peter Paul Rubens, The Consequences of War, 1638-39, oil on canvas (Palatine Gallery, Palazzo Pitti, Florence), speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

Rubens, explaining his painting, The Consequences of War:

The principal figure is Mars, who has left open the temple of Janus (which in time of peace, according to Roman custom, remained closed) and rushes forth with shield and blood-stained sword, threatening the people with great disaster. He pays little heed to Venus, his mistress, who, accompanied by Amors and Cupids, strives with caresses and embraces to hold him. From the other side, Mars is dragged forward by the Fury Alekto, with a torch in her hand. Near by are monsters personifying Pestilence and Famine, those inseparable partners of War. On the ground, turning her back, lies a woman with a broken lute, representing Harmony, which is incompatible with the discord of War. There is also a mother with her child in her arms, indicating that fecundity, procreation and charity are thwarted by War, which corrupts and destroys everything. In addition, one sees an architect thrown on his back, with his instruments in his hand, to show that which in time of peace is constructed for the use and ornamentation of the City, is hurled to the ground by the force of arms and falls to ruin. I believe, if I remember rightly, that you will find on the ground, under the feet of Mars, a book and a drawing on paper, to imply that he treads underfoot all the arts and letters. There ought also to be a bundle of darts or arrows, with the band which held them together undone; these when bound form the symbol of Concord. Beside them is the caduceus and an olive branch, attribute of Peace; these are also cast aside. That grief-stricken woman clothed in black, with torn veil, robbed of all her jewels and other ornaments, is the unfortunate Europe who, for so many years now, has suffered plunder, outrage, and misery, which are so injurious to everyone, that it is unnecessary to go into detail. Europe's attribute is the globe, borne by a small angel or genius, and surmounted by the cross, to symbolize the Christian world. (from a letter to Justus Sustermans, translated by Kristin Lohse Belin, in Rubens, Phaidon, 1998).

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Steven: We're in the Pitti palace in Florence looking at The Consequences of War by Peter Paul Rubens. It's a big painting full of very large, incredibly energetic figures. Beth: Mars heading off to war being egged on by the fury Alekto and Venus, the goddess of love, trying desperately to stop him. An allegorical figure of Europe flings her arms up in despair on the left and below allegorical figures representing the arts are about to be trampled by war. There's clearly a message here. Steven: Yeah, I think so. This was commissioned by a Flemish member of the Medici court during the Thirty Years' War, a time when Europe was experiencing enormous suffering and the consequences of war, couldn't have been more clear. You can see who these figures are. Venus, beautiful in the classic rubenesque pose with a twisted torso reaching out. Look at the colors of her body. Beth: Yeah, she's got greens and blues in her flesh. Steven: Look at the way her right arm stretches out. She's holding back her lover, Mars, holding his right arm, but she reaches out to pull Alekto the fury away from her lover and to detach him and to change this momentum. Beth: Yeah. It reminds me of the work that Goya will do. Beth: Yeah, he looks absolutely mad and you get a sense immediately when you look at this painting of a contrast between the beauty of Venus and the madness and the ugliness of Alekto and therefore the horrors of war personified. Steven: Alekto's terrified fury, Mars looking back at Venus and then the tears that are welling up in Europe's eyes, all of these are set against each other creating this over the top emotion. Beth: You want to feels Europe's pain. Venus' attempts to stop Mars and to detach Alekto are totally in vain. Mars looks determined. He looks back at Venus, but he doesn't seem to feel much remorse. Steven: There is already blood dripping from his sword, pointing to the arts that, as you said, are about to be trampled. Among them you can see, perhaps, an architect holding a compass. You can see that Mars' boot is trampling a book. A lute, the musical instrument, but it's neck has been broken. and so you see the costs both to culture and also to human life. If you look just past those allegorical figures, you can see the two figures, perhaps, a mother holding a child and there's real terror there. Beth: But one senses overall the inevitability of war for human beings. You know, this is ... this is an unstoppable force and all of the foreshortening that Rubens gives us, especially of the allegorical figures on the lower right, indicates the hopelessness of the situation. Things can spill out, fall down, pour over and the power of Mars and this sharp diagonal from lower left to upper right is completely unstoppable. Steven: There's an incredible kind of momentum, the words that you were using to describe it, seemed absolutely appropriate to me. There's a kind of momentum, a kind of energy, a kind of an inevitability and the brushwork itself, the colors, the composition and the madness of the storm on the right, all of this speaks to the overwhelming tragedy, inevitability, the horror of war. (piano music playing)