A Journey to Decipher Rubens’ Political Allegory

Koposova-1                Union of Earth and Water                                          Hermitage Museum

by Ekaterina Koposova 17C
Humanities Honors Fellow

My research on the Union of Earth and Water began last spring in Dr. Melion’s seminar on Peter Paul Rubens. What started as an interpretation of a single painting grew to include many works by Rubens that deal with his vision of peace and its development in his art. My research on the Union of Earth and Water involves several levels of analysis that combine to yield a comprehensive reading of this work. The peace images that Rubens created express the vision of a political utopia by means of divine allegory. Following Terence’s apothem “sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus,” Rubens created images of the union of the three gods that are meant to represent the joy and bounty that a peace in Europe would bring. Thus, these images prove to be a tantalizing mix of abstract, philosophical ideas founded on an intimate knowledge of Greek and Roman myths, literature, and art while at the same time having a very practical political purpose and origin. The Union of Earth and Water, however, adds to this agenda another very well-known artistic tradition — the water deities. Rubens advocates a compelling political cause with sumptuous images that rely on an enormous wealth of knowledge both of the art of Antiquity and his own era. The John Howett Fellowship has given me the chance to trace both the divine allegories relevant to my study and the visual culture of river gods as political emblems to expand and inform my research.


                                                                   The Tiber – Louvre Museum                      photo by Ekaterina

One of the most important discoveries I have made during my travels is that river gods in their role as political symbols are not unique to the Netherlands nor are they confined to the realm of pageant decorations and paintings. In fact, as my visit to the Louvre made abundantly clear, the imagery of river gods (as well as their importance for politics) originated in Antiquity. Louvre’s Tiber is a monumental Roman sculptural group consisting of a river god with a cornucopia and an oar (attributes water deities of Rubens’ times also carry) by whose side Romulus and Remus play near their adopted wolf-mother. Rubens has a painting named after the legendary founders of Rome that uses the same motif of two children nursed by a she-wolf under the protection of a river god. Beyond antique sculpture, I have seen river gods appear on façades of buildings (in France, Belgium, and Austria), fountains (Medici Fountain, Paris), triumphant arches (Porte Saint Denis, Paris), and decorations of royal apartments (Louvre, Paris). Seeing this profusion of river gods in a variety of media (ephemeral architecture, sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, painting) across time (from Antiquity on to early eighteenth century) and countries (likely across Europe) influenced my analysis of the Union of Earth and Water. In creating the Union of Earth and Water, though its message was expressed allegorically, Rubens by no means intended to be cryptic. On the contrary, much as he wrote to Justus Sustermans about The Horrors of War, he probably expected the Union of Earth and Water to convey his meaning plainly, at least on a political level. To add explicitly his own plea for the end of the Scheldt blockade to numerous others, many of which had come in the form of pageant decorations, Rubens drew on a well-known and widespread language of political allegory and symbolism. Not only would it have been understood by learned men of the Netherlands — Rubens’ metaphor was made to speak clearly to educated men across Europe.

Rubens’ own art is abundant in river gods, whose importance for his work should not be underestimated. The artist’s nuanced understanding of these deities’ importance to the political imagery led him to incorporate water gods in many of his works. Some of these, like his portrait of the Duke of Buckingham or Ferdinand of Hungary meeting with Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Spain at Nördlingen feature river gods as an allegorical backdrop to important political players. This is also the case in the Medici cycle, of which even the oil sketches feature river gods (Arrival of Marie de Medici at Marseille and the Exchange of Princesses). These images have been crucial for me to see because they make clear the connection that existed in Rubens’ mind between persons capable of influencing politics and water deities.

Beyond its political meaning, connected to river gods and the precarious situation of Southern Netherlands, the Union of Earth and Water is an image of peace, which has a place among other peace allegories created by Rubens. These evolved from three main elements — the three gods of Terence’s apothem — that exist both separately and in their symbiotic form of peace in Rubens’ art. Paintings that focus on these gods separately help determine the elements that can be used to identify the presence of these gods on canvases where they are evoked simultaneously and implicitly (the Union of Earth and Water is an important instance of this). Rubens’ paintings of Bacchus and his followers, notwithstanding their diversity, are characterized by three crucial elements: grapes, vine leaves, and felines to which may be added two more — wine and satyrs. In any combination, these elements, when they migrate from Bacchic canvases to other works, must alert the viewer to the Bacchic presence. Seeing Satyr’s Head, Drunken Silenus, Minerva Defends Peace from Mars, and the Feast of Venus has further convinced me of this. Consequently, I feel more certain than ever that the tiger, grapes, and vine leaves in the Union of Earth and Water (not to mention the satyr in the sketch for the painting) are not coincidental occurrences but are meant to alert the viewer to the presence of the wine god. Rubens also created many paintings devoted only to Venus. Seeing the sketch The Birth of Venus in Brussels was vitally important because it showed Venus with no other main gods. Being the scene of her birth, this sketch is focused on what is quintessentially characteristic of Venus: nudity, golden hair, cupids, pearls, and a connection to the sea. The latter is very important considering the oceanic themes of the Union of Earth and Water and that it lays such strong emphasis on Venus’ birth from the sea, which is rarely emphasized so strongly. All the elements, except the blond hair, that in this sketch belong to Venus and no other god, also characterize Ceres in the Union of Earth and Water. Establishing the composite identities of gods in Rubens’ allegories of peace necessitates a close study of his works that treat these gods in isolation.

Minerva Defending Peace from Mars and Feast of Venus are supreme examples of two kinds of Rubens’ peace imagery, which is a vital point of comparison for the Union of Earth and Water. Minerva Defending Peace from Mars is openly political. (In this it is similar to the even more dramatic Horrors of War.) Peace and War divide this canvas, underlining an intimate connection between peace and its enemy. This suggests that Rubens’ peace images, even when devoid of any signs of conflict, actually exist in unspoken opposition to it. Minerva Defending Peace from Mars has elements of Terence’s divine trio: grapes and satyrs speak of Bacchic presence, the abundant fruit and its harvest recall Ceres. Peace herself is as though a personification of Venus — what else may be suggested by her golden hair, nudity, pearl earring, and red drapery? Nevertheless, her suckling of an infant recalls images of Tellus — another Roman earth goddess, which adds more complexity to her identity. This is very similar to the Union of Earth and Water, where Ceres has attributes of Venus and where the Bacchic presence is implied as the last component of peace.


Feast of Venus, 1636-38

The Feast of Venus is a more implicit image of peace, which does not refer to war in any other way than by being such an absolute antithesis to it. This celebration of Venus also features elements — satyrs and grapes, abundant fruits and cornucopia, lovemaking and cupids — of Bacchus, Ceres, and Venus, the three gods of peace. Moreover, the painting features a statue of each god. It is an allegory of peace enacted by the living beings and conditioned by the gods, whose statues overlook the worship of Venus — the ultimate expression of peace. Similarly to the Feast of Venus, the Union of Earth and Water is an enactment of peace because it depicts the end of the blockade of the Scheldt, which only would have been assured by the end of war. In Rubens’ lifetime, however, this was not to be. This is why, perhaps, that in creating the Union of Earth and Water, the artist thought back to his early image of Adam and Eve — a moment of bliss subverted by the reality of the fall. Seeing Adam and Eve further convinced me of this.

The John Howett Fellowship allowed me to trace three most important parts of my argument concerning the Union of Earth and Water. I discovered that water deities, particularly river gods, were a recognizable metaphor of Rubens’ time, one that he must have used to make the meaning of the Union of Earth and Water clear. The images of Bacchus and Venus, apart and as elements of his vision of peace, are characterized by identifiable elements that mark their presence for the viewer, whether the gods themselves are portrayed or not. Using these elements, Rubens builds sophisticated allegories that depend on a shared symbolic meaning. Incorporating these discoveries into my analysis and researching further the new possibilities that they had put before me has had a powerful (and highly beneficial) impact on my work.

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