The Consequences of War, (or sometimes The Horrors of War) is an impressive painting by Peter Paul Rubens. The work was painted in response to the Thirty Years’ War and is heavily allegorical. Using mythological iconography to convey an eloquent warning, Rubens gives us a painting of disturbing beauty. The message of ‘The Consequences of War’ is as relevant today as it was in the 1600’s.
The Thirty Years’ War had been raging across Europe for 20 years when this painting was commissioned. Driven by conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, an individual’s religious affiliation had far-reaching consequences. Ruben’s family had an interesting religious history which would give Rubens a unique perspective on the volatile climate he lived in.
Ruben’s father was a Calvinist (Protestant), and in Spanish controlled Antwerp the family faced religious persecution. They fled to Germany a few years before Rubens was born. When his father died, Rubens was between 10 and 12 years old, his mother decided to move back to Antwerp where he was raised as a Catholic.
Rubens received a rigorous, classical education as well as artistic training. As a young man he traveled to Italy to continue to study art and assimilated the ideals of the high Renaissance, the freedom of the Mannerists, and the colors of the Venetians. As his reputation as an artist grew he was acquiring commissions across Europe and socializing with scholars and princes. By all accounts he was not only a well-educated, cosmopolitan man, but also charming, kind and handsome.
While traveling abroad he received word that his mother had fallen ill and he returned to Antwerp, unfortunately his mother had passed before he arrived. However, once there, he decided to stay and build his workshop in Antwerp.
Ruben’s fame continued to grow and his workshop was highly productive. He was known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, Biblical and mythical scenes, and portraits. His nudes were distinctive, and the term “a Rubenesque nude” is still used today.
Turns out that a successful artist with a good education and a charming manner makes a good diplomat. The Spanish Governor in Antwerp sent Rubens on several secret diplomatic missions and intelligence gathering trips. He was evidently quite adept as a diplomat as both Philip the IV, the King of Spain (Catholic), and Charles the First of England (Protestant), knighted him.
Most of these missions were to negotiate for peace in the Thirty Year War which is considered one of the most destructive conflicts in human history. 8 million people died, and Germany in particular was decimated. In terms of proportion of the population lost, the Thirty Years War was deadlier than WW2 or the Plague.
Fought mostly across Central Europe the war involved Spain, France, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, and the Holy Roman Empire. The war raged from 1618 to 1648. This painting was painted 20 years into the conflict.
The war was largely fought by mercenary armies whose loyalties could be bought. They were also promised plunder in the cities they conquered so they were looting and setting fields on fire, leaving destruction in their wake. The weakened populace would then have to deal with famine and disease that seemed to walk hand in hand with the marauding armies. Obviously, there was a great deal of suffering across Europe at this time.
Fernando II de’ Medici commissioned this painting. The classical education that Rubens received is evident in this carefully constructed argument for against war. Using the iconography of myths he builds his case, that nations gain far more by pursuing peace, and that pursuing the path of war is self-destructive behavior.
This work would be impossible to read if you are not well versed in Greek and Roman mythology. Hopefully, by the time I’m done you will have an appreciation for all that Ruben’s has managed to convey.
In the top left of the painting we find a relief sculpture of two heads facing away from each other. This is Janus, and that tells us that the doors that are beneath him are the doors to his temple. In Roman times the doors to Janus’ Temple were closed during times of peace. When Rome went to war the doors of the temple were opened. We can see the temple door has been opened and the god of war, Mars, is bursting out of the temple.
Mars is the center of the painting, brandishing his shield and bloodied sword, red cape swirling around him, we understand that war has been unleashed. In mythology, Mars loves to fight, he stirs up strife wherever he can in hopes that fighting will break out. I think we can safely say Mars is an adrenaline junky. As an immortal, war is entertainment for Mars. Sadly, it is not entertainment for the humans he drags along with him. Clinging to his arm, futilely trying to restrain him, is his lover, Venus.
Venus is likely the first figure noticed when viewing this painting. This is partially because she’s nude, but also because in this largely dark painting, she is a slash of light. She and her angels are the one bright spot in a painting filled with despair.
As we uncover the complicated symbolism in the painting we will see anger, destruction, chaos, discord, pestilence, and famine. And yet, in the center, there is still love and beauty. The arts are being trampled underfoot, but all hope is not lost because Venus, as immortal as war, is still in the center.
Rubens, known for his lush nudes, has caught Venus in motion, pleading with Mars to stop the madness. Trying to reason with Mars is futile, he is caught up in the fever of battle and while he is looking back at his lover, his momentum is pushing him forward.
In a previous blog post entitled Botticelli’s Venus and Mars I examined another painting that focused on Venus and Mars. In that painting Venus was the victor; in this painting it is clear that Mars will continue down his bloody path. (Venus and Mars – evidently proof that opposites do attract).
The woman to the left of Venus, dressed in blue with her arms raised in despair is the allegorical figure of Europe. We see that while Europe retains her crowns she has no jewels. They have been plundered and her wealth has been taken. Europe cannot stop the destruction, and has in fact dropped the globe she sometimes holds. Instead the small angel at her side is holding the globe which when examined closely we see the band that encircles it with a cross on the top. This globe represents all of Christendom.
Christendom is at war.
While Europe is on the left, expressing her anguish, we have a very different figure to the right of Mars. This is Alecto, one of the Furies from Greek mythology.
Alecto is one of three Furies, sister goddesses of vengeance. Alecto’s name actually means unceasing anger. Juno enlisted Alecto’s help in causing the Trojan War. As the myth goes Alecto used her burning torch on King Turnis causing ‘his blood to boil with the passion for war.’
Often Alecto is portrayed as a hag with snakes coming out of her hair, blood oozing from her eyes, and sporting bat wings. In Rubens’ portrayal we might not have all of those details, but we certainly see the madness that anger has wrought in her. Alecto appears to be urging Mars on, and waving her torch above her, she is intent on bringing Europe’s blood to a boil.
As we move past Alecto, further to the right, we see the two monsters of Pestilence and Famine. Pestilence and Famine are the inseparable partners of war, and even when the battles are over and the soldiers have moved on, they linger behind continuing to destroy what has been spared during the fighting.
As war rages in the upper portion of the painting, In the lower band we come to what is being crushed under Mar’s feet. On the left we see that there is a caduceus on the ground, the snakes winding around to form the symbol we associate with doctors and hospitals. We also see there is a group of scattered arrows that at one time had a piece of leather binding them together. Both are the symbols of concord.
The goddess, Concordia, embodies the concept of agreement within society, like-mindedness, and peace. When we are of one accord, Concordia is present. However, when the leather strap binding her arrows is broken, it shows that we have broken the bonds of friendship and peace. Now discord reigns.
In the same way the caduceus is a symbol of Concordia. In our painting the caduceus is being trampled on the ground and Concordia is absent from the painting, and from Europe.
Following this lower band and moving to the right we come to Mars’ boot. He is trampling books and papers. This is to demonstrate that not only are lives lost, but the Arts, perhaps the very culture of a nation, are destroyed by war. When humanity is struggling to survive there isn’t much energy left over to create music, write books, paint masterpieces, or build cathedrals. Those pursuits that make us distinctly human, separate us from the animals, cease to be a part of our lives. In essence, we become more animal-like.
As a devout man, it should be noted that for Rubens, pursuing the arts is an act of worship, and that the arts are an integral part of the religious life of a community. So the crushing of the arts directly impacts the spiritual well being of humanity. Yet a war is being fought, a particularly vicious war, between Christians, with the practical effect that God is not being worshiped and Christians are not embodying the basic tenets of their faith.
Continuing to move across we come to the figures of Harmony and the architect. Harmony has been knocked to the ground, broken lute beside her. Next to her lies an architect, holding his identifying tool, the compass. If the books and letters and Mars boot hadn’t clued us in to the fate of the Arts, these two emphasize the message.
Cowering behind Harmony is a woman holding a child. Sadly, this picture often sums up the horrors of war, pictures of women with their babies fleeing areas of conflict. Every generation has had their version of this. This woman represents our humanity that is threatened by war. Even the ability to procreate and raise children is risked when a war rages.
This painting was commissioned by Ferdinand de’Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He was largely uninvolved in the 30 year war, and left the subject of this painting up to Rubens. Rubens was often restricted by political and cultural considerations when he completed a commission, but in this case he felt he could paint what he felt.
Rubens spent his life painting it is true, but he also spent his life advocating for peace. Many of his works reveal his pacifist tendencies. He lived in a time when a ruler’s worth was evaluated by his military victories, not by diplomatic negotiations. Yet, Rubens continued both with his paintings and his negotiating skills to persuasively argue for the path of peace.
In particular his work “Minerva Protects Peace From Mars,” makes the argument that peace is good for the nation, the economy, and the children. He gifted that work to Charles I, as part of his brokering a treaty between England and Spain.
And his painting, The Massacre of the Innocents, which has echoes of a massacre that occurred in Antwerp, is graphic in depicting the ugliness, cruelty and horror of war.
Hmmm, perhaps I’ll need to continue to explore more of Rubens work here on the blog.
If you are interested in my thoughts on some of his Biblical paintings several of them are featured in my Lent Devotional which can be purchased here – or you can subscribe to my blog to catch more on the illustrious Mr. Rubens.
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.