A Battle of Mythical Proportion Paiting: The Horrors of War By: Peter Paul Ruben
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Peter Paul Rubens’ oil on canvas piece “The Horrors of War” was completed in 1638 in Florence, Italy.
Rubens uses allegory to convey to his audience the effects of war. Greek mythological figures struggle, grasp, and fall as they “dance across the canvas.” In the background is a distant battlefield. Figures hover overhead and objects scatter the floor. You cannot deny this confusion represents an opposition too great to calm.
Rubens portrays the disarray that accompanies societies thrown into the struggles of war. His work suggests the countless oppositions that surround wartime and the destruction that follows.
Rubens uses an entanglement of figures to represent confusion and discord. The man carrying a bloody sword in the foreground being restrained by a woman is a definite symbol of the disagreement of going to war. The angelic cupids flying overhead and tugging at the woman also are the resistance of battle. The demon-like figures on the right could also personify the evils of conflict. Men, women, and children have fallen to the ground; some with ghastly looks on their faces. Mothers hold tightly to their children representing the maternal instinct to protect their children against danger. At the same time as a woman looks back at the battleground, Rubens allows you to imagine the expression on her faceless body. It makes sense to say there is sadness, a dread, even a madness encompassing them all. The objects that scatter the floor are evidence of the destruction. The fallen and trampled bodies are further proof of the devastation that will continue long after the battles.
There is a definite contradiction in the painting between two opposing sides of war and peace. Rubens uses the attributes of color as symbols. Red always represents anger. A blue skies verses gray sky adds to the signs of good and evil.
Research showed more evidence of the meaning behind “Horrors of War.” Europe was involved in conflict during the 1600’s. Rubens had strong beliefs about these issues. He accepted a diplomatic assignment dealing with peace negotiations between England and Spain. He had seen the terror of war. He saw the struggles of refugees, the plague and dysentery.
“The Horrors of the War” is a true example of antiquity meaning he used history and mythology in his paintings. Not only did “Horrors of War” illustrate his views of war but, showed his “denunciation of war”.
Rubens wants you to understand war by using allegory. Mars, the god of war, holding weapons and Alecto, the fury of war, holding a torch adorned in the center of the piece. The women in black represent Europe ravished by war. Venus, the goddess of love, holds Mars back. The 3 Graces: Harmony, with her lute, Charity and Fecudity, with child are shown being tramped by Mars. These females are portrayed as the ones who give and receive. Red rips across the painting as conflict. Fallen figures represent the destruction of architecture. Objects such as a book represent how war affects culture by destroying literature, paintings and music. Ruben felt strongly when if came to war and you can feel his emotion the more you study his work.
In my opinion Rubens’ work is important and brilliantly bold and pulls you in to its mystery. You find yourself looking over each and every inch of his work wondering what he wants you to know. It’s impressive how he used his art as a universal message. Imagine how he either politically or religiously moved the people. “The Horrors of War” must have hit you in the pit of your stomach or hit you in the depths of your heart. After studying Rubens you realize you may have no idea of the hidden meaning he wants to place in your psyche.
Ruben wrote that he considered “Horrors of War” as “great art” and actually symbolizes the “death of art”. Any artist who puts that much feeling, conscience and principle into his work deserves the respect of anyone and it doesn’t matter in what century they lived.