Venus, Mars and Cupid
The protagonists of this painting are taken from classical mythology. Mars, the ancient Roman god of war, is literally disarmed by love, as a cherub to his right chisels away his armour. Meanwhile, Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, nourishes her son, Cupid, as he clutches her arm. Below Cupid lies Mars’s shield, with a monstrous face cast in the metal. The infant seems about to slip and fall onto this fearsome armour with its gaping mouth. According to this painting, to protect the spirit of love and peace is a precarious venture.
The Flemish painter, Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) uses these mythological bodies to stand for larger ideas in this work. The gods of the classical world act as the embodiment of abstract virtues, which might otherwise be impossible to visualise, in a technique known as allegory. What at first seems to be a mythological family posing for their portrait, is in fact an allegory of the triumph of Peace over War, of Love over Hate. In fact, this work was painted at the height of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). This complex conflict had its origins in the religious disputes of the sixteenth-century European Reformations, but it also encompassed battles for control of Europe between the House of Habsburg, based in Spain and Austria, and the French House of Bourbon. In the 1620s and early 1630s Rubens acted as a diplomat in several negotiations related to the war, including attempting to extend the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-1621). This was a ceasefire between Habsburg Spain and the Dutch Republic that greatly impacted Antwerp, where Rubens lived and worked. By 1635, when this painting was made, the citizens of Antwerp had witnessed a great deal of suffering. This is the historical backdrop against which Rubens conceived of this allegory.