In his famous letter of 12 March 1638 to Justus Susterman, a painter to the Florentine court, Rubens concluded his long explanation of the iconography of his Horrors of War by noting that he had already clarified far too much of the painting “because with your [Susterman’s] sagacity, you will have understood it easily.” Aneta Georgievska-Shine uses this citation in the present book, which is based on her 1999 dissertation, to verify her interpretation of four mythological paintings, all executed by Rubens between 1610 and 1620. Although Rubens wrote his letter almost two decades later, the author believes it provides the proof that when illustrating the subject of a particular myth he inserted extensive literary and inter-textual references, giving the work a more far-reaching significance. In her analysis, Georgievska-Shine exposes a tightly knit web that connects the myths, their various main and secondary narratives and other associations, all of which presented as an intricate intellectual game constructed by Rubens for his erudite clients. The concetti of his imagery bare not however based solely on such literary connections between the mythological figures but through the use of principles of construction derived from rhetorical figures.
Rubens scholars have long been fascinated by the four paintings under discussion here – Prometheus Bound (Philadelphia Museum of Art),The Abduction of the Daughters of Leucippus (Munich, Alte Pinakothek), Juno and Argus (Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum), and The Finding of Erichthonius (Vienna, Prince of Liechtenstein Collection). These have already been studied by – among others – Svetlana Alpers (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes1967) and in my own PhD thesis, published as Peter Paul Rubens’ bildimplizite Kunsttheorie in ausgewählten mythologischen Historien (1611-1618) in 2005 (see review in this Newsletter November 2006). Thus, while the ancient and contemporary textual and pictorial sources of these works and their links to rhetorical principles have been variously studied, Georgievska-Shine claims to have developed a new analytical method that facilitates detection of inter-textual structures in Early Modern painting. Reading her work, one cannot but be impressed with her knowledge of texts and her philological erudition as well as the rigor with which she applies her method. Her detailed study of the literary as well as secondary sources as mythographical texts brings to light homonyms or words constructed from the same word stem (formo-formosa-formosissimam), for example in inscriptions on engravings and in ancient texts, which in her view originated in a deliberate and not random manner. She parallels structurally similar events from different but contextually related myths and even manages to support her argument by using the contextual sequence of mythological episodes in ancient texts and to link those structural relationships to rhetorical figures. All this sounds quite abstract – and, in fact, in many passages the discussion resembles a philological rather than an art-historical analysis. Sometimes one wished the author had related her findings more closely to the paintings themselves and to have applied more conventional art-historical tools such as style, paint application and pictorial genesis. The pictures hanging in museums are of far less interest to Georgievska-Shine than their complex backgrounds and what associations their conceptual structures may have inspired in those familiar with the writings of ancient and contemporary authors, scholars, clergymen, mythographers and art theoreticians.
Georgievska-Shine’s study of the Abduction of the Daughters of Leucippus demonstrates the complexity of her ‘subtexts.’ Going beyond long-established connections to Michelangelo’s figures of Night and Leda or Titian’s Danae and Venus in Venus and Adonis (both Prado), and the implied references to the disegno-colorito debate as well as the question of the ideal artistic style, the author proposes a new explanation for Rubens’s choice of these particular figures as his visual sources. She persuasively argues that in addition to providing suitable poses, both the Leda and Venus figures were appropriate because of their special contextual connection to the myth: Leda is the mother of the two abductors Castor and Pollux and ‘formally’ mother of the abducted Hilaria in the center. Equally significant are the literary, structural and contextual analogies that connect the abduction by the Dioscuri and the abduction of their sister, Helen of Troy. Georgievska-Shine thus leads the reader to the image’s meta-level, which is primarily about abduction (as a type of imitatio) and beauty, and in the final analysis about the question of artistic originality. This short summary insufficiently conveys the complexity with which the author goes about her de-construction of the painting’s multifaceted contextual allusions and formal connections. My own analysis of the Munich Abduction interpreted the image as an expression of Rubens’s reflection on the paragone between painting and sculpture and the question of what constitutes the ideal style, exemplified in the rivalry between Michelangelo and Titian and their respective works Leda/Night and Danae. Georgievska-Shine on the other hand considers Rubens’s artistic imitation was primarily driven by the literary metaphor of abduction. What is interesting is that we both arrive at the same conclusion about Rubens’s image of himself – namely that he was concerned to convey his own artistic brilliance and ingenium.
The conclusions Georgievska-Shine draws for the other three works can only be summarized here. In Prometheus Bound Rubens explores what constitutes good imitatio, which in the literary and artistic meta-levels also relates to the artist’s ingenium. Rubens is concerned with prompting the viewer’s reflection on his own deliberations about the possibilities of achieving artistic progress even when utilizing the same forms or contents which are found in earlier depictions, and to present his ‘result’ in his painting – in other words: to breathe new life into a centuries-old theme or motif. Though Prometheus’s pose derives from Michelangelo’s Tityus, who was punished for his greed, Rubens’s figure symbolizes the saved soul and embodies the heroic virtues of constantia, fortitude and prudentia.
The contextual connection between Rubens’s Juno and Argus and Franciscus Aguilonius’s book on optics has been much discussed, but whereas other authors have argued Rubens’s image ‘illustrates’ the Jesuit’s text, Georgievska-Shine proposes a more differentiated view, demonstrating that Aguilonius first cites extensively from ancient authors so as to establish himself as a philologically erudite scholar. She then suggests that the reading of these texts as well as medieval and contemporary interpretations of individual figures in Aguilonius’s book may have inspired Rubens to also address the complex issues of light and color, but from an artistic rather than scientific angle. In her opinion, Juno and Argus is a painterly analogon to Aguilonius’s text since Rubens drew on the same literary source as the Jesuit.
Last but not least, Georgievska-Shine examines The Finding of Erichthonius, which she considers one of Rubens’s most complex inventions (see also her article in The Art Bulletin 86, 2004, pp. 58-74). She interprets the child with snake legs as personifying the generative power of nature and believes Rubens primarily conceived the depiction as a demonstration of his ability to interpret myths allegorically. Julius Held (Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 39, 1976, 34-45) already pointed out that Rubens set out to rival Ovid’s Metamorphoses by depicting two separate incidents described by the poet and by referring to a third: Juno adorning the peacock’s tail. Georgievska-Shine goes further: she sees motival parallels to the discovery of Moses and the writings of St. Augustine, which in turn create a typological connection between the Attic bringer of law and his Jewish counterpart, thereby referring to the earthly respectively heavenly realm. Rubens is concerned in the painting’s meta-level to show that the poetic and fable worlds are integral parts of the Christian world view since they already embody the truth of Christianity.
The merit of this study lies in the author’s ability to exemplify that in some of his mythological works Rubens generates motival and structural trains of thought which he then weaves together in an artistic and profound manner in order to expose meta-levels of the myth. These allow him to reflect on the conditions and possibilities of (his own) creative process. Georgievska-Shine demonstrates that she is an erudite and intellectual interpreter of Peter Paul Rubens as a scholarly painter. Taking this view, she is able to uncover a meta-levels of meaning and interpretation not detected before. In reading her study one can sense the delight learned viewers may have felt in following up the literary and motival threads Rubens had construed in these mythological paintings. However, referring to more art-historical questions and issues concerning these works might have strengthened Georgievska-Shine’s arguments, offsetting the potential criticism that her arguments are too abstract and philologically far fetched, leaving behind true art-historical investigation.
University of Bamberg
Translated by Fiona Healy