The Consequences of War by Peter Paul Rubens is an incredible large painting filled with energetic figures portraying Mars, the god of war, heading off to battle, and Venus, the goddess of love, desperately trying to stop him.
Many of you will have been fortunate in your lives to behold a great painting. To stand before it as the room turns silent around you and you are transported to another world, transfixed in the presence of true greatness. Just as I was, the first time I visited the Pitti Palace in Florence over 10 years ago. An old Medici Palace, a museum that is often overshadowed by the Uffizi, sits just south of the Ponte Vecchio. A treasure chest fortified with giant stone cladding. Inside paintings tile the walls, most of them badly-lit, requiring you to pace the rooms for a glare-free perspective. Behind the Pitti climb the vast Boboli gardens, oxygenating the city of Florence. The Palazzo Pitti is connected to the Uffizi gallery via the Vasari corridor, a kilometer-long passageway lined with 16th and 17th-century self-portraits. Like the main artery connecting two vital organs, the beating heart of the Uffizi and the lungs of the Boboli.
Within the Pitti collection are paintings by Titian, Velazquez, Raphael, Van Dyck, Caravaggio, and Rubens to name a few. It’s hard for a painting to stand out when surrounded by such caliber, which makes this painting even more spectacular. Ruben’s The Consequences of War is a sight to behold. At 206 by 342 centimeters, you feel instantly small when confronted by it. The figures, almost life-size, appear to move before your very eyes with flame-like flux.
Mars, the god of war, is the central figure, being goaded and pulled into battle by the fury Alekto, and desperately pulled away from war by the goddess of love, Venus. On the left, an allegorical figure of Europe is dressed in black, tears welling up in her eyes as she flings her arms up in despair. In the lower right are allegorical figures representing the arts. A broken lute, literature beneath the foot of Mars, and an architect about to be trampled by war. Behind them, a terrified woman clutches her child as a dark cloud stifles the light.
Clearly there is a message here.
Painted by Rubens between 1638-39, the work is characterized as Flemish Baroque. Commissioned by a member of the Medici court during the Thirty Years’ War, a time when Europe was experiencing enormous suffering and the consequences of war couldn’t have been more prevalent. Violence, famine, and plague resulted in eight million fatalities across Europe, as the new Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, a devout Roman Catholic, tried to impose religious uniformity on his domains.
It is, therefore, no wonder that Rubens was able to envision such a powerful representation of the consequences of war.
Alekto, the implacable, unceasing anger has a maddened expression as he violently pulls Mars into a dark and stormy sky. His battle torch aflame, a man not to be reasoned with, the horrors of war personified. Venus, bathed in light, her soft, naked skin offering a warm and beautiful alternative to war. A complete contrast to the ugly and maddened Alekto. Her arm outstretched holding back her lover Mars, wrapped around his right arm and reaching to pull Alekto the fury away, to change the momentum, to detach Alekto, but it is in vain. Mars looks back at Venus but he is determined and doesn’t seem to feel much remorse. His sword already dripping with blood, pointing poignantly at the arts about to be trampled. There is such a contrast between Mars’ cold armor and the soft skin of Venus, it sends a shiver down my spine.
The composition is so powerful in this painting. The strong diagonal leading from lower left to upper right creates a sense of inevitability for war, an unstoppable force. The use of foreshortening, especially of the allegorical figures, indicates the hopelessness of the situation. The figures tumble and fall like a Renaissance fresco painting depicting a spiraling descent into hell. They are no match for the strong determined diagonal force of war.
The figures are set against each other creating this over the top emotion. We feel the costs to culture and to human life. There is an energy, a momentum, and an inevitability. A stormy sky on the right that speaks to overwhelming tragedy and the horrors of war.
Amongst this chaos we are offered the antidote to war, love is our only savior. A message that is so powerful, so timeless, and so relevant. Rubens has created something that serves as a warning to humanity. There is a decision happening at the center of this painting, a moment frozen in time if only Mars were to stop the momentum and turn back to Venus. To choose love over war, and therefore avoid the destruction and suffering.
I like to think of the conception of this painting, the seed of the idea as Rubens took a powerful message and grew it into an allegorical world that we are offered a window into. Painting can be so many things, often it is the celebration of the colloquial, a beautiful still-life, or an eternal memory of a face long gone. It can also be a powerful message to mankind, a forewarning from a brutal past that has since repeated itself and will continue to do so unless we choose peace and freedom. When I stood with this painting, contemplating its message, the words of another great artist came to mind –
“Make love and not war!
‘Cause we don’t need no trouble
What we need is love
To guide and protect us on
If you hope good down from above
Help the weak if you are strong now”
Bob Marley, No More Trouble