The Rape of Hippodamia1636 - 1637. Oil on canvas, 182.5 x 285.5 cm.
Like Fortuna (P1674) and the Marriage of Peleus and Thetis (P1634), the Rape of Hippodamia was part of the massive cycle of mythologies designed by Peter Paul Rubens in 1636-37 for the Torre de la Parada, Philip IV´s newly constructed hunting lodge on the outskirts of Madrid. The oil sketch for this picture, now in Brussels (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique), was largely replicated in the full-size canvas. The work was undoubtedly painted by Rubens himself, because he freely changed the position of the arms of the centaur, who wields a club as he holds a woman with his left arm at the upper-right corner. This kind of significant compositional change would likely not have been undertaken by an assistant. A rare surviving red chalk drawing executed by Rubens in relation to the Torre de la Parada cycle (Fromer W. Burchard Collection, Farnham) demonstrates the artist´s attempt to work out the elements of the composition even prior to the oil sketch, particularly in the central grouping with the female figure. The drawing focuses on the two principal figural groupings (in four separate groups) with variations, plus an added scene of Hercules wrestling a bull or an ox. In Rubens´s dynamic representation, the scene bursts forth horizontally, from left to right. A favorite contrast between civilization and bestiality on Greek temple decorations such as the Parthenon metopes, the scene derives from Ovid´s Metamorphoses (XII, 210-335). The hybrid monsters, half-horse and half-man, make a drunken attempt to abduct the bride Deidamia (more commonly known as Hippodamia) at her wedding to Pirithous, king of the Lapiths. Led by Eurytion (Eurytus in Ovid), the centaurs are spurred on by Mars, who was insulted at not being invited. Hippodamia is rescued by the Athenian hero Theseus, who is the epitome of bravery and manhood as well as of order triumphing over chaos. In Rubens´s formulation (much like his depictions of another classical subject from Roman history, the Rape of the Sabine Women), the passive female victim must be rescued by her active male hero. In this work, the fair heroine swoons at the center of the composition, as she leans backward toward Theseus while still in the clutches of the bearded Eurytus. An older woman who attempts to restrain the bride falls to the ground, clinging to her bright red skirt, while an older man in the left rear leads two other young women away to indoor safety. Theseus´s two strong, young friends leap boldly to his assistance, toppling wine and fruit from the table of the wedding feast. Their strength matches that of the centaurs but also points subtly to the resemblance between both groups. Rather than revealing the outcome of the battle, Rubens depicts the scene as a moment of great tension, emphasizing the contrast between Hippodamia´s twisted and helpless form and the heightened musculature of the men around her. Rife with violence, disruption, and deception among gods and men, the mythological stories depicted in the Torre de la Parada cycle can be read as cautionary tales fit for contemplation by a ruler. For example, the disruption of a wedding, normally the occasion for the happy union of two houses, points to the disintegration of civil order due to the passions of men (and gods), which can be seen as an object lesson for the king of a large empire. The painting was installed within the entire mythological ensemble inside a grand room of the Torre de la Parada, yet the precise sequence of the original installation is unknown. At some point in the eighteenth century, the painting was moved to the New Royal Palace in Madrid; a series of inventories (made in 1772, 1794, and 1814-18) indicate that it was displayed in at least three different locations within the apartments of the royal children. Despite its nudity and violent theme, the painting was not among those relegated to the sala reservada (Text drawn from Silver, L.: Splendor, Myth, and Vision. Nudes from the Prado, 2016, pp. 128-133).