A crowd of people relax on a grass bank, enjoying the spectacle of a flamboyant procession celebrating the return of a great general and his army. The columns and alcoves of classical Roman buildings tower over them. Below, trumpeters and pipers blow their instruments and animals are led to the sacrifice. A man balanced precariously high up among a forest of flickering torches lights a taper from a flame, but the tall figure of a priest in brilliant red is the focus of the picture.
Rubens based his image on two of Andrea Mantegna’s series of nine monumental paintings, The Triumphs of Caesar, one of the great works of the Renaissance. Rubens saw the pictures while he was in Mantua. It’s likely that he worked at his own spasmodically over several years, experimenting and making amendments for his own interest and pleasure, as it was still in his possession when he died.
Columns and alcoves of classical Roman buildings tower over the crowd of people who sit on a grass bank. They are enjoying the spectacle of a flamboyant procession being led by three young women, Vestal Virgins who hold baskets of flowers and have pearls in their hair as a symbol of their chastity.
The tall figure of a pontifex, or priest, in brilliant red robes and with a laurel wreath is the focus of the picture; almost hidden in the shadows behind him is a soothsayer in a black veil. A brawny farmhand controls a restless bull while an androgynous figure in white leads a sacrificial cow, its horns covered in gold. A young man with long curls holds two sheep also intended for sacrifice, almost oblivious to the trumpeters and pipers around him who blow their instruments with ferocious enthusiasm. At the rear of the procession is a line of four African elephants, their riders armed with sharp prods. Behind them, balanced precariously at shoulder height among a forest of flaming torches, a man lights a taper from a flame.
Rubens based his image on two of Andrea Mantegna’s series of nine monumental paintings, The Triumphs of Caesar, one of the great works of the Renaissance. They were commissioned in the late sixteenth century for the ducal palace of the Gonzagas in Mantua. Together, the paintings show Julius Caesar in his chariot returning from his military campaigns. He is surrounded by soldiers, musicians, slaves and animals, and the spoils of war.
Although on a much smaller scale than Mantegna’s gigantic pictures, there are similarities: the figure leading the cow in the foreground and the man lighting the taper here closely resemble figures in Mantegna’s work. But Rubens’s painting packs in more dynamic energy and excitement. Although there is no all-conquering Caesar, Rubens’s flames flare with real intensity and the image swirls with movement. The elephants in both pictures are crowned with golden baskets of fruit, but Rubens has included one with its trunk raised high in triumph.
Mantegna’s paintings were in Mantua during Rubens’s stay at the Duke’s court around 1604–08. He undoubtedly saw them there and, finding them exciting and inspirational, may have started to paint his own version. They were bought by King Charles I of England, who – in the manner of other monarchs at the time – liked to see himself as a modern Caesar. The huge pictures arrived at Hampton Court in London in 1630 (where they are still on view) about the same time as Rubens’s departure after a stay at court. He may or may not have seen them again there, but the style of his painting is much more that of the later date. It’s more likely that Rubens worked at his picture spasmodically over several years, experimenting and making amendments for his own interest and pleasure, as it was still in his possession when he died.
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