For Peter Paul Rubens’ Mars and Rhea Silvia, the Princely Collections not only own the completed work but also the elaborate oil sketches. According to ancient myth, Mars was attracted to Rhea Silvia, a priestess of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, who was also worshipped as the protectress of the family, of hospitality and of ordered community life. Ovid reports that Mars overpowered the Vestal while she was asleep. Rubens shifted the scene to the temple. The god has been borne there on a cloud and passionately approaches the priestess, who cringes in horror: as a Vestal, she has sworn an oath of chastity, though possibly not of her own free will. Mars has removed his helmet, and with it his war-like aspirations, for the time being. Cupid, the god of love, acts as pimp, and leads Mars to Rhea. Virgil records that Mars had twins by Rhea Silvia, Romulus and Remus, who later founded Rome. Vesta’s eternal fire, tended by the priestess, burns on the altar on the right. As no images with human faces were made of this goddess, her shrine is marked by a statue of Pallas Athena instead. Rubens demonstrated once more at this point that he was familiar with ancient sources and their contemporary interpretation, as by his friend Justus Lipsius in De Vesta et Vestalibus Syntagma (Antwerp, 1605). Rubens borrowed small details from Roman coins and ancient sarcophagi like the one in the Palazzo Mattei in Rome. The fact that the attributes of Mars and Athena are reversed shows that the painting was used as the basis for a tapestry. It is possible that it was intended as the first of a series on Romulus, but by 1625 at the latest, when the scene was taken up for the first time as part of a tapestry for the cycle on the Roman consul Decius Mus, Rubens had clearly abandoned his ideas for an independent series.
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Peter Paul Rubens
Mars und Rhea Silvia, c. 1616/1617
Oil on canvas
height 208 cm, width 272 cm
Inv.-No. GE122
Provenance: 1710 acquired by Prince Johann Adam Andreas I von Liechtenstein from the art dealer Jean Pierre Bredael in Antwerp
Further works on display
Decius Mus relating his dream, 1616/1617
The Interpretation of the Victim, 1616/1617
Decius Mus preparing for Death, 1616/1617
The Dismissal of the Lictors, 1616/1617
The Death of Decius Mus, 1616/1617
The Obsequies of Decius Mus, 1616/1617
The Trophy, 1616/1617
The Lamentation, c. 1612
The Assumption of the Virgin, c. 1637
Portrait of Jan Vermoelen, 1616
Oil sketch of Mars and Rhea Silvia, c. 1616/1617
Venus in Front of the Mirror, 1614/1615
Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens, c. 1616
The Discovery of the Infant Erichthonius, c. 1616
Double Portrait of Albert and Nikolaus Rubens, c. 1626/1627
Christ Triumphant over Sin and Death, 1615/1622
Henry IV seizes the Opportunity to conclude Piece, 1628
Allegory of war, 1628
The Victory of Henry IV at Coutras, 1628
Apollo in the Chariot of the Sun, 1621/1625
The Virgin adorned with flowers, 1609/1610
The Conversion of St. Paul, 1601/1602
St. Francis of Assisi before the Crucified Christ, 1625
The Hunt of Meleager and Atalanta, 1628 (?)
Landscape with Milkmaids and Cows, 1616
Perseus and Andromeda
St. Catherine in the Clouds, 1620/1621
Diana´s Hunt, 1628
Psyche taken up into Olympus, 1621
Three Music-Making Angels, on the reverse side of St Joachim, 1615/1620
Four Music-Making Angels, on the reverse side of St Anne, 1615/1620
Portrait of a Monk (?)
Adoration of the Magi, 1609/1610
The Visitation, 1611/1612
The Consecration of Decius Mus, 1616/1617
The Obsequies of Decius Mus
Ganymede, 1611/1612
The Assumption of the Virgin, modello, 1637
Samson and Delilah, c. 1610
Satyr and Maid with Fruit Basket, 1615
Portrait of Nicolaas Rockox, 1615
Related themes
Rubens in Wien
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