According to Livy, shortly before the battle the gods were asked which of the two consuls should sacrifice himself for the sake of Rome. Their fate was to be divined from the entrails of two bulls. Part of the liver of the bull that Decius Mus had sacrificed looked like a severed head. Decius Mus acknowledged that this meant death for him. The moment he realizes this is the subject of the second picture in the series. Decius Mus recoils from the news in horror and places his hands on his breast to protect himself. His consternation can also be read from the uncertain, unstable position of his legs. Yet the old High Priest (haruspex) confirms the judgement by pointing to the bull’s liver, leaning forward and fixing the consul’s gaze in a way that expresses clearly that this is his destiny.

An elaborate sacrificial ceremony is staged around these two principal figures, set outside the commander’s tent. An altar has been placed there, and Titus Manlius’s bull is just being led up to it. A musician and sacrificial assistants accompany the sacred proceedings. Decius Mus’s bull is lying dead on the ground in the foreground, and next to it is a golden bowl, full of the sacrificial creature’s blood. The commander’s retinue stand by uneasily, watching the events incredulously.

The cloaks of the priest and the consul – the bearer of the tidings and the man receiving the news respectively –and the symbolic sacrificial blood are all in red, the strongest colour in the picture. Clearly Rubens drew on Raphael’s treatment of a similar subject, The Bull Sacrificed at Lystra for his handling of Livy’s text. Rubens took the opportunity in Genoa in 1604 to study and copy the famous sequence of cartoons for the tapestries in the Sistine Chapel. Raphael used Antique portrayals of a sacrificial scene here, also including a relief from Trajan’s Column in Rome.
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Interpretation of the Victim, 1616/1617
Oil on canvas
height 294 cm, width 412 cm
Inv.-No. GE48
Provenance: 1616 contract between Peter Paul Rubens and the tapestry manufacturers Jan Raes and Frans Sweerts in Brussels and the dealer Franco Cattaneo from Genoa; 1661 the cycle falls into the possession of the painter and collector Carel de Witte, Gonzales Conques and Jan Baptist van Eyck in Antwerp ("The Interpretation of the Victim" and probably "Trophy" did not come into their possession until after 1661, both most likely bear the imperial seal), 1692 in van Eyck’s estate inventory in Antwerp ("The Dismissal of the Lictors" cannot be traced definitely in the estate inventory); 1693 acquired by Prince Johann Adam Andreas I von Liechtenstein from the dealer Marcus Forchoudt in Antwerp, exhibited in a gallery in the Liechtenstein City Palace in Bankgasse in Vienna, from 1807 to 1945 the cycle has remained in its current location
Further works on display
Decius Mus relating his dream, 1616/1617
Decius Mus preparing for Death, 1616/1617
The Death of Decius Mus, 1616/1617
The Obsequies of Decius Mus, 1616/1617
The Dismissal of the Lictors, 1616/1617
The Trophy, 1616/1617
The Assumption of the Virgin, c. 1637
Venus in Front of the Mirror, 1614/1615
Oil sketch of Mars and Rhea Silvia, c. 1616/1617
Mars und Rhea Silvia, c. 1616/1617
The Discovery of the Infant Erichthonius, c. 1616
Satyr and Maid with Fruit Basket, 1615
The Lamentation, c. 1612
Christ Triumphant over Sin and Death, 1615/1622
Double Portrait of Albert and Nikolaus Rubens, c. 1626/1627
Portrait of Jan Vermoelen, 1616
Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens, c. 1616
Henry IV seizes the Opportunity to conclude Piece, 1628
The Victory of Henry IV at Coutras, 1628
The Consecration of Decius Mus, 1616/1617
The Obsequies of Decius Mus
Three Music-Making Angels, on the reverse side of St Joachim, 1615/1620
St. Catherine in the Clouds, 1620/1621
Four Music-Making Angels, on the reverse side of St Anne, 1615/1620
Apollo in the Chariot of the Sun, 1621/1625
The Conversion of St. Paul, 1601/1602
Perseus and Andromeda
The Virgin adorned with flowers, 1609/1610
Psyche taken up into Olympus, 1621
Landscape with Milkmaids and Cows, 1616
Allegory of war, 1628
The Hunt of Meleager and Atalanta, 1628 (?)
The Assumption of the Virgin, modello, 1637
Ganymede, 1611/1612
Diana´s Hunt, 1628
St. Francis of Assisi before the Crucified Christ, 1625
Portrait of a Monk (?)
Adoration of the Magi, 1609/1610
The Visitation, 1611/1612
Portrait of Nicolaas Rockox, 1615
Samson and Delilah, c. 1610
Related themes
Rubens in Wien
The Decius Mus Cycle
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