The cycle climaxes in the death of Decius Mus, set amidst the Romans’ battle against the Latins. Decius Mus allows himself to be run through by a lance before the ranks of the attacking Romans and the fleeing Latins. His white stallion rears as he slips off its back. The animal’s elegant pose resembles the levade, a figure in dressage, which was considered a royal art in Rubens’s day. The pose thus appears ennobling, underlining the grandeur of the consul’s state of mind as expressed in his sacrificial death. His face transfigured, Decius Mus sees the heavens open above him, and rays of divine light touch him as a sign that he is the chosen one. His imminent death is vividly expressed by his sinking to the ground to join the corpses of the fallen lying there. In an oil sketch for this picture (Museo del Prado, Madrid), Rubens also gave physical form to the idea of being the elect: a genius appears from the clouds, bringing a laurel wreath and a palm branch to the dying man. Yet Rubens decided not to personify the reward of victory in this way in his painting. He staged Decius Mus’s sacrificial death as a saint’s martyrdom: we are reminded of depictions of the Fall of Saul, in which the saint falls from his horse when dazzled by the sudden blaze of divine light. This fall does not kill Saul, but marks a crucial turning point in his life.

The transfigured gaze towards heaven at the moment of death had already been formulated exemplarily by the ancients, as in the Hellenistic sculpture of the Dying Alexander in Florence (Uffizi). It was seen as an "exemplum doloris", an object-lesson in bearing pain heroically at the moment of death. Rubens here fuses Christianity and Antiquity both intellectually and pictorially. This was entirely acceptable to the Catholic Church, especially as St Augustine had expressly singled out the example of Decius Mus as a model for Christians in his treatise "De civitate dei" (V, 18).

The principles underlying the composition of the central group, a dense mass of horses and warriors locked together, and the figure of the white stallion, are derived from the ideas of Leonardo da Vinci. Rubens was able to study textbooks by Leonardo in Arezzo, although he was unable to see the original of the earlier artist’s Battle of Anghiari, as the fresco was destroyed shortly after its completion. Rubens nonetheless probably saw composition studies or copies of the executed work, which has come down to us in the form of his own drawn copy (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Rubens adopted the design principle of piling up the corpses of horses on top of the bodies of the dead warriors, which effectively forms a base for the group. The structure of the picture, defined by rising diagonals, is typical of his early work.
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Death of Decius Mus, 1616/1617
Oil on canvas
height 289 cm, width 518 cm
Inv.-No. GE51
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 Obsequies of Decius Mus, 1616/1617
The Dismissal of the Lictors, 1616/1617
The Interpretation of the Victim, 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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