Rubens chose a rarely depicted subject for his Discovery of the Infant Erichthonius, A cruel story precedes the erotic depiction of the daughters of Cecrops: Vulcan tried to rape the virgin Minerva who managed to escape, however. The god’s semen fell on the ground, impregnating the earth goddess Gaia, who bore the infant Erichthonius who had the form of a serpent. Minerva had to hide this little monster in a basket that she handed over for safekeeping to the daughters of the Athenian king Cecrops, Aglaurus, Herse and Pandrosus who disobeyed the goddess’s orders that the basket should not be opened and so uncovered its secret. Rubens followed Ovid, who leaves the daughters’ curiosity unpunished in his Metamorphoses, while other ancient authors report that the disobedient women went mad at their discovery and threw themselves off the Acropolis. Pictorial elements like the fountain figure of Daphne, the dolphins and the herm of Pan, the god of the fields, are to be read as symbols of fertility and sensuality, and allude to the tale just related and its consequences. For the beauty of Herse, which Ovid describes so eloquently, Rubens went back to Praxiteles’s famous statue of Aphrodite (40 BC). Although the original is lost, its form is familiar from countless copies. Its magic lies in the ambivalent expressiveness of her gestures, which make it uncertain whether the goddess is revealing herself or covering herself up. But Rubens also reused his own figures and facial types, which he often took from his head studies: the gracious face of Herse with the almond-shaped, slanting eyes is reminiscent of those of the bacchante in the painting Maid with Fruit Basket.
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Discovery of the Infant Erichthonius, c. 1616
Oil on canvas
height 218 cm, width 317 cm
Inv.-No. GE111
Provenance: 1704 acquired by Prince Johann Adam Andreas I von Liechtenstein from the art dealer Marcus Forchoudt 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
Double Portrait of Albert and Nikolaus Rubens, c. 1626/1627
Mars und Rhea Silvia, c. 1616/1617
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
Ganymede, 1611/1612
The Assumption of the Virgin, modello, 1637
The Consecration of Decius Mus, 1616/1617
The Obsequies of Decius Mus
Samson and Delilah, c. 1610
Portrait of Nicolaas Rockox, 1615
Satyr and Maid with Fruit Basket, 1615
Related themes
Rubens in Wien
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