The Wrath of the Gods: Masterpieces by Rubens, Michelangelo, and Titian

September 12-December 6, 2015
Gallery 155

This fall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present The Wrath of the Gods: Masterpieces by Rubens, Michelangelo, and Titian. The exhibition focuses on one of the finest works by the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640),Prometheus Bound. This ambitious, large-scale painting, described by the artist himself as “the flower of my stock,” will be presented alongside works by the Renaissance and Baroque masters who inspired Rubens’s dramatic treatment of the eternal torment to which the Titan Prometheus was condemned by Zeus for giving the gift of fire to humanity. These include Michelangelo’s famous drawing of the Titan Tityus, on loan from the British Royal Collection, and Titian’s large canvas depicting the same subject from the collection of the Museo del Prado. Neither work has ever been displayed together withPrometheus Bound by Rubens.

Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said: “Bringing these works together for the first time presents a welcome opportunity to foster a deeper understanding of one of the finest and most significant paintings in the Museum’s collection. The remarkable drawing by Michelangelo from the British Royal Collection and the great work by Titian lent to us by the Prado have rarely been seen in this country. Neither has their fascinating relationship to our Rubens been so insightfully illuminated.”

In depicting Prometheus chained to a rocky outcropping, Rubens recast the story of an immortal rebel who suffered for humanity, making this painterly tour-de-force an allegory for creation and ambition. He conceived it at a formative moment in his career, having returned to Antwerp after eight years in Italy, where he had widely studied the art of the Renaissance and antiquity. He fused these inspirations to create a revolutionary style that helped give rise to the Baroque movement of the seventeenth century.

In Prometheus Bound, Rubens created a horrific, yet emotionally gripping scene. The massive semi-nude male figure tumbles on his back, writhing, kicking, and clenching his fist as an eagle rips open his chest to devour his liver, the eternal punishment inflicted by Zeus who was outraged when Prometheus stole the fire of Olympus and gave it to humanity.

The artist’s debt to Titian is vividly reflected in the exhibition, evident in the precarious placement and foreboding color treatment of the figure in the Venetian painter’s Tityus. Like Rubens’s Prometheus Bound, it portrays the terrible punishment of a Titan, similarly attacked by a raptor. Michelangelo’s double-sided drawing, like Titian’s painting, also bears striking affinities to Rubens’s canvas, especially in the poses of its figures and the expressive rendering of their musculature. Famous even in his own lifetime, Michelangelo’s Tityus depicts a heroically-scaled figure in torment as well. On the other side of Michelangelo’s drawing, this figure is reworked into a sketch of the resurrected Christ, an image that foreshadows Michelangelo’s depiction of the Risen Christ in the Last Judgment in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Both sides of this drawing will be seen in the exhibition, conveying a direct parallel between Prometheus and Christ, each of whom sacrificed himself for the benefit of mankind. The relations between the two subjects will be explored further through examples of Rubens’s simultaneous interest in representing the torment that Christ suffered during his crucifixion.

Also on display will be an 1805 cast of the ancient Greek sculpture called Laocöon, on loan from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which depicts a Trojan priest and his two sons attacked by giant snakes. The near life-size work was discovered early in the sixteenth century and became widely known as the most intense exploration of pain and punishment in the history of art. Rubens drew directly upon the example of the Laocöon for developing his own aesthetic of horror.

Works by northern European artists such as Michiel Coxcie and Hendrik Goltzius are included. The impact of these Dutch and Flemish artists on his painting further illuminates Rubens’s process of creation and the ways in which ideas circulated before the modern era, at a time when the Baroque movement was being formed.

Christopher Atkins, the Agnes and Jack Mulroney Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture before 1900, stated: “The ancient story of Prometheus is among the most enduring myths associated with human creativity. It has continued to resonate, from the depiction of Frankenstein as the ‘modern Prometheus’ to the eternal flame represented by the Olympic torch and within Hollywood films. Rubens’s motivation for painting Prometheus in all its graphic violence is best understood as a means to align both his works and identity with the greatest masters of the recent and ancient past. It is among his greatest achievements.”

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