Comparing Rubens' Venus and Adonis & the Raising of the Cross

Comparing Rubens' Venus and Adonis & the Raising of the Cross
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  • 0:00 Peter Paul Rubens
  • 1:25 Venus and Adonis
  • 3:20 The Raising of the Cross
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the life and art of Peter Paul Rubens. After learning a bit about the artist himself, we will examine two of his most famous works: Venus and Adonis and The Raising of the Cross.

Peter Paul Rubens

Welcome. My name is Peter Paul Rubens. In life, I was a strange blend. I was both an artist and a diplomat. I traveled all over Europe, meeting with nobles and royalty to promote the interests of my home country, the Netherlands. I was also a Catholic in a primarily Protestant country, and my faith greatly influenced my work, especially when I painted religious scenes.

I never limited myself artistically, though. Even as I relished creating works for Catholic churches, I also accepted commissions from the likes of the Protestant Charles I of England, and I often enjoyed depicting scenes from mythology, history, and the natural world. While I studied the works of other artists, including my Italian contemporary Caravaggio, I was always true to my own vision and inspiration.

My style is very much Baroque. I packed my paintings with drama, contrasts between light and darkness, interesting angles and lines, highly detailed and realistic figures and backgrounds, bright colors, movement, and emotion. I always tried very hard to appeal to my viewers' senses and to create works of art that would hold their attention for hours on end. Indeed, there's always something new to discover in my paintings.

In the rest of this lesson, I'm going to introduce you to two of my most famous works: Venus and Adonis and The Raising of the Cross.

Venus and Adonis

Let's begin with Venus and Adonis. I painted this piece between 1635 and 1637, and I think it's really quite a sweet scene, filled will emotion. The painting is mythological, and it depicts a sad farewell between the Roman goddess of love, Venus, and her human lover, Adonis. Venus knows she will never see Adonis again, for he will be killed by the wild boar he's setting off to hunt. She pleads with him not to go, and her winged son, Cupid, joins in, grasps Adonis's leg as he begs him to stay. Adonis, however, sets out, and Venus's worst fears come true.

Venus and Adonis

Now, I invite you to notice a few things about this painting. First, look at the colors I chose. Most of them are fairly muted and blend nicely together, but Adonis's red garment stands out as an interesting pop of color. I used that technique frequently in my work.

Second, pay attention to the contrasts between light and dark. Venus's pale skin is a high point of light that contrasts with her dark garment and the woods behind her. Third, notice my detailed and realistic depictions of the human body. Adonis is very muscular and strong. Venus is, perhaps, a bit plumper than your modern ideas of beauty might allow, but I preferred to paint female subjects with curvy figures. It's usually more realistic and, I always felt, closer to the real standards of feminine beauty.

Fourth and finally, look at the lines and movement in this painting. The figures form intersecting lines as they lean toward each other, and Adonis's spear creates another angle as it points off in yet a different direction. Venus, Adonis, and Cupid look like they might move at any moment, and viewers can imagine Adonis carefully disentangling himself from the others' embraces and setting out on his hunt, never to return.

The Raising of the Cross

 TheRaising of the Cross

Now, let's take a look at another one of my paintings. I have to admit, this one is a favorite of mine. It is the grand triptych (3-panel) painting The Raising of the Cross that I painted for the Church of Saint Walpurgis in Antwerp in 1610-1611. This painting is massive. It's over 11 feet high and 15 feet wide. What's more, its drama is as great as its size. I wanted to capture all of the emotion, the horror, and the tragedy of the moment when Jesus Christ was raised up on the cross. Again, I invite you to notice a few important elements of this painting.

1. The sharp contrasts between light and dark:

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