Art Literary Tales

The Great Art: Peter Paul Rubens, “The Fall of Phaeton”

Rubens is one of the most recognizable names in art. He was one of—if not the—leading figures of the Flemish Golden Age and a supreme representative of the broader Baroque artistic tradition taking inspiration from Caravaggio. Rubens is my favorite artist, in part, because his paintings capture the totality of the human condition in its fleshy, pathological, and metaphysical realities. They speak to us, move with us, and inspire us.

Rubens grew up in the aftermath of Trent’s declaration that artists offer spiritual meditation and theological allegory in their paintings. He was, from this historical context, one of the finest artists who sought to realize this essential spiritual component to art: teaching and touching the human soul through paintings. They continue to teach and touch us long after his death.

One of the most iconic of Rubens’s artworks is his 1604-5 work The Fall of Phaeton. Rubens, part of the sublime Baroque tradition, took up the mantle of infusing allegory and theology in classical mythology or biblical and religious stories. Phaeton, as we know, was not part of the biblical or religious inheritance. It was, however, part of the Greek inheritance that was slowly married into Christianity over millennia of theological innovation and synthesis. In the aftermath of the Renaissance and the humanism that sprang from the universities and church support—continued even in the various Reformed traditions of Europe best exemplified by Peter Vermigli—the familiarity with the high culture of Greece was part and parcel of the culture of the educated elite in a fractured and warring Christendom.

Catholics, especially, took the declaration of Trent’s artistic imperative to include the sanctification of classical mythology in their paintings. Phaeton’s pride, arrogance, and destruction offered an opportunity to embrace the creative freedom of a non-biblical story and infuse it with those spiritual and theological meditations and truths that the Church was now pushing through its patronage of the arts.

We are familiar with the story, but Rubens’s art tells an even more captivating one. Phaeton steals his father’s chariot. Phaeton’s father is the sun god Helios. Helios rides the chariots through the sky to bring the rise of the sun and bring life to the world. Phaeton seizes the chariot without proper prudence or authority. He flies into the air, uncontrollably, bringing death and destruction over the earth. The gods must make a split-second decision to save the world from the destruction wrought by Phaeton, so Zeus throws his thunderbolt and kills him.

In the painting, the moment of this decisive encounter is captured. Phaeton is overturned, inverted, falling headfirst into the abyss below (i.e., death). The Horae, the winged butterfly creatures off to the side of the painting, shriek in terror. The solar bands in the skies have been disrupted by the incident. Taken together, the terror of the Horae and the breaking of the solar bands bring the disharmony of the seasons and the end of the harmony of the cosmos. The light of heaven, where the gods (God) sit, is the only section of sublime light representing the light and power of the heavens where the thunderbolts of salvation came. The winged horses are now broken free of their reins and bolt in a myriad of different directions.

What strikes us in the painting is the pathological beauty of it. We see Phaeton falling headfirst, face covered while being disrobed, to his death in shame. Chaos reigns supreme. But there is also a paradoxical orderliness to it. It reminds us that despite the chaos and destruction around us, there is a divine providence over the cosmos. Chaos and disruption do not necessarily entail absolute chaos and a lack of cosmic control; there remains order and proportionality to the world, thanks to the heavens. Hence the only light and the Neoplatonic “point of infinity,” which draw our gaze into the heavens, attract our attention as we scan the painting. Life is found in the light and heavens, which slowly lead our eyes away from the central chaos of the chariot and the dark destruction of the world below (symbolized by its covering darkness in coloring).

The Fall of Phaeton is not just a rendering of the story of Phaeton’s pride and arrogance, which led to his downfall. It is also an allegory of the Fall of Man in the Christian tradition. Phaeton, like Adam and Eve, brings death and destruction onto the world through an act of usurpation and pride. This death and destruction from usurping pride, rebellion (carrying implicit political connotations that are otherwise hidden in the painting), destroys the original harmony of the world, and this permits chaos and death to enter. Yet, despite this tragedy, the light from heaven implies that there remains an order to it all: We are not doomed to eternal shrieking and grief (as the Horae are). What flows from pride and usurpation, a false enlightenment (represented by the color red in the cloak that is falling off of Phaeton revealing his false enlightenment)? Chaos, death, destruction. In theological language: sin.

Even so, the majesty of the painting in its carnal depiction of the cosmos and the pathologies it can inspire—the grief for Phaeton and the Horae, sympathy for the mythical flying horses, an unadulterated sense of sublime beauty, meditation and contemplation over its signification, the drawing of our eyes to the point of infinity which is the domain of the gods—seems to strike out at us and grab the very heart of our soul as we look it. We are not disinterested observers per Schopenhauer. Rather, we are fully immersed in the drama that the painting represents. We ourselves are part of it. We encounter beauty in the painting. We are overcome with the emotions of grief, horror, and pity. In a word, Rubens painted the totality of the human condition.

*This was originally part an essay published at Merion West, “The Irresistible Peter Paul Ruben,” 14 April 2022.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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