... The poet says, Dear City of Cecrops; and wilt not thou say, Dear City of Zeus?--Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.23 (1) The transitory character of all things as an aspect of a preordained natural course is a common them in Peter Paul Rubens's written and painted musings on the world. In a 1629 letter to Jan Caspar Gevaerts, the Antwerp humanist and his close friend, Rubens expresses condolences at the death of his wife, recalling his own bereavement for his beloved wife, Isabella Brandt, who had died in 1626. As if to underscore the necessity of accepting one's fate, the artist invokes Marcus Aurelius, an author intensely studied by Gevaerts at this very time:
If any consolation is to be hoped for from philosophy, then you will find an abundant source within yourself. I commend you to your Antoninus, whose divine nourishment you will distribute liberally to your friends. I shall add only this, as a poor kind of comfort: that we are living in a time when life itself is possible only if one frees himself of every burden, like a swimmer in a stormy sea. (2) Rubens is not citing a specific passage, yet this shared familiarity with Aurelius allows him to convey by means of allusions the leitmotiv of this seminal Stoic thinker--the futility of remorse over the unstoppable passage of time:
One who has seen the present world has seen all that ever has been from time everlasting and all that ever will be into eternity .... For all things, in a sense, are mutually intertwined, and by virtue of that all are dear to one another; for one thing follows duly upon another because of the tonic movement and the common breath that pervades throughout and the unity of all substance. (3) Whereas similar ideas can be followed in many other letters by the artist, this engagement with the Stoic notion of the cycle of life guided by Providence is even more apparent in his paintings. From such early works as The Fall of Phaeton (ca. 1606, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) to those he created at the close of his career, such as The Rape of Proserpina (ca. 1636-38, the Prado, Madrid), the "rushing torrent" of the "world-cause" that Aurelius wrote about remained a constant within his pictorial inventions. (4) And no other source provided him with richer material for an investigation of this all-pervasive principle than Ovid's book of metamorphoses.
Whether Rubens revisited a well-known story and rendered it novel by highlighting an unexpected facet of its surface or chose a seldom recounted tale, his pictorial representations of myths invariably possess an opulence of meanings that could rival Ovid's intertwining of narratives in service to the larger theme of his poem: the mutability of forms. One such example of Rubens's affinity for this way of thinking is The Finding of Erichthonius, a painting from the decade following his return from Italy to Antwerp (Fig. 1). (5)
Created about 1616 for an unknown patron, and possibly without a specific commission, The Finding of Erichthonius is arguably among the most ambitious and mysterious of Rubens's treatments of ancient fables. It is based on a Greek creation myth, rarely commented on in writing
and even more seldom represented in painting, whose meaning centers on the procreative power of nature. At its narrative core is a monstrous infant, Erichthonius, a half-human, half-serpentine creature engendered when the seed of Hephaestus spills on the earth (Gaea) after a failed advance to Athena, his great competitor for primacy among the Athenians. (6) In Ovid's account of this story, the disreputable act leading to the birth of Erichthonius is completely omitted. Rather, the poet begins with the moment shown in Rubens's painting: the daughters of the Athenian King Cecrops (Herse, Aglauros, and Pandrosos), whom Athena had charged with the safekeeping of the basket holding Erichthonius, break their oath to the virgin goddess by uncovering the offspring of this divine indiscretion (Metamorphoses 2.552ff.).
No sooner has the reader been introduced to Erichthonius than Ovid decides to interrupt this story with an unusually long digression into a few seemingly unrelated transformations, so as to pick up the narrative at a much later moment, when one of these three royal daughters (Herse) catches the eye of Hermes. The poet continues with an elliptical conclusion to the first part: Hermes punishes Aglauros, who had attempted to thwart his desire for Herse and who had originally persuaded her sisters to open the basket with Erichthonius (Metamorphoses, 2.711ff.). This narrative lacuna is far from capricious, for it allows Ovid to avoid the problem of the different textual versions of the discovery of Erichthonius and the destiny of the princesses who had breached Athena's order. In another variant of this myth, for instance, going back to Euripides and Pausanias and popular among such Renaissance commentators of this myth as Natale Conti, all three daughters of Cecrops commit suicide as a result of a madness visited upon them by Athena. (7)
Classicists have frequently judged the curious organization of book 2 of the Metamorphoses as being excessively self-reflexive and indulgent of the poet's wit. As has been pointed out in a recent study, this reaction is largely due to the tendency to view Ovid's storytelling method as a rhetorical scheme of "good" and "bad" episodes of changes, a tendency that often leads to interpretations lacking in an understanding of the subtle interplay of narrators and addressees within the larger metanarratives of this poem. (8)
The Finding of Erichthonius presents comparable interpretative difficulties for art historians. While the ostensible subject of this painting is the disclosure of an infant whose hybrid form should elicit fear and abhorrence, the palpable sense of bemusement among its protagonists imbues the scene with the atmosphere of a pastoral poem. Moreover, beyond presenting the characters relevant to the story, Rubens embellishes his composition with several figures of rather oblique import, including a cupidlike putto next to one of the princesses, an old nursemaid, a hermlike figure at the distant left, and a richly flowing fountain resembling Artemis of Ephesus on the right. Most scholars have seen these additions as mere allegorical enhancements of the artist's invention. The one reader to speculate on their deeper meanings was Julius Held, who proposed that the cupid and the nursemaid may allude to the second episode of Ovid's story, where Hermes' choice of Herse as his mate ultimately leads to the punishment of her sister Aglauros, the true agent of this forbidden discovery. (9)
The interpretation offered here builds on a significant implication of Held's suggestion concerning these narrative allusions--that the visual intricacies of The Finding of Erichthonius exemplify a mode of pictorial commentary on myth comparable to Ovid's manner of storytelling. The clearest indexes of this approach on the part of the artist are the figural prompts noted by Held, whereby the two parts of the Erichthonius narrative are brought together, as if in response to the poet who had decided to set them asunder in the Metamorphoses. At the same time, by means of this sophisticated invention, Rubens leads the beholder toward a visual exegesis whose elaborate texture can be seen as an equivalent to the discourse on ancient myths cultivated by the antiquarians of his generation.
Rubens's sophistication as an interpreter of the past needs no lengthy introduction. The letter to Gevaerts cited above exemplifies the tenor of his voluminous correspondence, which is filled with references to an encyclopedic body of ancient texts. The same intellectual scope shaped his personal museum, which included both commonly collected artifacts, such as paintings and sculptures, and objects reflecting a rather more rarefied sensibility, such as ancient gems, burial urns, and even an Egyptian mummy. (10) Likewise, though the contents of his remarkable library have only recently been fully published, studies of his work have consistently shown his firsthand knowledge of Greek and Roman literature, as well as its afterlife in the works of later writers. (11)
This fluency with the cultural legacy of antiquity proved especially pertinent in Rubens's representations of ancient fables, where questions such as the source of a story and its different variants could present both challenges and intellectual rewards. As this discussion of The Finding of Erichthonius hopes to demonstrate, Rubens was an artist who, in acknowledgment of the "marvelous character" of ancient fables (orazione favolosa), distanced himself from the tradition of the Ovide moralise prevalent among northern painters of his time. (12) In pursuing the meanings of an Ovidian favola, he could appreciate the rich allegorical, as well as poetic, potential of the separation between the "surface" of the story and the moral gloss hidden within. (13) Hence, in the richly layered composition of The Finding of Erichthonius, one can see a testimony to his antiquarian acuity as an interpreter of myths. At the same time, the opulence of this painting is a kind of homage to Ovid, a poet whom his more sophisticated Renaissance readers praised for a comparable copiousness of language:
... of all Latin poetry, there is none so ample, so rich, so diverse, and so universal as the Metamorphoses of Ovid, which contain in fifteen books composed in elegant heroic meter all (or nearly all) the stories of the ancient poets and writers, bound to one another, and so well linked by sustained narrative and by skilful transition, that each seems to arise from and to depend on the other in succession .... By means of all these myths Ovid's sole intention is to teach us that, in the nature of things, forms are continually changing, while matter never dies .... (14) Changing Forms and the Basket of Mysteries