Marriage of Peleus and Thetis (1636-1638)

Jordaens, Jacob (1593-1678)

Marriage of Peleus and Thetis
Oil on canvas, 181 x 288 cm
Museo del PradoMadrid

As with the Rape of Hippodamia (P01658), this marriage scene was commissioned from Rubens as part of the mythological cycle drawn from Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, which was to serve as the main artistic decoration of the Torre de la Parada. While Rubens prepared the oil sketch for the scene (Art Institute of Chicago), the Marriage of Peleus and Thetis was one of the numerous full-scale canvases whose execution Rubens delegated to his associates in Antwerp, in this case the painter Jacob Jordaens, who signed (IOR. Fecit) and dated the picture on the chair in the lower-right corner. Jordaens largely replicated the oil sketch by Rubens in the full-size canvas, although he subtly altered the placement of the heads of the two goddesses so that Minerva now appears above Venus. In addition, the face of Diana, with her crescent-moon diadem behind the upraised arm of Minerva, is more visible in the final canvas than in the original sketch by Rubens. In Rubens‘s concept, carefully realized by Jordaens, the individual identities and personalities of the Olympian gods emerge clearly. Venus leans back and gestures at her own sumptuous nude body with mock modesty, while Cupid clings to her knee. Minerva, attired in her distinctive armor, hovers above Venus and reaches out past her to seize the gold prize, while Juno, clad in a Roman matron’s veil, reaches for it from the other side of the table. The drama of their interaction at this wedding feast, which gathers the gods at the table, is not expressly described by Ovid, although the courtship story of the mortal Peleus and the nereid (sea nymph) Thetis -the eventual mother of Achilles- appears in Book XI of the poem. Rather, this scene resembles another favorite mythical grouping for artists, the wedding of Cupid and Psyche, but it has a tragic climax. Eris, the goddess of discord and sister of the god of war, Mars, interrupts the festivities to toss into the gathering a golden apple, which is inscribed “to the fairest.” That trophy immediately occasions a contest of vanity among the three leading goddesses: Juno, wife of Jupiter and goddess of the hearth; Minerva, daughter of Jupiter and goddess of wisdom; and Venus, goddess of love. These three are distinctly visible in the Prado canvas, reacting to the golden bauble in the very center of the composition. Above it, Eris, a shadowy winged figure, departs the scene. Eventually, the divine trio will stage a beauty contest, to be judged by the shepherd Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam, with assistance from Mercury, recognizable in his winged cap while gently touching the golden orb of contention. The juxtaposition of three ideal nude goddess figures would often serve Rubens as a favorite subject across his entire career. With the intervention of her son, Cupid, Venus will capture the prize in the contest and will reward Paris with the fairest of mortals -who turns out to be Helen, already the wife of the Greek king Menelaus. Paris’s illicit union with Helen will lead to the devastating Trojan War, which concludes Book XII of the Metamorphoses. Netherlandish artists particularly used this subject to showcase their learning as well as their mastery of consummate physical beauty in the form of the gods. Jordaens was no exception in this regard, although he rendered the nude body -above all Venus’s- with a firm, robust fleshiness that emphasized her corporeality. Indeed, like Rubens, Jordaens depicted Venus’s and Cupid’s flesh in a range of cool and warm tones that creates a softness of texture, especially evident in the dimples just visible along Venus’s thigh. As in Rubens‘s Rape of Hippodamia, the disruption of a wedding held a moralizing message germane to the court of Philip IV: even the gods display vanity and pride that leads to conflict as well as the human carnage of war described in Homer‘s Iliad. The two paintings by Rubens and Jordaens -of nearly identical size and in thematic complement around banquet tables- appear to have traveled as pendants from the Torre de la Parada to the New Royal Palace; a 1772 inventory lists them adjacent to each other. Later in the eighteenth century, they were located in separate parts of the royal residence, with the Marriage of Peleus and Thetis placed in the ‘antecámara’, the antechamber to the throne room, until its transfer to the Prado in 1820 (Text drawn from Silver, L.: Splendor, Myth, and Vision. Nudes from the Prado, 2016, pp. 134-137).

See also:

• Ovid (43 BC-17/18 AD): The Metamorphoses (English)

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