The Fall of the Damned – Peter Paul Rubens

Some times, I will see a snippet of a painting, which will intrigue me.  This was one of those paintings.  If you have seen the series called “Dark”, you may have caught a glimpse in the first season, which led me to a three day hunt to find out which painting it was.  As it transpired, I have seen this painting before, but, at a glance it is confusing to the eye so I never really paid it much heed.  Well after my three day hunt for it, I felt like I couldn’t just waste the time and not write about it.

Rubens is an artist I have written about before, but I haven’t really talked about him as an artist.  Born in 1577, he was a Flemish artist, who is particularly known for his creation of altar pieces, landscapes and portraits.  Rubens’ style falls in to the Baroque movement and he is known as the most influential Flemish painter of this movement.  This style lends itself to emphasising movement, colour and sensuality which enhances the subject matters that Ruben decided to paint.

In addition to running a large studio in Antwerp that produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe, Rubens was a classically educated humanist scholar and diplomat who was knighted by both Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England. Rubens was a prolific artist. The catalogue of his works by Michael Jaffé lists 1,403 pieces, excluding numerous copies made in his workshop.

Rubens’ drawings are predominantly very forceful and lack great detail, but he also made great use of oil sketches as preparatory work.  His commissioned works were mostly “history paintings”, which included religious and mythological subjects, and hunt scenes. He painted portraits, especially of friends, and self-portraits, and in later life painted several landscapes. Rubens designed tapestries and prints, as well as his own house. He also oversaw the ephemeral decorations of the royal entry into Antwerp by the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Austria in 1635.

“The Fall of the Damned” was created in approximately 1620 and is a monumental religious piece. It’s size is 2.8 metres by 2.2 metres and is an oil on canvas.

We see a cascade of bodies falling through the central point of the painting, a heavenly light shining from the left hand top corner of the piece.  The Archangel Michael (you can spot him as he is in a blue tunic and red cape with a weapon and a shield) appears to be driving the bodies downwards with assistance of other winged angels.

The bodies are contorted and naked, some are of a larger frame, while others look almost seductive in form, indicating gluttony and lust from the seven deadly sins. As you look amongst the bodies, you can see winged creatures, different from the angels, with their beautiful feathered wings; rather more leathery and dragon like.  As your eye moves down the canvas, you will see more creature, looking monstrous; horned and clawed they look like paganistic mythological beings, dragging the bodies down and tearing at their flesh.

The bottom of the painting is a dark turmoil of the falling meeting their fate with the darkest of the monsters.

So what is this all about? I could simply say it was sinners being cast to the underworld and leave it there, but actually I think it is a little deeper than that.

This painting has also been known as “The Fall of the Rebel Angels”, which would indicate that this is the moment that Lucifer is cast out of Heaven, with all the angels that backed him.  They have lost their wings and are shown with some of the sins to indicate their reduced status in the eyes of God.

If you look closely at the faces of those in the downfall, none look particularly scared, more accepting of their fate; while others look as though their faces are being contorted into the monsters that are waiting to greet them below.  This leads me to think that this downfall is the point where Lucifer’s following are transforming into demons, devils and evil spirits, cursed and cast out for following what they believed in (who said that God is all forgiving?).

If this is the case, this painting seems to indicate that paganism is the enemy of Christianity through the way in which the demons have been represented.  Through using creatures that are easily recognisable as satyrs this is a very literal and visual outcasting of older beliefs.

Rubens’ pallet and use of chiaroscuro (the technique of using light to contract dark) really gives movement and drama to the painting, it almost feels like a waterfall as the bodies cascade down, the demons creating the bubbling plunge basin.  There is no denying that this is a dramatic tale being laid out for audiences as a reason not to sin.

In 1959, a philosopher (not a good one) threw acid over this painting in an attempt to make people sit up and take notice of the book that he had written that no one wanted to publish (where was Amazon self publishing then…?).  Walter Menzl felt that by damaging the painting, it would draw attention to himself, allowing his philosophy on utopian universal peace to get an airing.  What happened in reality was he was ordered to pay 80,000 deutschmarks, which he couldn’t pay, so spent 3 years in prison, and his theories went unheard of. The painting was restored and now resides in Alte Pinakothek museum in Munich.

What do you see in “The Fall of the Damned”?  Why not tell me in the comments? Like thi post?  Why not share it?





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