by Alexandra Tuschka
Oh yes, we can well understand that Daniel is saying a prayer to heaven here. However he ended up in this lion's den - the almost life-size lions on this immense 224 x 330 cm canvas are certainly frightening. Ten in number have come together here (one on the left-hand side of the picture, however, is difficult to spot). A skull and human bones testify to the danger of the animals. The lions' facial expressions range from tired and yawning to relaxed and dozing to absolutely terrifying. We viewers are very close to the scene, so that we almost get the feeling that some of the lions are about to spot us and hiss at us. Peter Paul Rubens studied the lions in the royal menagerie in Brussels, so the realistic impression of the wild cats is due to his thorough study. Numerous sketches have been preserved for us.
The story depicted here is found in the Bible and there - how could it be otherwise? - in the Book of Daniel. Chapter 6 describes that the Persian king Darius I held Daniel the Hebrew in high esteem and gradually entrusted him with more tasks. This also called powerful enviers onto the scene, who urged the king to pass a law according to which only this person was allowed to be worshipped for the next 30 days. Daniel did not let himself be dissuaded from his faith and his prayer rituals, so that he was locked in a lion's den as punishment. This was sealed overnight with a boulder. Despite great respect and concern, the king enforced this punishment at the insistence of the other men.
20 Early in the morning, when day broke, the king got up and went in haste to the lion's den.
21 And when he came to the den, he called Daniel with a fearful voice.
And the king said unto Daniel, Daniel, thou servant of the living God, hath thy God, whom thou servest without ceasing, made thee also a servant of the living God?
whom thou servest without ceasing, deliver thee also from the lions?
22 And Daniel said unto the king, The king liveth for ever.
The scene can be seen here because the rock has already been pushed aside and the daylight falls on the scene. So the men found Daniel alive, who told them of an angel who had shut the lions' mouths. Thereupon the men who wanted to punish Daniel were thrown into the pit by the king together with their families and torn to pieces.
Thus, this story is a reminder to believers to hold on to unshakable faith and trust in God, even in the worst situations of life and in the face of powerful enemies. The posture of our protagonist expresses that there may be some doubt about the outcome of the situation. This makes him more approachable for us as viewers. Rubens also rejuvenates Daniel, who - according to the Bible - is over 80 years old, and increases the drasticness of the scene in which such a young life could come to an abrupt end.
With this story, Daniel is a harbinger of Jesus, whose resurrection from the grave is thematically similar to the scene shown here. The skull in front serves to heighten reality, but is also a reference to Mount Golgotha, which is sometimes symbolised with a skull and bones.
This painting enjoyed extreme attention during the painter's lifetime, so much so that Rubens traded it, along with several other of his works, for 80 classical sculptures. Rubens had already gained access to the social upper class as a young man. It was not unusual for important people to have their own extensive art collections.
Peter Paul Rubens - Daniel in the Lion's Den
Oil on canvas, ca. 1614/16, 224.2 x 330.5 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Peter Paul Rubens - The Risen Christ
Oil on canvas, 1615, private collection