Notes on Rubens' "Prometheus Bound" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Pt. 1


Rubens’ Prometheus, which hangs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, operates from 2014 on a number of different levels which would not necessarily have been operative in 2004, 1994, etc. The subjective overlay I impose upon the painting— what myself and my cohorts initiated from (as it were) Philadelphia (and Chicago and London) in the Aughts— a monstrous push behind major high art consonance, against the confounding tides of contrived, instrumentally formed and manipulated post-modern mediocrity— is difficult to transcend or even elide, standing in different spaces in the PMA European Art room where this piece is prominently featured. This surfeit of subjective awareness develops for me into a kind of pleasing pain, or a redemptive ache.

Most serious onlookers would note— reproductions of this are not going to hang in anyone’s living room, or in a doctor’s office. Despite its heroic grandeur, this Rubens also has a hinge to both ugliness and awkwardness. The composition, though even, and the semi-absurd head over heels posture in which Rubens freezes Prometheus, make a bold statement that, to enlarge a Keatsian Romantic conception, the beauty in this rendering of Prometheus and his core narrative myth is in the truthful representation of his agony.


From different available vantage points, the wingspan of the bird picking at Prometheus’ liver makes a statement, a gross and frank one simultaneously, about, not exactly man’s inhumanity to man (sort of), but about the putridity of inhuman and inhumane forces impinging upon human (or, granting Prometheus’ mythological status, super-human) life unnecessarily, muddying the collective wells, eroding the foundations of what has been erected purely. The livid, genuine disgust/revulsion of/at that wingspan, is balanced by the comfort of knowing that Rubens has made that disgust/revulsion ring down the ages in a major high art consonant context— in other words, has left the complexities in to be themselves. The inversion of the wingspan is the blood sacrifice of Prometheus himself; a sacrifice decided upon from pure, genuine, generous motivations; yet valor in the human world must always be contradicted and sometimes supplanted by humanity’s lecherous self-interest and conservation of systems of subjugation and arbitrary reward.