At first this seems a strange subject for a painting: a young woman giving her breast to an old man tied up in chains in a bare prison cell. But I was fascinated by its liveliness, by the vivid colors and by the certain feeling of ultimate love which the old man projects. My son is nursing and I saw a lot of parallels between my baby’s and the old man’s facial expression while nursing. This made me wonder what the picture was all about and I assumed that it had something to do with feeling secure at a mother’s breast, which is the safe place for a baby. Well, after researching the meaning of the picture, I found out, that I was not that far off.
This relatively large picture was painted by the famous Antwerp artist, Peter Paul Rubens around 1630 in Antwerp. The painting is now visible in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The story is in fact from Roman history and the painting is called Cimon and Pero. I learned on Christie’s website that “the theme is generally known as “Roman Charity” and the story was popular among 17th Century Painters as it was regarded exemplary of filial love.”
Cimon is Pero’s father. He is in prison awaiting execution and has been given nothing to eat. Pero has recently had a child and saves her father from starvation by secretly giving him her breast. To enliven the scene, Rubens has added two prying prison guards on the right.
The Peter Paul Rubens website says about the painter: “Peter Paul Rubens (June 28, 1577 – May 30, 1640) was a prolific seventeenth-century Flemish Baroque painter, and a proponent of an exuberant Baroque style that emphasized movement, color, and sensuality.” I think this painting is a great example for this description and the unique style of the artist.
Rubens career was probably also influenced by the fact that he got knighted by the king of Spain and the king of England. This made him Sir Peter Paul Rubens according to the Paul Peter Rubens website: “In addition to running a large studio in Antwerp which produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe, Rubens was a classically-educated humanist scholar, art collector, and diplomat who was knighted by both Philip IV, king of Spain, and Charles I, king of England.”