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Accessible Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by Deutscher Kunstverlag (DKV) November 29, 2021

On The Origin of the Milky Way by Peter Paul Rubens: Astronomy, Astrology and Mythology in Early Modern Europe*

Marcia Pointon


Painted in the final decade of his life, Rubens’s autograph work The Origin of the Milky Way defies interpretation. The artist was a contemporary of Galileo though attempts to evidence a meeting have so far failed. He had already painted a series of night skies and had many recent books on astronomy/astrology, as well as ancient texts, in his library. This is a painting full of plausible stellar bodies none of which quite fits into a recognised constellation. Nor does the image accurately accord with any mythological narrative. So, is the Milky Way here simply a pretext to depict Juno as Queen of the heavens? I propose that Rubens was a learned eclectic for whom Aristotelian views of the cosmos could meld both with contemporary earth-centred arguments about a providential universe and with new Copernican theories. Uniting his interest in pictorial space with newfound possibilities for understanding the cosmos, Rubens draws on the ancient Roman concept of sparsio, or abundance, with which he would have been familiar through his friendship with Hugo Grotius. Executed a few years after the fifty-three-year-old artist had married his fecund second wife, then aged sixteen, The Origin of the Milky Way constitutes a witty and profound meditation on female generosity within a framework of universal laws.

* In addition to the managing editor and two anonymous reviewers, I am grateful to the many friends and colleagues who have generously engaged with me on Rubens, including Nils Büttner, Natasha Eaton, Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Ulrich Heinen, Nico Van Hout, David Hughes, Elizabeth McGrath, Ashok Roy, Lindsay Smith, Jutta Gisela Sperling, Margit Thøfner, Grenville Turner, Angela Vegliante, Bert Watteeuw, Cordula Van Whye, and Jeremy Wood. I owe a particular debt to Teresa Esposito for sharing her research with me and to Anthea Callen and Gisela Ecker for inspiring dialogues in lockdown times.

  1. Photo Credits: 1, 4, 12, 13 © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. — 2 © The National Gallery, London. — 3 Christie’s, New York. — 5 © Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, Milan (su concessione del Ministero dei Beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo). — 6, 7 © Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de Montpellier. — 8 Courtesy of the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown. — 9 Photo: © The Courtauld Gallery, London. — 10 Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. — 11 © Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique, Brussels (photo: J. Geleyns / Art Photographique). — 14 Wellcome Collection, London (photo: CC BY 4.0). — 15 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London (acc. no. 139-1866).

Published Online: 2021-11-29

© 2021 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston