The Old Testament recounts how the Persian king Darius I "The Great" (550–486 BC) condemned the devout and steadfast Daniel to spend the night in a lions' den for worshipping God rather than him. The following morning, after the stone sealing the entrance was rolled away, the astonished Persians saw Daniel, very much alive, giving thanks to God for keeping him safe overnight: "Then said Daniel unto the king, O king, live for ever. My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions' mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before him innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt." (Daniel 6:21–22) For theologians, Daniel's miraculous survival in the cave symbolized the resurrection of Christ from his tomb, and the promise of God's protection to those of unwavering faith.
During the Reformation, struggling to counter the rising tide of Protestantism, the Catholic Church celebrated the role of early Christian martyrs as a means to excite the faithful to a comparable spirit of religious fervor. Only by having gone through similar depths of despair could an individual truly appreciate the extent of Christ's suffering. Daniel provided a positive exemplar of a martyr who survived harsh persecution through personal faith, strength, constancy, and endurance.
Peter Paul Rubens, one of the greatest masters of the 17th century and a devout Catholic, masterfully combined realism and theatricality in order to draw a strong emotional reaction. Several lions, for instance, stare at us directly, suggesting that we share their space, and, like Daniel, experience the same menace. By portraying them close to life-size with convincing realism, Rubens heightens this immediacy. The lions' lifelike movement and their superbly rendered fur resulted from Rubens's direct observation and sketches he made at the royal menagerie in Brussels. The dramatic lighting and the exaggerated emotionalism of Daniel's prayerful pose add to the veracity. This grand, powerful, vivid image is unquestionably one of Rubens's most memorable artistic achievements during those fertile years following his return to Antwerp from Italy in 1609, at the beginning of the Twelve Years' Truce, when he became court painter to the regents in the Southern Netherlands, Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella.
Around 1600, Rubens, who had been trained in classical ideals and philosophy, had traveled from Antwerp to Italy to experience firsthand its artistic traditions, not only those coming from antiquity and the Renaissance, including the work of Raphael and Michelangelo, but also those being created by contemporary artists such as Caravaggio. The inspiration he gained from this multifaceted exposure profoundly affected his own style of painting and became the foundation for his future work. For example, while the lifelike character of the lions reflects Rubens's personal observation of these noble beasts, he also based their poses on ancient sculptures he had seen in Italy. With dramatic and boldly executed canvasses like Daniel in the Lions' Den, Rubens had a long-lasting impact on artists throughout Europe.
Marks and Labels
Sir Dudley Carleton, 1st viscount Dorchester [1573-1632], English Ambassador to The Hague, who acquired the painting in 1618 from the artist in an exchange for antique sculpture; presented to Charles I, King of England [1600-1649], between c. 1625 and 1632, where it hung in the Bear Gallery at Whitehall; James Hamilton-Douglas, 1st duke of Hamilton [1606-1649], Hamilton Palace, Scotland, by 1643; by descent in his family to William Alexander Louis Stephen Hamilton-Douglas, 12th duke of Hamilton [1845-1895], Hamilton Palace; (first Hamilton Palace sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 19 June 1882, no. 80); purchased by Duncan for Christopher Beckett Denison; (his sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 13 June 1885, no. 925); purchased by Jamieson for the 12th duke of Hamilton; by inheritance to his kinsman, Alfred Douglas Hamilton-Douglas, 13th duke of Hamilton [1862-1940], Hamilton Palace; (second Hamilton Palace sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 6-7 November 1919, 1st day, no. 57); purchased by Kearley for Weetman Dickinson Pearson, 1st viscount Cowdray [1856-1927], Cowdray Park, Midhurst, Sussex; by inheritance to his son, Weetman Harold Miller Pearson, 2nd viscount Cowdray [1882-1933], Cowdray Park; by inheritance to his son, Weetman John Churchill Pearson, 3rd viscount Cowdray [1910-1995], Cowdray Park; (sale, Bonham's, London, 1 August 1963, no. 25, listed as by Jordaens and De Vos by Bonham's cataloguer, Mr. Lawson); withdrawn and sold by private treaty before the auction to (Julius H. Weitzner [1896-1986], New York); (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); sold 13 December 1965 to NGA.
- Exhibition of the Works of the Old Masters. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1873, no. 131.
- Exhibition of Pictures by Masters of the Flemish and British Schools including a selection from the works of Sir Peter Paul Rubens, The New Gallery, London, 1899-1900, no. 145.
- In Memoria, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, no cat.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 118
- Walton, William. "Parnassus on Potomac." Art News 65 (March 1966): repro. 37.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 105, repro.
- Jaffé, Michael. "Some Recent Acquisitions of Seventeenth-Century Flemish Painting." Studies in the History of Art 1969 3 (1970): 6-19, fig. 1.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 314, repro.
- King, Marian. Adventures in Art: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1978: 44-45, pl. 21.
- Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 66, pl. 49.
- Alsop, Joseph. The Rare Art Traditions: The History of Art Collecting and Its Linked Phenomena Wherever These Have Appeared. Bollingen series 35, no. 27. New York, 1982: 48.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 250, no. 317, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 362, repro.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 49, repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 220-221, no. 175, color repro
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Flemish Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2005: 166-174, color repro.
- Harris, Neil. Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience. Chicago and London, 2013: 82.