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.