Craig Saffoe, the National Zoo’s curator of Great Cats, explores Rubens’s depiction of lions in a key moment of drama.
Gazing intently upward, hands clasped in prayer, the biblical hero Daniel beseeches God to save him. The king of Babylon, angry at Daniel’s refusal to worship the Babylonian king, has thrown him into a lions’ den, expecting the wild cats to tear him apart. The lions are skillfully portrayed by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens.
Everything anatomical about these lions looks pretty spot-on to me. My name is Craig Saffoe, I'm the curator of Great Cats at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
Rubens, who made the painting around 1616, was able to study real lions at the royal menagerie in Brussels. Take the pair of lions at the lower right.
They’re gnarling and teeth-baring at each other - that's very normal for lions. It's not even always a sign of just outright aggression - maybe they're fighting over the scraps of bones that I see on the floor there.
I do see a full range of expressions of cats, and if that's what the artist was trying to capture, he did it beautifully. The animal yawning in the background is great. And then the animal directly below him has that kind of pensive stare as though he's looking at something he may be hunting, down to the animal at the bottom, who's fully asleep.
And certainly these cats evoke emotions, and one of the emotions is man versus the savage beast.
Here we see Daniel in a moment of survival, with his unwavering faith in God serving as protection from untimely demise in the lions’ den.
Rubens’s skill, and his fascination with the world around him, so evident in his depiction of these lions, brought him enormous success as an artist, patronized by royalty all over Europe.