1623; Oil on canvas, 202 x 184 cm; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
On the floor in a smithy lies Prometheus. The gods' smith, Vulcan, is fastening handcuffs on him, chaining him to a rock. Filled with pity, the messenger of the gods, Mercury watches this happening. The eagle which is to devour his liver every day - Prometheus' punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind - is hovering ominously in a corner. Van Baburen has presented this story from Greek mythology in all its dramatic power and significance. Prometheus, his face creased in anguish, churns the air with his arms. The treatment of light and the lifesize figures reflect the influence of the Italian painter Caravaggio, with contrasts of light and shade, dramatic expressions and unidealized people with sun-tanned hands and faces.
In the struggle between the gods of Olympus and the Titans, the Titan Prometheus supported the father of the gods, Jupiter. But when Jupiter revealed his repressive tendencies, Prometheus (meaning 'he who thinks ahead') chose for the side of humans. And against the wishes of Jupiter, he gave humankind the gift of fire. Enraged at this, Jupiter sentenced Prometheus to a terrible punishment. He was to be chained for all eternity to a rock, and an eagle was to peck out his liver every day. This torture would never cease, because during the night the liver would grow back again. But finally the torture was brought to an end by Hercules, Jupiter's own son, who unchained Prometheus.
Dirck van Baburen spent some time in Italy. Like several other painters from Utrecht he came under the influence of the Italian artist, Caravaggio. The latter's dramatic treatment of light greatly appealed to Baburen, as did his tendency to use ordinary people as models. In his Prometheus painting he has used working men and women as lifesize models. The tanned hands and faces of Vulcan and Prometheus stand out in sharp contrast to the white skin of their bodies. The scene is dramatically illuminated with bright light. The artist Gerard van Honthorst made a drawing after Caravaggio's painting of the crucifixion of St Peter. Similar figures would have served as examples for Baburen's painting of Prometheus.
Everything about this painting is huge and solid: both the figures and the clothes they are wearing. Van Baburen has placed small areas of paint side by side and made definite contours. Seen close-up, the painting is not smoothly finished. Some details appear inaccurate, such as the almost club-feet of the main character. However, Prometheus' hanging head and the foreshortening of his body are admirably presented. The double signature on the painting presents a puzzle. There is a clear signature below the right-hand shoulder of Prometheus. During a restoration of the painting a second signature was discovered at the lower left by Prometheus' hand.
There is a creation story connected with Prometheus. It relates how he made people from clay and then stole fire (knowledge) in order to give them life. At an auction in 1707 a painting by Baburen of Adam and Eve was sold together with the chained Prometheus. It is likely that the two works formed a pair. Indeed, Adam and Eve are associated with the Christian version of the creation story just as Prometheus is with the classical version.
Credits: The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.