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

Marcia Pointon

Published online:

29 Nov 2021

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Abstract

Abstract

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.

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