Astounding use of color and the creation of an immediate threat posed by no less than ten lions surrounding the prayerful Daniel gives Peter Paul Rubens’s work, “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (1614-1616) a powerful visual impact that few paintings can surpass. Any viewer of the Rubens painting is immediately drawn into the perilous situation, both by its subject matter and its dramatic presentation.
Today located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, this work of art was once (along with other Rubens works) traded by the artist for a collection of Ancient Roman artworks of great value.
Features of “Daniel in the Lions’ Den”
Although Daniel’s portrait is unusual in that its location is off-center in the painting, the ominous dark coloring of the lions contrasted starkly by the pale color of Daniel’s skin and the blue sky entering the cave as the entrance is unsealed, make for a dramatic statement. The strong color contrast forces the viewer to home in on Daniel, whose central activity is prayer.
The lions, which symbolize earthly rulers, are an important feature of the work of art. In his painting, Peter Paul Rubens features these animals from just about every angle. Indeed, he worked from real models (Moroccan lions, owned by the sovereign in Brussels), and through this work, presents an unusual natural history lesson as well. The perspective of the painting seems to stretch beyond the limits of the canvas, and yet the viewer feels confined by the pacing lions and dark recesses of the cave.
Rubens wants viewers to experience the scene as if they are there with Daniel in the den, and he makes an ominous statement with a skull that appears on the bottom edge of the artwork. So, too, does Rubens use Daniel’s clothing to effective purpose. The vivid scarlet robe seems to lead directly from Daniel (or, as some critics suggest, from the earth) down to the skull, suggesting a river of blood.
Biblical tale on canvas
The story depicted in Rubens’ painting is a well known tale taken from the Old Testament of the Bible, whose central message is the mercy of God. The main question posed both by the painting and the Bible tale is this: Will God have mercy on Daniel and save him?
How did Daniel find himself in this precarious situation? According to the Bible tale, Daniel was in the employ of the Persian King Darius, where he aroused feelings of jealousy among the other royal officials. They convinced the king to punish Daniel for showing allegiance to God (over the king) by praying when he had been forbidden from doing so for 30 days.
However, prayer and the will of God prevail as the stone sealing the den is rolled away the next morning, with Daniel having survived the night among the lions. Those who forced King Darius into condemning Daniel to the den of lions are then subject to the same fate among the lions, although God does not show them the same mercy.
Ultimately, this very powerful story of faith in God and Daniel’s trial in the face of danger is heightened by Rubens’ illustration through the artist’s use of color and perspective. That the viewer can so viscerally feel the danger Daniel experienced is a testament to the artist and his great talent.