Hendrik van Balen’s interpretation of the Rape of the Sabines in a newly discovered work
Fig. 6 / Frans Francken II, Supper at
the House of Burgomaster Rockox,
1630-1635, oil on panel, 62 x 97
cm, Munich, Alte Pinakothek.
Fig. 7 / Frans Francken II’s Supper
at the House of Burgomaster
Rockox digitally modified by the
author to fit Van Balen's Rape of
the Sabines above the fireplace.
Hendrik van Balen’s interpretation of the Rape of the Sabines in a newly discovered work
But there is another reason why Ximenez may have
favoured this subject. At least a thousand permanent
residents of Antwerp were foreign merchants from
Spain, Italy, and Portugal, and some of these,
including Ximenez, had close ties to Italy.34 Ximenez’s
attachment to the Medici was particularly strong,
since Cosimo I had fostered the family’s trade and
exalted many members by appointing them Knights
of Saint Stephen. Ximenez, in turn, honoured the
Medici in his large sitting room at the back of his
magnificent residence on the Meir. In this salon,
which was his most lavishly furnished public room,
Ximenez displayed twenty-five portraits of Medici
princes and princesses, and three showing Medici
popes. As Jeffrey Muller has observed, “Portraits
of illustrious and historical figures were viewed as
expressions of political and personal allegiance and
were to be displayed in the most public rooms.”35 The
first item listed in Ximenez’s inventory for this room
is, however, “A painting, oil on panel in a gilded
frame, rape of the daughters of the Sabines”.36
who commissioned it. However, its monumental
size suggests that it may have been displayed on the
mantelpiece of a sitting room. The fireplace was
deemed the “monumental centre” of such spaces
and was a common site for large paintings, including
those showing nudes.38 Rubens’s Samson and Delilah in
London, which is approximately the same size as Van
Balen’s panel (183 x 205 cm), was placed above the
mantelpiece in the large sitting room of the residence
of Nicolaes Rockox, a very wealthy and politically
powerful merchant in Antwerp.39 It is shown there in
Frans Francken the Younger’s painting of 1635 (fig. 6).
Such a work was sometimes designated in inventories
as a schouwstuk, or show piece, a term that underlines its
importance. These paintings were hung high; the stone
columns to either side of the only remaining fireplace
in Antwerp that dates at the turn of the seventeenth
century, which is in the reception room of the
Osterriethhuis, rises 2.5 m above ground.40 Thanks to
digital imaging, we can now more easily imagine Van
Balen’s painting displayed above a fireplace (fig. 7).
It remains unidentified today, but another version,
which was sold as a work by Van Balen in Paris in
1852 together with a companion piece showing the
Reconciliation of the Romans and Sabines, may be identical
to a painting in oil on copper, which was auctioned
at Christie’s London in 1925.43 However, neither the
style nor the composition of these works corresponds
to the painting that is the subject of this study. By
contrast, another painting attributed to Van Balen,
which was sold at Sotheby’s in London in 1953,
resembles the newly discovered painting in both its
style and a few compositional elements (see fig. 2).44 It,
too, emphasizes the Sabines’ raised arms, and shows a
tumultuous crowd and flags, including one inscribed
S.P.Q.R., the acronym for the Latin phrase “Senatus
Populusque Romanus”, that is the Senate and
People of Rome. Like the painting currently under
investigation, this work was painted on panel and is
quite large, ca. 161.3 x 215.9 cm. Unfortunately, its
present location is unknown, so comparisons must rely
on old black-and-white photographs.
In this case, then, the painting was chosen in part
because its Italian theme formed a link with the
Medici portraits in the room.
If the painting was intended to be raised high above
eye level, did Van Balen take this into account when
designing the work? One aspect that would look
different to the viewer gazing up at the painting is
the central woman’s face, breasts, and outstretched
arms, as well as the raised arm of the woman beside
her. Because they are so brightly lit, when viewed
from below, they seem to emerge from the painting:
the central woman appears to bend forward into the
observer’s space, increasing the dramatic intensity of
the work. Van Balen would certainly not have been
alone in adapting images to their settings.41
Van Balen did, however, paint several other “heroic”
rape themes, that is, subjects in which the rapist
is an ancient Greek or Roman god or hero.45 As
noted above, two images of Proserpina are listed in
the inventory of his goods.46 Surviving paintings of
Europa offer no hint of violence, but those depicting
other subjects do.47 The Pan and Syrinx, now in the
National Gallery, shows the god chasing the nude
nymph who is clearly frightened and tries to escape
(fig. 8). Closest to the Rape of the Sabines is Van Balen’s
Proserpina, whose garment has fallen down, exposing
her breasts, as she spreads her arms and raises her
eyes to the heavens in desperation (see fig. 4). Her
abductor seizes her around her waist and lifts her in
his arms as her companions echo her gesture, raising
their arms in protest and distress.48 Like the Rape of
the Sabines, the scene of Proserpina offers the viewer
glimpses of women’s exposed breasts and backs,
melding sexual violence with eroticism.
Evidence suggests that the patron may well have
lived in Antwerp. Veerle De Laet’s research reveals
the distribution and location of paintings of nudes in
Flemish cities. If, in the court city of Brussels, nudes
were owned by only nine percent of the testators,
in mercantile Antwerp more than a third possessed
them.37 Furthermore, such nudes were reserved for
private rooms on an upper floor in Brussels, but in
the more cosmopolitan city of Antwerp they were
generally displayed in public reception rooms on the
ground floor where visitors could see them.
Since no provenance for Van Balen’s painting is
known before it appeared on the art market in 1996,
it is at this time impossible to identify the person
It is unclear whether Van Balen painted other
versions of the Rape of the Sabines. None is mentioned
in Werche’s monograph, but a few are cited in travel
guides and auction catalogues. A handbook for
travellers, published in 1864, records a Rape of the
Sabines attributed to Van Balen at Streatlam Castle.42


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