Hendrik van Balen’s interpretation of the Rape of the Sabines in a newly discovered work
Van Balen was an ideal candidate to paint a theme like
the Rape of the Sabines since he not only specialized
in the human figure, especially nude women, but was
also a humanist. A member and dean of the Guild
of Romanists, he had travelled to Italy, and his art
collection included numerous works with classical
themes, including a plaster cast of the Laocoön and a
stone sculpture of the infants Romulus and Remus,
founders of ancient Rome. Van Balen had a deep
interest in antiquity; most of his paintings present
mythological subject matter, and it is not surprising
that Van Balen’s portrait for the Iconography, a series of
half-length prints of famous contemporaries, portrays
him with his hand resting on the head of an ancient
sculpture.49 Van Balen also owned a large library of
books in four languages, including Latin. It contained
Dutch translations of the life and letters of Marcus
Aurelius, and two volumes that could have included the
story of the Rape of the Sabines, one by Livy in High
German and another by Plutarch in Dutch. Van Balen
was also interested in Italian Renaissance culture. He
owned, for example, architectural treatises by Sebastiano
Serlio, Andrea Palladio, and Vicenzo Scamozzi.
Fig. 8 / Hendrick van Balen
the Elder and Follower of
Jan Brueghel the Elder, Pan
Pursuing Syrinx, possibly after
1615, oil on copper, 25 x 19.4
cm, London, National Gallery.
Van Balen would have known representations of the
Rape of the Sabines dating from antiquity through
the early seventeenth-century. When he visited Rome,
he could have seen at the Villa Medici a Hadrianic
sarcophagus that shows the Rape of the Daughters
of Leucippus but was misidentified during the
Renaissance as the Rape of the Sabines.50 This subject
was very popular in the Renaissance and Baroque
periods, both north and south of the Alps, and most
of the motifs that Van Balen includes are found in
earlier examples: the crowded, chaotic scene filled with
flailing arms, fleeing women, partially nude women
seen from the front and back, Romans lifting Sabines
in their arms, an old woman fallen to the ground,
a Roman mounting stairs while carrying a Sabine,
a defeated Sabine soldier lying below a victorious
Roman, with children, horses, flags, and turbaned
figures enlivening the scene.51
“Heroic” rapes were especially popular throughout
Europe beginning with Rubens’s Rape of the Daughters of
Leucippus in 1618 and continuing through Bernini’s Apollo
and Daphne and Rape of Proserpina of 1621-1625. Other
renderings of the Rape of the Sabines, produced in the
1620s alone, include paintings by the German artists
Christoph Steinhammer and Hans Rottenhammer,
the Italian Pietro da Cortona (fig. 9), as well as the
Fleming Van Balen. Nevertheless, in Antwerp it was not
a particularly popular theme. It is rarely mentioned in
inventories and is uncommon among surviving works.52
But Rubens produced several “heroic” rape scenes,
and much has been written about them. A humanist
who read Latin texts in the original and knew
Ovid’s work intimately, Rubens and “like-minded
contemporaries” would have believed, according
to Elizabeth McGrath, in “the Ovidian truism”
that “decent and delicate young women will be shy
and at first reluctant to yield to male embraces,
and so need to be swept up in the heat of passion”.53
Hendrik van Balen’s interpretation of the Rape of the Sabines in a newly discovered work


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