In the Lions’ Den

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park in DC is now only a few minutes from where we live. It’s a huge urban wildlife with species and habitats from tropical rain forests to local woodlands. It’s a great place, dedicated to leadership in animal care, science, education and sustainability. One of the Zoo’s most popular attractions is the Big Cats exhibit. Sadly, one week ago today, they lost their female lion Lusaka to ill health and old age.

Today’s picture Daniel in the Lions’ Den (c. 1614/16) honors lions in captivity. It’s by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), the most influential Baroque painter in northern Europe. His masterful style owes much to the time he spent in Italy as a young man, seeing classical sculptures and works by Titian, Michelangelo and Raphael, among others. In his career, Rubens worked for the highest-ranking European patrons and he could only meet the huge demand for his paintings with the help of a workshop of pupils and assistants.

Ours is a powerhouse of a picture, measuring 224 x 331cm and tackling one of the great Old Testament stories. Daniel was condemned to spend a night in the lions’ den for his crime of worshipping God instead of the Persian King Darius. Here we have the morning after the night before: the stone is rolled off the mouth of the den and Daniel is giving thanks to God for pulling him through in one piece.

Rubens melds realism with theater for maximum impact here and hammers home the human part of this religious drama. Take Daniel’s pose: head flung back, hands in a white-knuckle grip, biceps bulging, buttocks clenching and legs all a-twist. It’s this dramatic physical gesturing that reveals Daniel’s feelings and gives the work it emotional baggage. There’s great stage lighting too: a shaft enters through the mouth of the den, highlighting the creamy, unblemished quality of Daniel’s skin. This in turn is contrasted with the shaggy lion manes and rugged rocks. That bright red cape is a show-stopper, creating a diagonal gash that reminds us of the bloody mess that could have ensued, had Daniel not endured through faith.

But the tour de force in this painting is surely the nine burly lions, both male and female, that circle, prowl and growl inside the den. Talk about overwhelming the viewer: the animals are shown life size! A few of them (the males placed left and right foreground and the one standing on the rock) are looking out at us, catapulting us terrifyingly into their midst. It’s a sure-fire trick for getting us to invest in the story. It’s small wonder that Rubens could capture the essence of lion movement, behaviour and physical detail (black lips, hanging teeth) so convincingly: he spent hours in the royal menagerie in Brussels observing and sketching the big cats there.

As well as the obvious religious narrative, this painting is about capturing one of nature’s most impressive beasts. Rubens does an incredible job of conveying their wild essence and beauty. Just as Lusaka at the National Zoo became an ambassador for her species, illustrating the appearance and behavior of lions, so too this painting becomes a rare up-close-and-personal exploration into the character of these mesmerizing animals.