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How To Do Politics With Painting

Diamond Yao By Diamond Yao Published on November 27, 2015

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Art happens when humans create for reasons beyond the utilitarian. It is frequently thought of as medium of reproduction of the physical world, or as a full-blown method of expression, but nonetheless has also many different uses. One of its less obvious functions is found in serving as a tool of political diplomacy. The aim of this work will be to prove that this is indeed the case with Guido Reni’s Abduction of Helen, completed in 1631 against the turbulence of the Thirty Years War. More specifically, it shall be demonstrated that this work is an attempt of the papacy to dissuade Spanish authorities from invading the Valtelline alpine pass in the Swiss mountains.

Before examining this question however, some brief background information about the Thirty Years War is necessary. This deadly war was fuelled by the rivalry between the kings of France, who sought European domination, and the Habsburgs, a powerful royal house that ruled over Austria, Spain, the Southern Netherlands, Bohemia and Hungary. Thanks to complex political alliances between European nations at the time, the whole of Europe suddenly found itself entangled in a bloody conflict. It involved bitter power struggles and ruthless religious violence (Davies 631).

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the conflict was focalized around the strategically located Valtelline alpine pass. The Protestant Leagues were its original rulers. They permitted France, the Republic of Venice and the Swiss Confederates to use the valley for their respective transalpine communications. However, the Habsburgs also coveted it to establish a continuous land route from Spanish controlled Milan all the way to the Spanish Netherlands (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 15-17, Asch 49-50). Tensions escalated, eventually reaching a breaking point: it was only a matter of time before the area morphed into a war zone. The catalyst came in the form of a violent rebellion of the Catholics inhabitants of the valley against their Protestant Rhetian overlords as a response to the latter’s repeated provocations. They went on a night rampage killing every Protestant in sight, leaving at least four hundred of them dead and driving out most of the others (Wilson 89). What was notable was that the Catholics actively asked for the support of the Spanish, who shared their faith, in this endeavour.

This act provided the perfect pretext for a Spanish full-scale invasion of the mountain pass: they wanted nothing more than to gain control of it for their own expansionist purposes, a result they achieved quickly with the help of a series of strongholds. This angered the previous beneficiaries of the valley, who immediately threatened military action to restore the Protestants to power and regain their routes. Fortunately, this explosive situation was defused with the Treaty of Aranjuez. It declared that the Spanish strongholds would be transferred under the temporary custody of Pope Gregory XV. He died shortly after and this arrangement was inherited by his successor, Urban VIII. In 1624, scarcely one year later, the French violated the treaty and led an army into the pass, successfully regaining control of it and expelling all papal troops. This aggressive act outraged the both the papacy and the Spanish: no one thought Catholic France would attack the papacy, especially not under a cardinal (Cardinal Richelieu). Spain jumped at this chance to ally itself with the papacy against the heretical French, realizing that excellent relations with it was crucial for its political interests in the pass to succeed (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 17-19).

However, Urban VIII always remained extremely suspicious of Spain’s motivations. He deeply feared that the country’s expansionist policies would upset peace in northern Italy, where the papacy was located. These fears were indeed partly justified: in a bid to act as a peacekeeper, the pope sent his nephew Cardinal Francesco Barberini to the French to propose a general armistice and the restitution of the captured fortresses to the papacy, a mission that led nowhere. However, under pressure from the dévots, Cardinal Richelieu reconsidered this decision and agreed to meet with the Spanish ambassador to France, the Count Duke of Olivares. Francesco Barberini was sent again to represent papal interests in these negotiations. However, upon his arrival, he learns unpleasantly that the two parties had already signed the Treaty of Monzón, an act done with his complete exclusion. Even though its terms were not entirely at the papacy’s disadvantage (it guaranteed freedom of religion for the Valtelline region’s Catholics, for instance), it did not do anything to dispel Urban VIII’s distrust of Spain (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 14-16).

This did not deter the Spanish from pursuing their own political agenda of creating better rapports with the papacy. With that goal in mind, the count of Oñate, the Spanish ambassador to Rome (under instructions of Spanish king Philip IV) gave Guido Reni, an artist well-loved by the papacy, the commission for the Abduction of Helen (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 17-19). The painting evidently meant a lot for Spain. However, the painter was not collaborative, as he was not particularly warm towards the Spanish crown. This is highlighted by the following incident: around the same time, the Spanish ambassador to the papacy also commissioned Guido for an Immaculate Conception for the Infanta of Spain. The subsequent actions of the Spanish ambassador regarding the painting made the artist resent him. He would constantly worry and pester the painter about the completion of the artwork. This led to a serious conflict with the artist, who wouldn’t be rushed. To make matters worse, when it was finally completed in 1627, the ambassador delayed his payment, an act that made Reni so enraged he shipped the finished painting off to Bologna (Hibbard 19-21). The ambassador’s obsessive behaviour would be repeated with the Helen (Malvasia 51), which created even more tensions.

Spain was not the only party with an excessive interest in that work of art, however. The papacy was not exactly oblivious to it either. Cardinal Bernardino Spada, a papal legate closely associated with Cardinal Barberini and the pope, would also make sure to regularly check on the artist’s progress (Malvasia 80). Knowing direct commands would not work on the independently-minded painter, he talked in terms of what a shame it would be for the artist if that highly prestigious royal commission failed (the ambassador was scheduled to depart soon). Spada also commissioned a portrait of himself to Reni to cajole him into completing the Helen (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 23-24). Furthermore, the papacy endured Guido’s horrible behaviour (constant gambling, ill-treatment of the ambassador, Immaculate Conception incident) without a complaint. Instead, it had the opposite reaction of protecting him (for instance, getting the Conception safely back) and promoting him (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 21-23).

This attitude was not without its reasons. At this point, diplomatic relations between the papacy and Spain were strained. The former was extremely distrustful of the latter’s motives. The Helen was painted under complete papal patronage, which meant that the papacy had ample power to influence its contents for its own purposes (Malvasia 82). The fact that the commission ultimately failed and the fallout from that failure points strongly in that direction. 

The painting was rejected by the Spanish ambassador who succeeded Oñate. The papacy took this matter very seriously and made several attempts to restore the painting’s reputation, publishing encomias which made the artwork receive widespread critical acclaim (Spear 51-52). This made the Spanish ambassador regret his rejection and commission a new painting for Guido (the Latona) (“Latona for Philip IV” 203-205). Furthermore, the papacy pursued its reputation restoration operation by subsequently offering the Helen to pro-Habsburg Marie de Medici in a bid to dissuade her from supporting the Spanish in the war (Warwick 275).

All of these actions were carried out because of the diplomatic message the painting contained: it is a military warning from the papacy to the Spanish concerning the current situation of the Valtelline. The imagery of the painting makes this absolutely unambiguous. Before it is discussed though, it would be useful to clarify the mythological subject matter of the artwork, as it is of utmost importance for a deep understanding of its diplomatic significance. It depicts the infamous story of Helen of Troy’s abduction by the Trojan prince Paris, the event that started the Trojan war. This mayhem began with the Judgement of Paris, where he was asked to judge the beauty of three goddesses. The Trojan prince selected Venus as the fairest of the trio when she promised him the most beautiful woman of Greece (Helen) in exchange, a story narrated by several ancient sources, such as Lucian’s Dialogues of the Gods and the Cypria. He then set out for Greece to get her, where he was hosted by Menelaus (Helen’s husband). The latter had to set sail for Crete during the visit, instructing Helen to provide for the house guests in the meantime. This was Venus’s cue to bring Helen and Paris together in love. They eloped by night to Troy (a grave breach of Greek hospitality rules), an action that lead to the catastrophic Trojan war and the eventual destruction of Troy (Scherer 367-383).

Guido’s painting itself depicts the elopement scene right before the war. It shows Paris and Helen with their company emerging from Menelaus’s palace on the left, moving towards the Trojan ships moored on the right. Helen is a voluntary companion who looks on amorously at her lover, seemingly oblivious to everything else (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 58). This is in direct contrast to Paris’s behaviour: he is casting a furtive insecure glance over his shoulder, as if trapped in a momentary instant of doubt (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 73-74). However, it is his dress code that is of most interest here: along with the other men, he is decked out in full armour, suggesting that he may not have come for love, but for war (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 77). Aeneas, the figure with the red hat, provides further evidence for this analogy: his spear is pointing towards the Trojan ships, alluding to the fact that going there amounts to heading straight into warfare (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 94). 

Even more interesting, the painting presents the group of people as immorally disreputable. This is shown by the two cupids on the right. They seem to indicate that this tryst is going to be a short lived love affair followed by death and destruction. The flying one carrying a burnt out torch (symbol of the unsustainable romance) symbolizes heavenly love. The putto standing on the floor with a disarmed bowstring personifies earthly love. He is pointing accusingly at Helen and Paris: this gesture, along with the broken weapon he carries, suggests that nor love nor lust can be blamed for their shameful actions. He casts the responsibility on their terrible human consciences alone (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 77-80). Furthermore, the full weight of the despicableness of the royal couple is emphasized in the little dark African boy on the left. This boy is meant to be Eurybates, Odysseus’s herald: his unusual physical appearance is consistent with ancient descriptions of this character. He is holding a small monkey on a leash. The animal’s presence here is no coincidence: in Ancient Greek culture, the name Eurybates connotes bad morals, thievery and lying. The presence of the monkey in the painting can be explained by the story of the horrible Cercopes who got transformed into that animal as punishment for his wickedness. These two figures are the only ones in the painting moving away from the crowd towards the beholder. Eurybates seems intent on avoiding confrontation: he leads his monkey away from the dog, a potential source of conflict. This is very significant since dogs were equated with combativeness in Antiquity (Helen compares herself to a dog in the Iliad because of all the warfare that she has caused). The herald looks at Helen and Paris with an utterly shocked expression on his face while backtracking away from them. This means that even someone as wicked as Eurybates wants no part in this horrific act, which speaks volumes about its awfulness (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 82-92).

The true genius of the painting, however, lies in how it was able to relate to the diplomatic situation of the early seventeenth century. On Aeneas’s hat, there is a very small representation of Hercules. This is significant since, according to myth, Hercules was the first Spanish king and had ties to the Trojans. This implies that the Spanish monarchy was descended directly from the Trojan kings through the Roman emperors (Aeneas was the first), the subsequent imperial house of Austria and finally, the Habsburgs (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 94-95). 

This move was incredibly clever, for it effectively cast the Spaniards in the role of the hospitality-abusing, rule-breaking, immoral Trojans. It placed them in a similar position as the people who committed the disgusting misdeed that launched pain and destruction (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 97). It would be extremely logical to think that the papacy employed such iconography to send a clear message to the Spanish government: Philip IV’s insistence on expanding his territories is tantamount to unleashing a devastating chain of events, parallel to what the Trojans did so long ago. In Urban VIII’s mind, in such circumstances, Philip IV alone had the power to choose between war and peace, just like Paris (“Politics and Rhetoric of Painting” 99). The pope therefore had every interest to take the matter very seriously, for it meant the difference between bitter war and peace in his home. This explains why he was so intent on seeing the painting finished and given to Spain. It is also highly likely that this played a role in the new Spanish ambassador’s ultimate rejection of it. The papacy’s subsequent attempts to restore the painting’s reputation can be seen as a diplomatic mission itself. As stated earlier, Marie de Medici was pro-Habsburg. It would be logical for the papacy to think that, since the initial commission failed, they now needed to weaken their enemies. The publication of encomias about the artwork can be explained by the need to render this politically charged painting harmless by uniforming people’s opinions about it after its failure.

From a diplomatic point of view, all of this makes sense. The papacy was finding itself threatened and insecure. All these mighty powers around it were mercilessly haranguing over the Valtelline and playing the Holy See like a pawn. France and Spain ignored Rome in their negotiations. It had every reason to believe that it was in grave danger. Therefore, any attempts by the Spanish at cordiality was regarded as suspicious, among them the painting commissions. The papacy had more than enough power to influence the content of the paintings. It was consequently logical then that it would wield the only weapon it had in this war for self-preservation.


Asch, Ronald G. The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and  Europe, 1618–1648. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1997. Print.

Colantuono, Anthony. “Guido Reni’s Latona for King Philip IV: An Unfinished Masterpiece. Lost, Forgotten, Rediscovered and Restored.” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 29, No. 58 (2008): 201-216. JStor.

Colantuono, Anthony. Guido Reni’s Abduction of Helen: The Politics and Rhetoric of Painting in Seventeenth-Century Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Davies, Penelope J. E. et al. Janson’s History of Art. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2011. Print.

Hibbard, Howard. “Guido Reni’s Painting of the Immaculate Conception.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Summer 1969) 18-32. JStor.

Malvasia, Carlo Cesare. The Life of Guido Reni. University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980. Print.

Scherer, Margaret R. “Helen of Troy.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 25, No. 10 (June 1967): 367-383. JStor.

Spear, Richard E. The "Divine" Guido: Religion, Sex, Money, and Art in the World of Guido Reni. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997. JStor.

Warwick, Genevieve. “Guido Reni’s ‘Abduction of Helen’. The Politics and Rhetoric of Painting in Seventeenth-Century Europe by Anthony Colantuono.”

The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 140, No. 1141 (April 1998): 275. JStor.

Wilson, Peter H. The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. Print.

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