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Audio guide: The death of Hippolytus

Audio guide stop: 801

Crowdsourced transcription of the audio file

Reuben's death of Hippolytus
Reuben's death of Hippolytus
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This painting by the great Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens is a masterpiece of controlled chaos. The subject is the death of Hippolytus, son of the Greek hero Theseus.

Falsely accused by his stepmother, Phaedra, of attempting her rape, Hippolytus is cursed and banished by his father. The sea god Poseidon then sends a monstrous bull from the depths of the sea, which terrifies the young man's chariot team and causes the catastrophe that we witness here.

The following is an account of the death of Hippolytus by the Roman poet Ovid:

'I was driving my chariot skirting the shore of the Bay of Corinth when suddenly the ocean rose up and a vast mound of water swelled and towered high as a mountain. There was a mighty bellowing and a wave split at its crest and, as it broke, out burst a huge horned bull that reared breast-high into the air, its huge mouth and nostrils spitting brine. The hearts of my companions quaked in fear but my own mind remained calm.

Suddenly, my horses turned towards the sea, panic-stricken, ears pricked up and, terrified by the monstrous apparition, they stampeded down the steep rocky road dragging the chariot with them.

In vain I fought to hold them back with the foam-flecked reins, leaning back in the chariot straining at them, and my horse's rabid strength would never have overcome my own, had not a wheel, striking its hub against a stump, been shattered and wrenched from the chariot.

I was thrown from the car, leg and arms snagged in the reins. You would have seen my living flesh dragged along, my muscles held fast on the stump; some of my limbs were ripped clean off, some stacked behind, and my bones snapped with loud cracks. You would have seen me breathe out my shattered soul and would not have recognised my corpse. All was one.'

Rubens's sea monster with its glaring yellow eye, sharp horns and thrashing tail is a striking and fearsome beast, but the emotional tone of the painting is really set by the horse that rears up in the middle. Look at his face. He stares down at his prone master with an almost human look of indignation. The traditional positions of charioteer and horse have been dramatically reversed and the other steeds kick out frantically in all directions, their flowing manes reflecting the breaking waves.

Hippolytus' muscular body has yet to make full contact with the ground but the red rose spread beneath them anticipates the blood that must surely soon flow.

When he painted this work, Rubens had recently returned from an extended stay in Italy, where he had studied the work of his contemporaries and earlier masters of the Italian Renaissance. This painting draws heavily upon this Italian experience – he figure of Hippolytus, for example, is closely based on a drawing by Michelangelo.

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