Friday, 18 October 2013

On The Rape of the Sabines

This painting, The Rape Of The Sabines, by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) has always seemed powerful to me. In part this is because I had a friend named Sabine when I first paid attention to it, and I knew no other meaning of the word than that it was a woman’s first name. I wondered if all the women allegedly being raped could possibly be named Sabine. Youth is difficult.

In fact (and now I speak with the full authority of Wikipedia) the Sabines were a tribe from whom the Romans abducted wives in 750 BCE, as attested to by, e.g. both Livy and Plutarch. The women in the painting weren’t actually being raped in the modern sense of the word, but in the old sense of the word, when rape (from the Latin root raptio meaning a large-scale abduction of women, as any careful reader of Wikipedia already knows) meant...well, yeah, a large-scale abduction of women. Like Wikipedia said.

Despite my confusion about the victims and my early visual confirmation of the lack of any partially naked women in the painting (and by no means implying either that rape and sex have anything more to do with each other than that a woman must be partially naked or that violent mass abduction is in itself just an enjoyable spectator sport), this is an exciting and great painting. You’ll know why if you go to the Louvre: this sucker is 1.6 metres by 2 metres (Americans: that’s really big for an oil painting).


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