Ares (Greek Ἄρης), whose Roman counterpart is Mars, is one of the major classical deities, one of the twelve Olympians, and lives on in the name of the planet. The son of Zeus and Hera, he seems to have been as promiscuous as his father, siring children by Aphrodite, his most famous lover, and several other goddesses and mortals. His attributes are any part of the arms and armour of a warrior, usually at least a helmet and shield.
Ares has been most frequently painted together with, or making love to, Aphrodite. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars from about 1485 is unusual for its modest portrayal of Aphrodite, who is seldom seen clothed in other paintings. Ares is clearly sleeping off their lovemaking, as a group of mischievous fauns are playing around with his arms.
It was Diego Velázquez who painted what must be the finest solo portrait of Ares, in about 1639-41. This was one of a trio of portraits ‘from antiquity’ which he painted for the king’s hunting lodge at El Pardo, near Madrid, known as the Torre de la Parada. The other two showed Aesop (of fables) and Menippus the philosopher.
Sometimes known as Mars Resting, the god is shown off-guard in a moment of relaxation, his armour and shield dumped on the floor, and wearing just a loincloth and helmet. He looks like he just got out of bed after a long siesta.
By this time, other artists recognised the role of Ares in allegories, and he developed a life independent of his mythological origin.
One of the first of these is Tintoretto’s Minerva and Mars, from 1578. Here Athena is pushing the god of war away from her, as her right hand rests on the shoulder of Peace, with Prosperity at the left edge of the canvas.
It was Peter Paul Rubens who brought this use of Ares to full fruition, in a series of paintings which spanned the most productive years of his career.
In the young Rubens’ The Triumph of Victory (c 1614), made when he was the finest painter in Flanders, Ares is almost glorified.
The Treaty of Antwerp had been signed in 1609, and the city was flourishing in the Twelve Years’ Truce which ensued. Painted for the Antwerp Guild of St George, its organisation of archers, Ares dominates, his bloody sword resting on the thigh of Victoria, the personification of victory. She reaches over to place a wreath (either of oak or laurel) on Ares, and holds a staff in her left hand. At the right, Ares is being passed the bundle of crossbow bolts that make up the attribute of Concord.
Under the feet of Ares are the bodies of Rebellion, in the foreground, who still holds his torch, and Discord, on whose cheek a snake is crawling. The bound figure resting against the left knee of Ares is Barbarism.
When Rubens was in his early fifties, and working as a diplomat to try to bring peace across the continent of Europe, his world-view had changed and Ares had changed sides.
When Rubens as acting as envoy to King Philip IV of Spain and trying to agree peace between Spain and King Charles I of England, he painted this, one of his greatest narrative paintings, as a gift with a message for the king of England.
Its central figures are those of Demeter (Ceres), here in the role of Pax (the personification of peace), and Athena, behind her. In attendance are Ares, Hymen, Plutus, and Alecto (one of the Furies), with sundry Bacchantes, a Satyr, putti, and the attributes of Dionysus (Bacchus) and Hermes (Mercury). It’s like an away day from Olympus, or part of an index to Ovid.
Demeter and Athena are at the heart of the painting. Rubens shows Demeter expressing milk from her left breast, which arcs into the mouth of her son Plutus, the god of wealth, who is grasping her left arm.
The figures of Demeter and Plutus are almost identical to those of Aphrodite and Eros in Rubens’ earlier Venus, Mars and Cupid (c 1633), which introduces ambiguity to her figure. However, in this painting Eros is shown winged, with his traditional bow and arrows. In Peace and War, the infant is clearly not Eros as he has neither wings nor bow and arrows: he is Plutus there.
Being the goddess of agriculture, Demeter stands for values which are strongly associated with the benefits of peace – bread rather than starvation, fertility rather than barrenness and pestilence. Her son Plutus represents the growth of wealth during times of peace.
Although the figure immediately behind Demeter might be mistaken for a man (hence Ares, perhaps), her staff and helmet are characteristic of Athena, the goddess with a curious mixed portfolio of wisdom, industry, and war (a hangover from her part-Etruscan origins). Immediately above her is a winged putto carrying a caduceus, a short staff with wings at the top and entwined snakes, normally an attributed of Hermes, but also associated with commerce. That putto leans forward to place a laurel wreath, the crown of the victor and a symbol of peace, on Demeter’s head.
Athena is pushing away the bearded figure of Ares, the god of war, who also wears his characteristic black armour. Rubens painted Ares not infrequently, and was very flexible over his age and appearance, which vary according to context. With Aphrodite and Eros above, he is younger and clean-shaven.
In Venus and Mars he appears more like an ageing general than a warrior, and Aphrodite is past the beauty of her youth too. Perhaps they had succumbed too often to the temptations of Dionysus, seen brandishing an empty glass behind.
At the far right of Peace and War is Alecto, the Fury responsible for dealing with the moral offences of humans, usually by driving them mad. Rubens refrains from giving her snakes in her hair, but lays emphasis on madness, here the madness of war.
On the opposite (left) side of the painting is a Bacchante holding her tambourine (tympanum) aloft, and another bearing earthly riches at her left side. A Satyr crouches low over a leopard, and proffers a cornucopia filled with fruit to the figures at the right.
Rubens’ personal life was also changing at the time. When he returned to Antwerp, he married the sixteen year-old Hélène Fourment, having lost his first wife four years earlier. In 1635, he bought a country estate near Antwerp, the Steen, which was to be his base until his death, and where he must have worked on one of his last great allegories.
With Europe nearing the end of the Thirty Years’ War, Rubens must have been only too delighted to be commissioned by Ferdinand de’ Medici, then the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Tuscany had been largely uninvolved in the war, and this time Rubens had no diplomatic mission to accomplish. He could afford to be frank in his story, and we are fortunate in having the artist’s own description of the painting.
The central figures in The Consequences of War (1637-38) are Aphrodite and Ares. The god of war is advancing forcefully having just rushed from the temple of Janus, moving from left to right, with his sword bloodied and held low. His head is turned back to look at Aphrodite, whose left arm is caught around his right, and who is clearly trying unsuccessfully to restrain him. Standing against the right thigh of Aphrodite is a winged Eros, the couple’s child.
Drawing Ares forward is Alecto, her hair now looking more like that of a Fury but with few snakes visible, who bears a torch in her right hand. Monsters near her personify Pestilence and Famine, the inseparable partners of war at that time. On the ground below Alecto is a woman with her back towards the viewer: she is Harmony, whose lute has been broken in the discord brought by war.
Nearby, also on the ground, is a mother with her child in her arms, symbolising the effect of war on families and their rearing. At the lower right corner is an architect clutching his instruments, indicating how fine buildings are thrown into ruin by war. Under the right foot of Ares is a book, showing how war tramples over the arts.
On the ground to the left of Eros is a bundle of arrows or darts: these aren’t his arrows of desire, but when bundled up would form the symbol of Concord; thus war breaks Concord. To their left is the caduceus and an olive branch, attributes of Peace, also cast aside. The woman at the left in a black gown is the personification of Europe, whose globe (symbolising the Christian world) is carried by a putto behind her. Having endured the ravages of war for so long, her clothing is torn and she has been robbed of her jewels.
Aphrodite and Ares are well-known lovers. She is failing to restrain him from charging off to war, and in doing so breaking their bond of love. This element of the composition had evolved over a long period, coming originally from Titian, and referring to another of Venus’ lovers, Adonis.
Finally, for the Romans, Mars was special, a father of the Roman peoples, and one of the key players in the apotheosis of Romulus, founder of the city of Rome.
Jean-Baptiste Nattier painted thia apotheosis in his Romulus being taken up to Olympus by Mars from about 1700. Mars is embracing Romulus, with the standard of Rome being borne at the lower left, and the divine chariot ready to take Romulus up to the upper right corner, where the rest of the gods await him. And that is the most appropriate place to end this brief account of Ares or Mars in paintings.