Bellona is another mainly Roman goddess, this time of war, whose temple in Rome took pride of place on the Campus Martius – appropriately the ‘field of Mars’. Her origins are Sabine, the Romans considering her to be a daughter of Jupiter and Juno. She later acquired a Greek equivalent in the goddess Enyo, who commonly accompanied Ares (Mars) into battle, and was responsible for the sacking and destruction of cities, such as Troy, where she was joined by Eris (Strife), Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Dread). Her main attributes are the warrior’s helmet and a torch.
Although not a prominent figure in classical mythology, she became fairly popular with more modern artists, and appears in several paintings by the masters over the centuries.
The Venetian artist Alessandro Turchi, better known by his nickname l’Orbetto, painted Bellona with Romulus and Remus, for which I don’t have a date. The twin founders of Rome are shown suckling from the wolf which saved their lives after they were abandoned to die. She wears armour and a helmet with a plume. In her left hand she holds a spear, and could easily be mistaken for Athena (Minerva). The statue in her right hand could be either Minerva or Mars, with whom she is inevitably associated.
Peter Paul Rubens invoked the goddess at least twice in his paintings in his Marie de’ Medici cycles.
His undated Portrait of Marie de’ Medici as Bellona shows her in the midst of cannon, arms and armour, with an exuberantly decorated helmet, a sceptre and a statue of a winged woman.
Rubens’ allegorical account of the assassination of Henry IV, The Apotheosis of Henry IV and Homage to Marie de’ Medici, is unusual for including Bellona in a larger group of deities.
The left side of the painting shows the assassinated king being welcomed into heaven as a victor by the gods Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter, as king of the Olympian gods, is Henry’s divine counterpart; Saturn, holding a sickle in his right hand, marks the end of Henry’s earthly existence. Below them is Bellona, who is stripped of her armour and appears tormented.
On the right side, Marie is seated on her throne as Regent, wearing black widow’s weeds, as the personification of France kneels in homage and presents her with an orb of office. Behind the Regent, at the far right, is Minerva bearing her Aegis, the shield emblazoned with the image of Medusa’s head. Also present are Prudence and Divine Providence, and her court are paying tribute from below.
Much to my surprise, I learned that Rembrandt painted this portrait of Bellona in 1633, when his career was flourishing in Amsterdam. Given that she’s holding the Aegis normally associated with Minerva (Athena), I wonder whether there has been a misunderstanding here, but there’s no mention of the possibility that this might be Minerva instead.
Louis Jean François Lagrenée leaves no doubt about his Bellona Presenting the Reins of his Horses to Mars from 1766. His goddess wears a plumed helmet, but under her blue cloak is almost naked. She is handing Mars the reins to his horses, possibly in her role as his wife.
After that, with the decline of classical scholarship among artists during the nineteenth century, Bellona quietly vanishes, until revived by the great Polish painter Jacek Malczewski in 1903.
Malczewski’s Portrait of Wojciech Kossak with Bellona shows another celebrated artist of the day, Wojciech Horacy Kossak (1856-1942), who was famous for his history paintings of major battles. Wojciech Kossak’s twin brother was a notable military officer too, who established his reputation as a fighter for Polish freedom and independence from Russia. Wojciech Kossak is shown in full dress armour with a military standard, as Bellona brandishes a sabre and screams. This is strangely set in what appears to be an urban back yard.
Bellona certainly didn’t go quietly.