Peter Paul Rubens was a busy man when — with substantial help from assistants in his workshop — he painted this massive canvas. Dated “about 1622-23,” “Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris” hangs in the Koch Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts.
At the time, Rubens was busy painting a cycle of 24 enormous paintings for France, celebrating the life of Marie de’ Medici, the wife of Henri IV. He was also conducting secret diplomatic missions for Archduchess Isabella, the daughter of Spain’s King Philip II.
Isabella’s hold over the Spanish Netherlands had weakened after the death of her husband the previous year — in effect reverting to the royal capital in Madrid. But she was still trying to negotiate a settlement in the long dispute over Dutch and Flemish territories.
The French wanted no such settlement. So Rubens, a master at endearing himself to power, had to tread carefully. But he was loyal to Isabella (within a year he would be on her payroll as a spy), and it seems likely that it was she who commissioned the MFA painting.
The subject is bloody — and apt: a statement of queenly power emphatically reasserted. It shows the 6th century BC Massagetean queen Tomyris receiving the head of the Persian king Cyrus the Great, whose armies she had just defeated in battle.
Like Isabella, Tomyris had lost her husband. According to Herodotus (other accounts differ), she had Cyrus’s head bathed in human blood, and his decapitated body crucified.
This was the fulfillment of a promise she had made.
When Cyrus captured her son, Spargapises, after tricking Spargapises’s army into getting drunk, Tomyris sent him a letter: “Now listen to me and I will advise you for your good,” she wrote: “Give me back my son and get out of my country. . . . If you refuse, I swear by the sun our master to give you more blood than you can drink, for all your gluttony.”
Cyrus was unmoved. Spargapises committed suicide rather than remain in captivity. A terrible battle ensued. It was, according to Herodotus, the most violent ever fought between foreign powers.
Queen Tomyris won, and Cyrus’s head thus met the fate she had promised.
The subject is sensational, as is the painting. Rubens’s heightened realism — the rich fabrics, rouged cheeks, and watery eyes scattering charged gazes (the two boys on the left were modeled on Rubens’s own sons) — is complemented by dazzling coloring and a masterful handling of Baroque space. Columns, flags, and feathers corkscrew back from the picture plane even as curious heads (and a protruding purple gut!) incline forward.
My favorite detail is the dog at bottom right, a Francis Bacon-like blur, bending out of the picture and into our space like an avenging beast, full of accusation and menace.
HEAD OF CYRUS BROUGHT TO QUEEN TOMYRIS
By Peter Paul Rubens. At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., 617-267-9300, www.mfa.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.