” Immersed in the remnants of a classical world, Rubens would have encountered countless myths and legends in the ancient art and literature of Italy. By selecting this particular story for representation, the artist was certainly capitalising on the general interest in animal hunt scenes, but what does the especial symbolism of the work, and particularly the symbolism of the boar, add to an interpretation of the painting?”
Caught in mid-air by a sudden burst of movement, Meleager’s red cloak whirls around his massive, muscular body. A single, solid leg thrusts forward, following the line of the weapon that deals the death blow to his quarry. Beneath his feat lies the body of Ancaeus, whose sallow death-kissed skin is juxtaposed with the warm bronze of Meleager’s. To his right, another carcass, of a disembowelled hound, lies, crushed beneath the weight of the massive boar. Tangled in these limbs, man, mud, and monster meld into one, frenzied tableau of death. At the epicentre of this cycle is the eponymous Calydonian boar, which whips its head to Meleager as the hunter plunges his spear into the animal’s torso.
Peter Paul Rubens’s oil sketch, or modello, The Calydonian Boar Hunt is muscular and energetic, an apt visual representation of the climax of the narrative that it depicts. This story, reconstrued throughout antiquity in art and literature, tells the heroic adventure of a group of young Greeks who hunt the monstrous pig that the goddess Artemis cursed the region of Calydon with, in revenge for King Oeneus failing to honour her in his rites to the gods. It is Oeneus’s son, Meleager, in his swirling red cape, who is the protagonist of this painting. However, Rubens has painted the boar, emerging writhing and bristly from the densely packed foreground, as intrinsic to the composition. This was a deliberate stylistic choice. By using the warm beige of the earthen foreground as the mid-tone of the boar’s body, afterwards painting slight, spiky brushstrokes over this to create a naturalistic hide, Rubens seems to suggest to the viewer that man and monster are made of the same mud.
Recent scholarship on the painting, which “re-emerged” at auction in 2005 having previously thought to be lost, has dated it to the years 1611-12, making The Calydonian Boar Hunt one of Rubens’s earliest hunt scenes.1 Scholars including Anne T. Woollett, curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum that now houses the object in its collection, have tended to emphasise the classical sources and distinctly Rubensian stylistic features that point towards the breadth of the artist’s own knowledge and the tendency of Renaissance hunting paintings to be marketed to an aristocratic audience who delighted in discovering the manifold literary and artistic sources of works such as this one.2
The source material that Rubens was inspired by was varied and rich. From 1600 to 1608, Rubens had lived in Italy, immersing himself in the visual and literary world of the ancients. Though Ovid’s Metamorphoses was the premier example of the tale type in Renaissance Europe, other literary examples of the story included the Elder and the Younger Philostratus’s Eikones.3 A marble statue of a boar, created in the Roman period and on display in Florence whilst Rubens lived in Italy, likely served as visual material for the shaggy hide and naturalistic pose of Rubens’s boar, and the narrative of a sarcophagus panel, that the artist would have seen in the Roman home of Giulio Porcari, clearly inspired Rubens’s own dramatic and dense composition.4 That being said, as Woollett acknowledged, the story of the Calydonian boar hunt was not widely used as source material by Renaissance painters prior to Rubens and, after this painting became the ‘pre-eminent treatment of the tale’, the artist apparently ‘established a new genre of the mythological hunt scene.’5 Immersed in the remnants of a classical world, Rubens would have encountered countless myths and legends in the ancient art and literature of Italy. By selecting this particular story for representation, the artist was certainly capitalising on the general interest in animal hunt scenes, but what does the especial symbolism of the work, and particularly the symbolism of the boar, add to an interpretation of the painting?
Rubens’s principal source material was evidently classical. As an analysis of his painting against two objects that bear clear formal resemblances to Rubens’s composition shows, the Renaissance painter took his leave from the world of antiquity in which the boar commonly featured as a symbol that Yves Bonnefoy’s compendium of ancient symbolism described as being one of ‘savage nature.’6 Second only to the lion in the hierarchy of heroes’ most fearsome opponents, the Calydonian boar hunt was and remains the foremost example of a more typical tale type in ancient Greece.7 By the Middle Ages, the animal’s symbolism had transformed to be coupled with the language of Christianity. Simona Cohen explained that:
A wild boar could represent sin in general, or madness, and medieval images of boar-hunting signified the destruction of sins. These symbolic meanings were perpetuated in Renaissance emblem books, prints and painting.8
So, the slaying of the boar has long been symbolic of virtuous action, whereby the hero or the community root out and expunge moral evil through the hunt. But far from being a Christianised version of the boar icon, this symbolism was rooted in a classical conception. As Bonnefoy’s text notes, adventure stories like the one depicted in The Calydonian Boar Hunt are ‘more’ than mere hunting tales.
The pursuit of the boar is, among other things, linked to the purgative tradition of the hunting of the monster […] By slaying the game, they proved their aptitude for hunting as well as their moral worth.9
Thus, though there have been slight transformations and divergences in its presentation, the symbol of the boar in Western art can be seen to have remained relatively static. As a result, the tale would have held as much, and similar, intrigue for Renaissance audiences as it would have the classical peoples that ancient works of art appealed to.
Within the context of a conversation about traumatic experiences in art, the moral dimension of boar symbolism in the West opens several interesting avenues for study. What traumatic experiences do we encounter in Rubens’s painting? What traumas appear, and disappear, in the narrative of the Calydonian boar hunt in particular? How does this image engage with the notion of trauma? And what does the symbolism of the boar tell us about a generalised Western conception of individual (structural) and collective (historical) trauma?10
In one summary of the painting, Woollett described the unique collusion of ‘classicising form, refined execution and psychological tension’ in Rubens’s painting,11 drawing attention to its ‘remarkable vividness’ and ‘calligraphic directness.’12 In her essay “Art/Trauma/Representation”, Griselda Pollock considers how the ‘perpetually haunting force’ of trauma might be given form ‘by means of a structuration that is delivered by representation.’13 Cross-analysis of these ideas, namely, the emphasis on Rubens dramatic drawing style and visualisation of an ancient story to do with the expulsion of moral evil and Pollock’s theory of how trauma is embalmed in art, presents an interesting new interpretation of this painting.
Within this framework of analysis, the artistic, or aesthetic, encounter is tantamount to an encounter with trauma. Pollock’s idea, that she uses elsewhere in her discourse, of the ‘relief of signification’ is an important element of this psychoanalytical discovery of the painting.14 As she says elsewhere in the text, art-making can be a means of transforming traumatic experiences ‘a working in [Sigmund] Freud’s sense of Arbeit (dream work, mourning work, working through) – into a memory, as a part of the psychic apparatus.’15 But if, as Pollock suggests in her text, trauma is ongoing, as opposed to apparent in discrete instances, and collective, as opposed to individual, the fact that Rubens has revisited, and revived, a tale that proliferated throughout the ancient world underscores the capacity of signification to tell about trauma as ideated by Pollock. She wrote:
trauma is transmitted […] such transubjective futurity is an opening occasioned by encounter with its remnants or traces – the only form of others’ potential sensing of it as trauma rather than it as this or that story.16
So, in what ways does Rubens’s painting encourage or allow the viewer to see beyond the story of the Calydonian boar hunt, to the transmission of trauma? Within Pollock’s theory of trauma, which draws heavily from the work of Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Bracha Ettinger, we are encouraged to view individual and collective trauma as instances of the same, original trauma. Understanding a work of art in symbolic, or structuralist, terms therefore, is a fitting form of analysis in the context of a conversation about trauma in art.
By revisiting the ancient myth of the Calydonian boar hunt, Rubens was capitalising on the tendency of Renaissance artists to subsume classical themes and motifs into contemporary art to meet a market desire. This social historical interpretation of the painting agrees with the prevailing tendency of current scholarship to examine cultural artefacts as objects that tell us something about the time in which they were made. We might, as has already been done, go further, and analyse the painting in terms of its materiality and, through scientific observation, determine certain facts about the painting, Rubens’s oeuvre, and material culture in the early seventeenth century. But we might also, as Woollett’s allusion to the ‘psychological tension’ of Rubens’s painting provides an opening for, couch a structuralist analysis of the symbolism of the painting in wider philosophical and psychoanalytical conversations to show how The Calydonian Boar Hunt exists as an example of art’s capacity to provide ‘structuration’ through ‘representation’ to trauma. Not merely the trauma of the weary, beleaguered hunt, nor only the trauma of the death of a beloved friend, nor, even, the trauma of the boar, furious and forlorn, but also, significantly, the original trauma that Pollock identifies as ever-present.
As visual and literary material evidence, the hunt of the wild boar has stood for the expulsion of sin from the community. It was, literally in the ancient and medieval world, a means of purging the associated evils of original trauma and the repeat evils of its individual and collective manifestations. However, further interrogation of the boar symbol leads to an investigation of how the themes of gender and power permeate this tale as well as Rubens’s rendering of it. At first glance, the boar as fertility symbol might appear to confound the interpretation of Rubens’s painting as a structure that engages with the notion of original trauma and expulsion. However, as Judith M. Barringer emphasised, the story of the Calydonian boar hunt ‘probes the relationship between hunting and sex, which ultimately ends in combat and death.’17 The fact that the monstrous other of this story is a fertility symbol is significant and points our enquiries about the painting in the direction of how it engages with trauma and womanhood.
In her monograph on the symbolism of the Great Goddess, The Language of the Goddess (1989), Marija Gimbutas highlighted how the boar has been rendered as a death symbol, citing visual evidence from Near Eastern and European sources to show that it has long been associated with the regenerative Great Goddess.18 Gimbutas also noted that the Norse goddess Freya, goddess of death and regeneration, was closely allied with the boar, as her nickname Syr, meaning sow, suggests.1920 In her overview of the boar symbol, Hope B. Werness suggested that it was this ancient association with the Great Goddess that was the root for the ‘ambiguous’ binary signification of the boar as both death and fertility symbol, writing that ‘the tension between fertility symbolism, and the imagery of death and destruction may result from ambivalent attitudes towards the Great Goddess.’21 In her overview, Werness also showed that this symbolic ambivalence exists throughout world cultures, highlighting examples taken from Ancient Sumeria, Judaism, Egypt, Greece, Norse culture, Celtic culture, Christianity, Hinduism, and Japan.22
So, the symbolism of the great boar is evidently complex and often apparently contradictory. However, as the story of the Calydonian boar hunt professes, it is closely linked with the perpetually contentious issue of women’s power. In the narrative, the huntress Atalanta lands the first blow of the hunt, thus earning her the right to claim the boar’s pelt. In Ovid’s account of the tale, Meleager’s uncles Plexippus and Toxeus afterwards took the pelt from Atalanta, claiming that as a woman, she had no right to the spoils. In return, Meleager slew his uncles and returned the pelt to Atalanta. In Rubens’s painting, the artist has depicted one of the earliest protestors against Atalanta joining the hunt, Ancaeus, crushed beneath the weighty boar in a karmic twist. Moreover, the boar itself was a curse put upon Calydon by the goddess Artemis, or Diana, who was also a symbol of fertility, hunting, and a guardian of childbirth. In these ways, the story clearly navigates issues to do with the power of women and their omission from public life. It is only Meleager, and his love for Atalanta, who allows for her inclusion within and victory after the hunt, which further emphasises the subjugate position of women within the society being depicted.
The treatment of the boar in art and literature, as both a totem of the fertility goddess and a harbinger of death, mirrors the patriarchal attitude towards women’s power as dangerous and subversive. The hunt and expulsion of the “evil” or “sinful” boar from the community might, therefore, be a metaphor for the pervasive cycle of violence against women, which is commonly embodied in the notion and language of the “witch-hunt”.23 In this interpretation, Rubens’s painting is an example of the ‘twice-told’ tale, a reminder of a truth that ‘is to be found again.’24 Rubens’s painting therefore stands as an example of how original trauma is woven into our signification. When juxtaposed with the sarcophagus panel (Figure 3) that the artist was inspired by, the Renaissance painting appears to tell a version of the story in which Meleager, and not Atalanta, features as the principal hero of the tale. In Rubens’s painting, Meleager, and Castor and Pollux atop their horses, are energetically engaged with the Calydonian boar, whereas Atalanta has now been relegated to a more passive position, behind the central action of the painting. Moreover, the painting, unlike the sarcophagus panel, gives no indication of the part of the story in which Atalanta’s bravery and courage is rewarded. In this way, Rubens’s painting serves as both an example of the structuration afforded to original trauma but also an encounter with one of its most pervasive forms, the violence and subjugation of women within patriarchal structures. Whether Rubens was conscious of this narrative choice it is not known. However, as the form of the ferocious boar, twisting and tormented, in Rubens’s representation of this age-old tale emotively conveys, the ousting of the monstrous other belies the many manifestations of original trauma in its depiction of (in)justice, violence, and death.
1 Anne T. Woollett, “The ‘Calydonian Boar Hunt’: A Rubens for the J. Paul Getty Museum,” in The Burlington Magazine 149, no. 1247 (Feb. 2007), 82-84.
2 Anne T. Woollett, and Davide Gasparotto, and Jeffrey Spier, Rubens: Picturing Antiquity (Los Angles: Getty Publications, 2021), 1-2.
3 ibid., 17.
5 Woollett, “The ‘Calydonian Boar Hunt’”, 84.
6 Yves Bonnefoy, translated under the direction of Wendy Doniger, Greek and Egyptian Mythologies (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 130.
8 Simona Cohen, Animals as Disguised Symbols in Renaissance Art (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008), 221.
9 Bonnefoy, Greek and Egyptian Mythologies, 121.
10 Griselda Pollock identifies this terminological distinction in her essay “Art/Trauma/Representation,” in Parallax 15, no. 1 (2009), 43-45.
11 Anne T. Wollett, “The ‘Calydonian Boar Hunt’”, 84.
12 ibid., 82.
13 Pollock, “Art/Trauma/Representation”, 40.
14 ibid., 41.
15 ibid., 43.
16 ibid., 46.
17 Judith M. Barringer, The Hunt in Ancient Greece (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 147.
18 Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 195-197.
19 In Norse mythology, Freya rode her boar Hildisvíni and, also, Gullinbursti, also known as Slíðrugtanni, to Baldr’s funeral.
20 ibid., 197.
21 Hope B. Werness, The Continuum Encyclopaedia of Animal Symbolism in Art (New York and London: Continuum, 2006), 48.
22 ibid., 48-50.
23 See Alison Rowlands, “Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Europe,” in Brian P. Levack ed., The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 449-467.
is a Research Affiliate at the University of York, where she has recently completed a PhD titled “The Making of Modern Fantasy in the Visual Arts of England, c. 1850-1920”. She has lectured extensively on late Victorian and Edwardian fantasy art and literature and was recently a Louise Seaman Bechdel Fellow at the University of Florida. She holds degrees in English Literature and Art History from the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford.