A: Lots of things.
Today, I'd like to compare two of his paintings. First, consider the Prometheus Bound, which lives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Prometheus Bound, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1611-1618, oil on canvas, 95 1/2" x 82 1/2"
In case your memory needs a little refreshing, Prometheus is the Greek titan who stole fire from Zeus, gave it to the mortals, and got chained to a rock with his magical regrowing liver torn out by an eagle every day for his troubles. Rubens depicts the later part of the story here.
The second Rubens I'd like to share is his Daniel in the Lions' Den, housed at the National Gallery in DC, where I have been visiting it since I was very small.
Again, a little review of the underlying story: Daniel, a Jewish administrator serving in Babylon, defies a no-pray order from King Darius. Darius has him sealed in a den of lions, which would ordinarily lead to a sticky end. Daniel, however, finds himself unmolested by the lions, and is released the next day.
Let's go back to the Prometheus. Just look at what Rubens has done here. Where else has anyone so vividly captured the state of rebellion? Rebellion against tyranny, against limits, against all. The rebel against all, suffering the absolute worst that can be suffered and still hollering rebellion.
In Orson Welles's terminally under-appreciated 1962 adaptation of Kafka's The Trial, the hero, K (Anthony Perkins), finally rejects the deranged mechanism of justice which is attempting to swallow him. Having walked out on his advocate, he faces one last time a priest who has tried to reason with him before. The priest begins, "My son --" and K says, "I am not your son," then strides out to his execution.
stills from The Trial, Orson Welles, 1962
There is an ineffable sorrow to Perkins's line reading here. He would like to be this priest's son, to take his place as the son of a loving and protecting God, but he cannot. He cannot, because the god of such a system of justice is a mad god, and rather than submit to a mad god, he chooses to stand for himself, to the death.
This scene has always seemed to me to sum up, in a couple seconds, the tragic dilemma of man in the modern age. He has found his god cruel and insane. His own reason strong, he turns his back on the religion of his fathers. He is proud, independent, and mighty, but there is grief in his heart. He is the first man who has chosen to be alone in the universe.
All of this is prefigured by Rubens's Prometheus. Rubens, in the profundity of his imagination, looks forward from a religious age, from his own Catholicism, and pictures a man who faces the Almighty and says, "No -- I will not submit; do what you like to me, I will never submit." Rubens's Prometheus has already begun upon the endless round of torture, and yet his lip still curls in rage, his eyes are still bright with reason, his arm still wraps around the chain, yanking on it. He does not care that he must lose; he cannot but fight. He is the father of Ivan Karamazov, of Bartleby, of Meursault, of K.
detail, Prometheus Bound
Now consider Daniel among the lions. As I said before, I was a very small child when I first saw the Daniel. I remember it, because at the time I thought paintings were boring (they were all brown! Who wants to be in a building full of brown things?). But not this painting. What excitement! A skull, those luscious caramel-colored lions, that gleaming light on Daniel's enormous tanned muscles, the tension in his powerful toes, the awful symmetry of the thing.
detail, Daniel in the Lions' Den
I didn't understand the painting, but the painting rewarded me in the terms I could understand, those most basic terms of color, line, value, simple objects -- the story a child can understand.
But we are no longer children. What do we see when we, all grown up, look at the Daniel? We see an indelible image of the concept of Man, powerful, not without resources, who finds himself overwhelmed and turns his gaze upward toward the Almighty, terrorstricken, and begs for salvation. We do not need to believe this narrative to recognize it. We recognize it because we have inherited it; we too know the terror, and the urge to turn upward, and plead to be delivered.
detail, Daniel in the Lions' Den
Each of these paintings, Prometheus and Daniel, is amazing. But amazing is not so much as great. It is the two paintings, taken together, that make Rubens great. The paintings represent diametrically opposed viewpoints. Prometheus is willing to pay anything rather than submit before God; Daniel, faced with the same agony, surrenders.
One time, I read a medieval legal document, which used some jargon of the period. It referred to "men, who live and must die." This was not a literary device, and yet -- what a phrase! There is little more that we can say with certainty about all men and women. I know this, you know this. We are both alive now, and we both will die.
This very simple thing, this elemental thing -- that's all you absolutely need in order to understand Rubens, not as a child understands him, but as an adult understands him. Look at Daniel. He is placed among the fatal beasts, and he's scared to die. Look at Prometheus. He too is set upon by fatal beasts, and he refuses to let his fear of death bend him.
These two responses cover most of the replies mortals can make to their condition. Their condition is your condition too; their story is your story. Rubens could have made one painting of somebody else. What he did make was two paintings of you.
But where do Rubens's sympathies lie? Is Prometheus right, or is Daniel? Can you tell? I can't. I believe that Rubens reserves himself. He shows us what he has discovered, but he does not tell us what he has concluded. This question, in his respect for his viewer, he leaves to his viewer. What made him amazing was his insight into the utter universals of the human condition. What made him great was his forbearance. He cut to the heart of things, and when he could have used his power to become a dictator of the soul, instead, he became a teacher. He showed us the faces of our choice, and asked us to choose -- he enlarged our freedom, and invited us to be free.