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The Painting “Procne Showing Tereus the Head of His Child”


Created by Peter Paul Rubens, Procne Showing Tereus the Head of His Child refers the audience to the myths of Ancient Greece, particularly, the one of Procne and Tereus. The myth tells the story of Tereus, who, after being married to Procne, started seeking her sister Philomela’s love and finally resorted to crime by not only raping her but also cutting her tongue out to keep her silent. However, after his endeavors were revealed by the sisters, they decided to exact their vengeance upon him by murdering his son, i.e., Procne’s child, and serving him as a meal to his father.

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Upon the horrendous discovery, Tereus attempted at murdering both sisters, but Procne turned herself into a nightingale, whereas Philomela became a swallow (Tate 147). It should be noted, though, that these roles are often reversed in art and literature, i.e., Philomela is depicted as a nightingale, while Procne becomes a swallow. Rubens’s picture details the climax of the legend precisely by portraying the point at which the sisters show Tereus his son’s head, and the horror of the situation becomes obvious to him.


Rubens used oil on the panel as the primary medium for rendering his idea. The painting is fairly large, reaching 195 × 267 cm (76.77’’× 105.12’’). The scale and the medium, therefore, make the painting even larger and more impressive, thus, magnifying the viewer’s impression of the tragedy that occurs in the picture (“Philomena and Ovid”).

The elements of composition help introduce the concept of movement to the image. As a result, the painting conveys the idea of motion, placing the viewer into the epicenter of the events. The impression of motion that Rubens captured helps portray the confusion and strong emotions experienced by the character. Indeed, a closer look at the picture will reveal that none of its elements are static. Quite the contrary, every single part of the painting implies a continuous movement.

The specified aspect of the art piece makes the scene that it depicts very vividly as if it had been carved out of a narrative and framed as a picture. As a result, the effect of the image telling a clear and emotional story is produced.

Line and color also add to the overall sense of pain and suffer that the picture aims at rendering. Since Rubens does not use an actual lining, the boundaries between the objects become somewhat blurred, thus, intensifying the impression of calamity. The presence of the red color also creates the context of strong emotions and especially terror that each character feels.

The choice of dark and light areas as the means of emphasizing the emotional strain in which the characters in the picture experience is also masterful. Since Rubens avoids using lines in the picture, it is the application of shadows and light that makes every detail in the picture visible and distinct. The elaborate use of light and shadow allows introducing plasticity to the painting. As a result, the picture feels life and brimming with emotions (Moran 7).

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To enhance the impression of the unceasing motion and confusion, Rubens makes his painting shallow. With the introduction of a deep recession, the sense of pain and misery would have been lost in the numerous elements of the picture. With the elaborate use of the flat space, in turn, the artist creates the image that leaps out of the picture and captures the audience’s attention immediately.


The incorporation of signs in the picture is also with discussing it as one of the prime examples of a visual language used right. The movement directed to the left, as well as the use of gestures in the picture, should be regarded as the key elements that convey the emotional weight and cultural context of the painting. By portraying the characters as if they were caught in the middle of an action, with their bodies almost entirely out of balance, Rubens managed to render the emotions of pain, shock, and pure horror that each of the characters must have experienced.

Combined with the careful choice of the color palette, how Tereus, Procne, and Philomena are portrayed sends a powerful message of fear, thus, creating a very menacing atmosphere. As a result, the painting retains its expressivity even when viewed out of its terrifying context.


With his unique approach toward depicting people and their emotions, Rubens manages to not only bring the ancient myth to life but also portray the feelings of the characters with the mastery that makes the audience develop an immediate sympathy to the characters. The shock and horror portrayed on the characters’ faces contribute to the creation of a macabre and almost surreal atmosphere in which the characters exist. However, what makes the painting especially unique is the surreal nature of the situation, as well as the accurate portrayal of every character. By making the abhorrent legend collide with the naturalistic and extremely detailed manner of painting, the artist created the image that would haunt its viewers for years.

Works Cited

Moran, Nick. Performance Lighting Design: How to Light for the Stage, Concerts and Live Events. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.

Philomena and Ovid.The Colby College Community Web, n.d.. Web.

Tate, Allen. Collected Poems, 1919-1976. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

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StudyCorgi. (2022, March 3). The Painting “Procne Showing Tereus the Head of His Child”.

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