The rape of the Sabine women is a quintessentially Baroque work, with complex figure groups, intense dramatic action and powerful lighting effects. It tells the legend of how Rome, in its early days, had few women, and therefore no future. Scorned when they asked for brides from their neighbours, the Romans invited the Sabines to a great games event. As part of a preconceived plan, the young Roman men attacked their guests and carried away the young women. Sheldon Grossman described The rape of the Sabine women as:
one of Luca Giordano's most successful compositions [which] represents a highly refined and fully developed example of the high baroque style. The densely massed, closely spaced figural groups are caught in complex poses at a moment of intense action. There is dramatic movement in and out of the painting, from both sides, as well as diagonally into depth and across the surface. A powerful, rapid centrifugal force is set into motion at the hub of the composition, the central group of the Roman and the Sabine which, modeled on baroque or proto-baroque sculptural groups, forms a striking corkscrew pattern.
Giordano painted The rape of the Sabine women in about 1672-74, as one of four large works on the theme of violence and justice. The paintings were first recorded in 1751 in the Palazzo Vecchia (now Palazzo Romanelli) in Vicenza. Two of the other paintings, The massacre of the innocents and Christ's expulsion of the merchants from the temple, are in the Church of Sant'Aponal, Venice, and the third, The judgment of Solomon, was acquired by the Thyssen Museum, Madrid.
The four works were noted by the writer Charles-Nicolas Cochin in his Voyage d'Italie, published in 1758, as being among the most beautiful and vigorous works of Giordano. The Abbé de Saint-Non saw them in 1761 and described them as 'without fear of contradiction, the most beautiful works that Giordano painted'. Fragonard, who accompanied Saint-Non, made a fine drawing of The rape of the Sabine women.
adapted from Brian Kennedy, 'A quintessential Baroque painting: Luca Giordano's The Rape of the Sabines,' artonview no.22 Winter 2000 pp.9-12, by Christine Dixon