A previously unpublished work by this Flemish Mannerist, this is the drawing for Sadeler's engraving, one of a series of four entitled The power of women over men. The others depict Delila cutting Samson's hair, the drawing for which is in Darmstadt (G. Bergsträsser, Niederländische Zeichnungen 16. Jahrhundert im Hessischen Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Darmstadt, 1979, no. 143), Solomon forced to worship idols by his wives and Sardanapal among the women of pleasure (Holl. XXII, 180-82). The print is dated 1589, by which point Winghe was in Frankfurt and mostly producing drawings for prints. The date on the present drawing is therefore a curious addition. All four compositions from the series exhibit Winghe's characteristic dramatic poses with outstretched arms and attenuated fingers. The visage of Heliogabal with his full lips, wide eyes and straight nose is remarkably similar to his profile on an ancient coin, suggesting that Winghe might have had some knowledge of ancient art, perhaps from his time in Rome.
Winghe was a painter and draughtsman who worked in Rome for four years before returning to his native Brussels in 1568 and then moving on to Frankfurt where he remained until his death. Few pictures are extant, and he is known mostly through his preparatory drawings for engravings, although only eighteen of these, in addition to this newly identified sheet, are known (see W.W. Robinson, 'Two drawings by Joos van Winghe', Master Drawings, XXVII, 1989, pp. 314-21, n. 5 for a complete listing). As well as for Raphaël Sadeler, Winghe produced drawings for Jan Sadeler I, Crispijn van de Passe I and Theodore de Bry.
The subject of this drawing is the most obscure of The power of women over men series. Heliogabal (also known as Elagabalus) was a Roman emperor who reigned from 218 to 222. Of Syrian origin, he was fourteen when he was thrust into power by his grandmother, Julia Maesa, who was also the aunt of the murdered Emperor Caracalla. Upon assuming power, he made his grandmother and his mother, Julia Soaemias, members of the Senate, an unprecedented move that created much controversy as women were previously not accepted as senators. In addition, Heliogabal was married five times, three times to women and twice to men. Heliogabal and his mother were forced from power by Julia Maesa and ultimately assassinated.
Rather than depicting a specific event in his reign, the subject of Winghe's drawing refers to the role that women from Heliogabal's family played in his government. The monkey at Heliogabal's foot is a symbol of inconstancy and immodesty, referring no doubt to the emperor's licentious personal life and volatile political one.