Rubens is perhaps one of the greatest artists of all time. We spoke a little bit of Rubens before in my book review of Master of Shadows: the Secret diplomatic life of Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens is one of the greatest genre painters, because of his Catholicism, his stoicism and sense of order, his love of the classics, and his diligence and hard work. Today I want to look at one of his best early works, which took his budding fame and made it immortal. Michaelangelo Buonarotti reckoned that Flemish artists were good for nothing but landscapes, which was not strictly true, particularly if we consider Van Eycke or Jos van Cleve, or even Bosch, but it is Rubens who will put to rest this bias forever.
As we mentioned the last time we spoke of Peter Paul Rubens, he had spent 8 years in Italy, where as court painter to the Gonzague’s at Mantua, he was able to travel widely and carried out diplomatic work as far as Spain. By the time he had gotten to Italy Rubens had already become a master at the St. Luke’s guild in Flanders (Spanish Netherlands), and was well trained. The purpose of his tour in Italy, considered indispensable at this time for any artist, was refinement. To study the techniques of the great masters, to adapt them, and study antiquity. As we shall see, classical sculpture featured prominently in Rubens’ study, as did the renaissance masters, and the greatest of his contemporaries, Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s flight in 1606, following the famous duel where he had killed Ranuccio Tomassoni opened doors for Rubens. He was able to earn a number of commissions in the city, including at the Oratorian Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (aka Chiesa Nuova, although this commission was rejected, since he had not painted it at the site of the Church, and misjudged its scale). Between royal commissions, church commissions and even his copies of Venetian masters like Tiziano and Tintoretto, Rubens had made a name for himself in Italy. He was forced to return, however, to Antwerp because he heard news of his mother’s illness, and sadly he arrived shortly after she died. Nevertheless, Rubens decided to stay, and attained immediate fame by painting his adoration of the Magi, to commemorate the 12 years truce between the Spanish and the Dutch.
He settled down, married, and established a workshop, modeled on Raphael’s workshop which he had seen still operating in Rome. The twelve years truce was bringing many benefits to Antwerp and assisting in its revitalization. Antwerp had been an extremely wealthy city prior to the Reformation. However, attacked by Calvinists on the one hand, and pillaged by Alva’s unpaid Spanish troops on the other, it had become a shadow of its former glory. The Dutch, moreover, had maintained a strict blockade of the Scheldt, the main river flowing in from the Atlantic into Antwerp and the source of its wealth through trade. Even though the Dutch would continue to blockade the Sheldt throughout the 17th century, the 12 years truce allowed for Antwerp to recover, and emigres to return home and re-establish their industry. This provided many opportunities for patronage of the arts. Rubens’ fame in Italy, and his knockout painting of the Adoration of the Magi had ideally placed him to be the go to man not only for local patrons, but eventually for the Hapsburg rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, Albert and Isabella.
Rubens’ fascination with classics and classical models impressed his erstwhile teacher, Cornelius van der Geest, who became a patron of Rubens. In 1610, a commission came in from the Church of St. Walburga, where van der Geest was a warden, to paint the altar piece. Rubens had already done a painting for this church, depicting the Church’s patron saint, Walburga (also one of the patrons of Antwerp), calming a storm. Walburga was an anglo-saxon saint, fleeing persecution in England, and she arrived on the continent and established several monasteries in the Netherlands and Germany. (NB: in Europe monastery may refer either to a house of monks or nuns, and convents used to refer to men, where as in American English, like with many things compared with British English, has the distinction backwards).
The commission called for Rubens to paint a huge altar scene of Christ being raised on the cross. Rubens decided to use a Triptych, which at that time, was outdated by 150 years. It had fallen completely into disuse. Using an ancient form to re-invigorate the Church, he introduced the baroque style to the Netherlands. Rubens would make certain to avoid the error that caused his rejection in Santa Maria in Vallicella, by painting on site. Initially the center panel depicted Christ being raised on the cross at a 35 degree angle, with thieves being crucified in the background. Rubens grasped the problem right away, the wide open space, instead of concentrating our attention on the central act of our redemption, instead diverts our eyes to the background details. It also required filling in the space with more thieves, more action, which repeats the action of the right panel. The original today is in the Lourve. So, Rubens had a moment of sheer genius, worthy of Venetian masters such as Tintoretto, or of Caravaggio. One of the most dramatic effects of early baroque painting is to demolish the space between the viewer and the painting viewed. Tintoretto, for example, does this by enclosing the space of his subjects, and Caravaggio copies this perfectly with his young musicians, which is very claustrophobic in as much as looking at the picture your mind is trapped into the image’s decreasing space. So with a view to that, Rubens reduces the space of the central panel, repositions our Lord, and relegates the thieves to the right panel.
We can see, beginning from the left, that Rubens expands the rocky prominence of Golgotha which can be seen in the original, into the central panel. We’ll turn to the central panel in a moment. First we should notice on the left panel in the background, the Blessed Virgin with St. John. Our Lady, instead of being overwhelmed with grief, she is instead pensive, as Luke’s gospel says “keeping all things in her heart”. This background image is our lady as Co-Redemptrix, which is a doctrine that teaches Mary’s mediation at the foot of the cross, by suffering with Christ so completely, that she consents to his death and suffers internally, more than any human being could. This allows her to participate in Christ’s singular act of redemption. If we move lower, we see a woman nursing a child, who is taken aback in shocked horror at what she is witnessing. This is sometimes thought to be the Magdeline, or perhaps Mary the wife of Clopas. Either way, her role is to focus us, for if we follow her gaze it forms a 45 degree diagonal with Christ’s eyes in the central panel. It focuses us to our redemption.
Furthermore, turning to the central panel, the curious thing is the dog at the bottom of the painting. This is a curious invention, as we know well there is no dog in the gospel. Dogs feature very much into Flemish culture, but he is in this painting more for what he represents than for the number of dogs that can be found in Antwerp. The dog represents faithfulness, and in this painting we can go further to faith. What does it focus us to? Faith in Christ, but not merely in Him as an abstract concept, but in the work of his redemption.
As noted above, the cliff face with the vines serves to enclose the painting, like a frame within a frame, to concentrate around Christ. It serves another purpose beyond this concentration, and it is here where Rubens shows his theological distinction. In the cliff face we see trees, from whence the vines emanate. The tree, naturally recalls the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is juxtaposed with the cross, the tree of life. It recalls the whole reason which Christ is on the cross, namely the sin of our first parents. Yet it also produces a vine, and oak leaves (although topographically unlikely). The vine, naturally suggests the Eucharist, which is the representation of the sacrifice of Calvary, begun at the last supper, and completed when Christ, while on the cross, drinks from the bitter wine offered to him. The oak, on the other hand, represents in medieval iconography the resurrection, as its strong wood is firm, and resists adversity, as Christ overcame death. The Resurrection is also the fruit of Calvary, to which the Eucharist looks forward to, as St. Thomas says, the foretaste of eternal glory. (2nd Magnificat antiphon for Corpus Christi).
Now let’s look at the figures of the central panel. The muscled figures recall Michaelangelo’s focus on anatomy as a perfection of the human form. Here, Rubens uses this as an additional vehicle for the motiff. The muscled figures pulling and tugging at the rope cause us to feel the weight of the Son of God, and even more, the incredible weight of sin. There is an interesting twist here, as the weight of sin, which Christ has taken upon Himself, is now being placed upon his executioners, those whom Christ is going to redeem. Lastly the figure of Christ, if we look closely, we can see that Rubens has modeled it off of the statue of Laocöon in Rome, which he would have seen first in engravings, but later in the Vatican itself when he went to Rome. This statue was unearthed with Michaelangelo present, and had entered the Vatican collection under Julius II. It is thought to be a Roman copy of a Greek original, and was inspiration for countless artists studying anatomy to work into their own art.
If we follow through to the right panel, where Rubens has relegated the thieves, we can notice this particular detail. One of the thieves is being forced to step on the other thief who is lying on the ground, while a Roman officer is commanding the action. There is more. Recall, following the eyes of the Magdalene in the left panel lead us directly to Our Lord’s eyes. Now, if we follow the Roman’s commanding baton, we follow another diagonal to the pierced feet of Christ. This is more than just a question of forming geometric patterns in the painting, Rubens is calling our attention to the major focal point in the center. That agonizing moment, when, the executioner, draped in blue, touches the feet of Christ, which we can follow in a perfect diagonal downward from Christ’s head down to the outstretched arm of the executioner. The key is in the word “outstretched”, and then we see it is borrowed from Michaelangelo. Just as the outstretched hand of God the Father on the Sistine ceiling initiates the beginning of creation, the start of salvation history, the outstretched foot of Christ initiates the end. Or, as historian Simon Schama notes:
“Any simple worshipper, beholding this pitiless stretching-rack of a line, would have felt its excruciating relentlessness in his bones. But for the more educated, perhaps a “Romanist” just back from the obligatory humanist tour of duty in Italy, there was much to engage with. Doubtless he could congratulate himslef on recognizing that the tormented face of the Savior was a Christianized version of the snake-throttled Laocoon . . ., But as he mulled these erudite details, he might find himself unaccountably drawn to the precise point in the painting where the blue-loinclothed executioner’s tensed bicep brushes against those impaled feet, and with a rush of recognition he would suddenly be reminded of the outstretched arm of the Creator giving life to Adam on the Sistine ceiling. And he would then sense an awesome connection. For if the creation of man is the beginning of the story, this is its preordained end: the drama of sin and salvation consummated in the groaning exertions of Calvary.” (Rembrandt’s eyes, pgs 157-158)
Now, when you close the doors of the Triptych, you see a panel of St. Christopher, and of a hermit with a lantern. Chistopher, in Greek Χριστόφορος, means literally bearer of Christ. So the prevailing idea throughout the work is carrying Christ, bearing him, bearing his weight.
A last point, there is a reason Rubens paints at the angles which he does, directing the furious energy of colors, muscles, mixed with theological distinction fixed at diagonal points, it is because this altar piece was for an elevated altar. Though the Church of St. Walburga was later destroyed, one painting by Geering, an obscure artist, survives from 1661.
One can clearly see Rubens’ altar-piece on the main altar. The height of the stairs is because the Church was actually expanded across the street, and the height was drastically increased. Thus the great diagonals would be easily visible to the worshipper in the nave of the Church.
This piece launched Rubens’ fame, and led to many further Church commissions to beautify the Churches in the Spanish Netherlands, repairing both war damage and the results of the iconoclastic attacks of the Calvinists in the 1560s. St. Walburga’s would not do so well, however.
The Church was damaged by French troops in the 1740s, and under Napoleon the painting was stolen from the high altar and taken to Paris, as a few other Rubens altar pieces. After the defeat of Napoleon, the painting was returned, along with a number of Rubens paintings, but St. Walburga’s was destroyed in 1817, having suffered tremendous damage from the French. As a result, the painting was placed in the Cathedral of Antwerp, where it resides today. As an added bonus for you, my dear readers, I have provided a video of the actual painting with an explanation from the eminent, scholarly and fair-minded (though, sadly not Catholic) Andrew Graham-Dixon.