Nobody ever doubted that Rubens was a Roman catholic, but art history has not yet given much attention to this fact. In a handsomely produced and lavishly illustrated, book, Willibald Sauerländer elaborates this neglected aspect by interpreting a number of paintings of saints and martyrs by the Flemish master according to their original intention as a medium of persuasion in the service of post-Tridentine Catholicism. He repeatedly disapproves the label “baroque passions” attached to these paintings, insisting instead on explaining their overwhelming expression against a broad background of church history, hagiography, and even poetry.
Rather than presenting a comprehensive study, Sauerländer deliberately focuses on a significant selection of paintings which are detailed and interconnected in a continuous narrative. Endnotes are limited to essential references. In the first chapter – a “heathen prelude” – Seneca’s suicide is interpreted as a stoic martyrdom. Next come examples of the prominent roles played by Mary and St. Michael in Bavaria. Then three moments of Christ’s Passion (Descent from the Cross, Coup de Lance, Entombment) are scrutinized, before the miracles of the Jesuit Saints Ignatius and Francis Xavier, a sketch for a levitation of St. Francis of Paola, and the vision and intercession of St. Theresa of Avila come under review. The christoformitas of St. Francis is exemplified in various altarpieces for the Mendicants. This is followed by elaborations on the Holy Helper St. Roch, and the local Flemish saints Bavo, Livinus, and Justus. Separate chapters are dedicated to the arch martyrs Stephen and Lawrence, and to the martyrdoms of the apostles Paul, Thomas, Andrew, and Peter. The end is given to the most detailed treatment of a single painting, the late Massacre of the Innocents in Munich. These two dozen or so major projects are supplemented by numerous related pictures.
The last chapter on the Innocents – the first martyrs – is the most brilliant case study in the book. Rubens did not paint the biblical subject for an altar, but probably for the collection of the bishop of Ghent. Apart from theological texts, he based the composition also on poetry, above all on Giambattista Marino’s homonymous epos published in 1632. His aim was to contrast a cruel massacre with the redemption of the victims, rather than to display a piece of artistic virtuosity in the sense of artists following Raphael’s model, the famous print by Marcantonio Raimondi. The central woman pathetically upholding the bloody diaper is convincingly identified as a metonymic representation of Old Testament Rachel, and as a parallel to the lamenting Europe in the famous Horrors of War in Florence. The fiercely fighting figures are exemplifying Flemish roughness, comparable to genre painters, such as Adriaen Brouwer, whom Rubens admired, while one of the henchmen is a vulgar adaptation of the heroic antique sculpture of Laocoon, a device recommended in Gian Paolo Lomazzo’s treatise of 1584.
The other chapters are basically articulated in the same manner, starting with an analysis of the historical circumstances of the respective commission, and proceeding to the literary sources, principally the Bible, the Acta Sanctorum, and the Golden Legend. The leitmotif is the old Panofskian endeavor to illuminate the paintings with the appropriate texts, but Sauerländer goes further in developing an emphatic understanding of the visual expression. By and large this is convincingly applied to the well-known pictures of the Jesuit saints, St. Teresa of Ávila, and St. Francis.
Occasionally, the observations and interpretations could be more precisely focused. Look, for example, at the woman kneeling beneath the cross in the Crucifixion of St. Andrew in Madrid. It is tempting, Sauerländer argues, to identify her as Maximilla, the wife of Aegeas, the Roman proconsul in charge of the execution. But what is she doing here? Her gesture can hardly be interpreted as beseeching mercy for St. Andrew, which, after all, is not mentioned in hagiographic literature, and which would be too late, anyway, since the saint is already represented in triumph over martyrdom. The Golden Legend only mentions that Maximilla buried the saint, and therefore, in the painting, her function is limited to ask for the dead body, which her husband, with a generous gesture, is granting to her.
In the painting for the high-altar of St. Livinus in Ghent (now in Brussels), erected for the millennium of his martyrdom in 1633, a certain Walbertus has just pulled the tongue of the early medieval bishop from his mouth and is dropping it to the dogs. Although not a lethal torture (a rude surgery, rather than a cruel massacre, “grausiges Gemetzel” p. 169), it was immediately followed by divine intervention represented by two angels above in the clouds, one of them holding two thunderbolts destined to burn to ashes the tumultuous scenery of evildoers surrounding the saint. Meanwhile, Livinus, with spread arms, gazes up to receive the symbols of glory over martyrdom, a palm leaf and a laurel crown carried by two cherubs. As Sauerländer rightly points out, the subsequent miracle, namely the restoration of the tongue as reported in the saint’s legend, is not represented in this painting. But is it meant to be understood implicitly? I do not think so, because the principle message of the painting is that the torture essential to the saint’s importance – his eloquence – is revenged by merciless divine punishment. The final decapitation was represented in one of the narrative scenes from the life of the saint by Gerard Seghers, which were hung above the pillars in the nave of the church, thus recalling the apparatus of Roman canonizations and assigning the local saint an official ceremonial ambience.
As to the late Martyrdom of St. Peter in Cologne, it is not possible that the knees of the saint buckle under the weight of his corpse hanging upside down, as Sauerländer (p. 234) would like to have it, since gravity is acting in the opposite direction. Rather than suffering with pious devotion, the saint is rearing up against the henchman who is wrestling down his left arm – with a clenched fist – to be nailed to the transom of the cross. Apparently, this last attempt to struggle against the crucifixion – which is lacking in the well-known Italian paintings – was made in a moment of disbelief when the saint was not yet aware of his triumph over martyrdom. He is looking toward the lower right, where his clothes are lying on the ground, and in this position he is unable to see the angel with the palm leaf and the laurel crown hovering along from behind the trunk of the cross.
These and other minor precisions notwithstanding, Sauerländer’s profoundly erudite and powerfully eloquent book clearly shows that Rubens was deeply imbued with catholic doctrine, forming the base of his spectacular paintings. No wonder that the artist could hardly be “everybody’s darling” – neither for his confession, nor for his aesthetics – in spite of self-confidently believing that he “should be very welcome everywhere” (letter of January 10, 1625).
Jörg Martin Merz
Westfälische Wilhelms-Universiät, Münster