Rubens’s Adoration of the Magi, today in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, originally hung in the Hall of the States in Antwerp’s Town Hall where the Twelve Year Truce between the United Provinces and Flanders was negotiated. It was possibly the earliest commission Rubens received from the city in 1609-10, largely thanks to the support of his friend and important patron, Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640). (According to new research by Joost Vander Auwera, to be published in the forthcoming book on the Prado painting, Rubens apparently painted the Adoration in 1609). Soon thereafter, in 1612, the city of Antwerp presented the picture to the Spanish Ambassador, Rodrigo Calderón, Count of Oliva, who was one of the most influential men in Spain under Philip III and a favorite of the Duke of Lerma, whose equestrian portrait Rubens had painted in 1603. After Calderón fell from grace during the reign of Philip IV and was executed in 1621, the picture entered the Spanish Royal collection. There Rubens reworked it during his stay in 1628-29 when he resided briefly in Madrid, ostensibly on a diplomatic mission to participate on behalf of the Infanta Isabella (Philip IV’s aunt) in peace negotiations between Spain and England.
Although the painting, its commission, history and iconography remain the focus of this small publication, Hans Ost also discusses Rubens as a painter and diplomat, Theodoor van Thulden’s Allegory of Antwerp(today in the museum in La Valletta, Malta) that replaced the Adoration of the Magi in its original room in the Antwerp Town Hall, and the historical situation in Europe and especially Spain in the 1620s. He further follows the opinion of Steven N. Orso (Philip IV and the Decoration of the Alcázar in Madrid, Princeton, 1986) that the eight paintings dispatched to Spain in July 1628, which the Infanta had commissioned from Rubens, were exempla of princely virtue.
When Rubens arrived in Madrid in September 1628 he revisited hisAdoration of the Magi that he had painted twenty years earlier. What prompted him to rework and greatly enlarge the canvas is unknown. Was it damaged and needed repair? And what made him include a self-portrait, he, who rarely depicted himself compared for example to Rembrandt? Rubens probably was the one who suggested this project to Philip IV because such a drastic alteration of the original surely could only be undertaken with the latter’s permission. The king was well acquainted with Rubens and apparently visited his studio in the Alcázar often to watch him paint.
The aim of Hans Ost was to interpret in the present study the changes Rubens introduced in his reworking of the original canvas and to place them in the context of the later years, 1628-29. In his opinion, the references to the theme of war and peace are found throughout the composition. It was the time of the 80-years war and peace would not come until 1648 with the signing of the treaty of Münster. Furthermore, the work was now part of the Spanish Royal collection and hung in the private quarters of the King, another reason a change might have been welcome.
Rubens enlarged the original canvas of his Adoration by about 73 percent, adding to the top and the right of the painting. The statuesque magus in a red mantle now marks the center of the composition. At the right, on the addition, the artist included his own portrait as a knight on horseback. A youth guiding a horse appears at the lower right and the camels in the background become more pronounced, including the men unloading the gifts. The artist also changed the old man standing behind the majestic magus in the center into a youth, facing to the left and tending the king his hat. Behind the Holy Family, in the painting at the left, Rubens introduced a large column and an ivy tree whose branches grow into a larger roof covered with sheaths of reeds above. This large column is here interpreted as the column of peace reminiscent of the one from the Templum Pacis in Rome, today erected on the Piazza S. Maria Maggiore. Since it is placed directly behind the Holy Family the simpler interpretation of the Virgin symbolizing the pillar of the Church might be preferable, as Vergara suggests.*
Hans Ost further reminds the reader that the broken spider web that Rubens inserted in a wall opening to the left of the column recalls the teaching of Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) who compared the art of weaving with humanist thinking.
Rubens’s changes can be studied in detail in a comparison with an old copy of c.1610 in a private collection. This version, included in 2003 in David Jaffé’s rotating Rubens exhibition in the National Gallery, London, is conveniently reproduced next to the Prado painting for easy comparison, although in black and white only. Rubens actually not only changed the composition but also the color of the dress of the Virgin, for example. (David Jaffé and Amanda Bradley. Rubens. Massacre of the Innocents, London [Apollo Magazine Publication], 2003, p. 16).
When Rubens inserted a self-portrait he actually represented himself not at the age of fifty-one – when he did the repainting – but at the much younger age of thirty-one or two, when he created the original work (and without a hat). He also displays his gifts that elevated him above the rank of an artist: the gold chain he is wearing was a present from the archdukes in 1609 and the sword he received in 1624 from the Infanta as a sign of ennoblement. According to Hans Ost the artist now included his two sons, Nicolaas (in the head in the center behind the standing Magus) and Albert (in the youth next to the horse in the right foreground). Rubens, who was widowed since 1626, when his wife Isabella Brant died, had left them behind in Antwerp in the care of a close friend, Gaspar Gevaerts (Gevartius). Although there is no proof to this, the artist might indeed have remembered their features. (The drawing in the Albertina, Vienna [inv.no. 8266], with which Hans Ost compares the head of the youth behind the majestic magus, while similar, is only called Nicolaas because it resembles Rubens’s secure portrait study of his younger son, also in the Albertina [inv.no. 17648]). Whether the artist actually took drawings of his sons with him to Spain is mere conjecture; Rubens had a very good memory. Equally speculative is the elaboration on a drawing in the Institut Néerlandais, Paris, representing a Kneeling Youth. It is a design for a funerary monument that was originally attributed to Erasmus Quellinus (1607-78). In 1965 Justus Müller Hofstede saw in the drawing a typical work of Rubens, an opinion that has found few followers, although Hans Ost accepts it and dates the study to Rubens’s months in England, 1629-30. According to him Rubens here created a design for a funerary monument for his ailing older son Albert (1614-57), who at that time was gravely ill in Antwerp. (See for the drawing now also Ulrich Heinen in Peter Paul Rubens. Barocke Leidenschaften. Exh. cat. Braunschweig, 2004, no. 55, ill. in color). While the study has Rubenesque aspects, several details speak against his authorship in my opinion. For one, Rubens seldom used red chalk for compositional studies but vastly preferred pen and brown ink and some wash. In the late 1620s, early 1630s oil sketches predominate. It is also debatable whether Rubens – the diplomat of peace, as Ost calls him – would have represented his son as a knight in armor. All in all, it may be a nice idea but as long as the attribution of the drawing is in doubt, hardly defendable.
This challenging book, therefore, raises many questions whose answers often lie in the eye of the beholder. The publication is well illustrated with several details in color to facilitate following the author’s arguments.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
*The reviewer would like to thank Alexander (Alejandro) Vergara for sharing his forthcoming essay on the painting which has recently been restored. It will appear at the end of November 2004, to accompany an exhibition around the painting.