This is an excellent catalogue of an exemplary show which studies the evolution of Rubens’s Adoration of the Magi. The painting, now in the Prado, was commissioned for the Antwerp Town Hall in 1609, then given to a Spanish diplomat, Rodrigo Calderón, in 1613, then revised by Rubens himself in 1628/9, when, after Calderón’s disgrace, it entered the royal collection. Conveniently there is a copy of the painting as it was in 1609 (London, private collection). The catalogue includes a detailed technical examination made during its recent restoration, which shows that almost all the painting was modified by Rubens in a way that sometimes subtly, sometimes substantially, changed the impact of the painting. Only the kneeling king (and even he has had a few tailoring adjustments to his cuff) and his page are unchanged. Much of the catalogue is devoted to mapping and interpreting these changes, which offer invaluable insights into the artist’s own reassessment of his painting.
In his essay in the volume, Joost Vander Auwera uses new archival material to show how Rubens’s painting was originally destined for the south wall of the state room in the Antwerp Town Hall and was finished, he suspects, before the signing of the truce on 9 April 1609 and certainly before January 1610. (Given the present taste for black frames it is worth noting an original gold frame is documented.) This location suggests that Rubens painting was lit with morning sunlight from the left and approached from the right. The painting certainly does seem to have an off-right principal view, which accords with this placement in the room. On the opposite wall was Abraham Janssen’sAllegory of Antwerp and the River Scheldt (Antwerp, Royal Museum). Both paintings were surrounded by portraits of the dukes of Brabant, reinforcing the right of the Habsburg archdukes Albert and Isabella to rule the city – with the aid of the Virgin, Antwerp’s protector.
The authors interpret the porters on the right of the painting and the Magi themselves as representing trade, and thus having a special significance for Antwerp (see Dan Ewing’s article in the forthcoming volume of essays accompanying the exhibition Extravagant. A Forgotten Chapter of Antwerp Painting, Antwerp and Maastricht, 2005-06, in: Jaarboek Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, 2004-05.) I suspect however, that depictions of the Adoration of the Magi were particularly informed by the Renaissance tradition of grand formal entrances to cities with impressive entourages, and the many examples of Italian Adorations support this view. What is certain is that Rubens’s treatment is distinctive. Vergara rightly casts a large net to interpret the imagery ranging from antique statues and reliefs through Rubens’s life drawings to works by Elsheimer and Michelangelo.
Rubens’s 1609 version of the Prado Adoration was emphatically relief-like in its layout. This characteristic seems to be more than an imitation of the Antwerp taste for painted wooden sculpture. Rather, here we have Rubens’s antiquarian interest in ancient Roman sarcophagi projected into paint. In his reworking of the picture in 1628 it is notable that he allows a little more diagonal emphasis, and there is further breaking into the foreground relief to create pictorial depth but the artist remains true to his original conception. Curiously, although Rubens was anxious to update his finish to a softer, more Titian-like style, he also sought to retain the integrity of the original concept, even to the extent of repositioning elements such as the camel driver to the right in the extended canvas. The c.1613 Caledonian Boar Hunt(recently acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum and reproduced on the title-page of this issue) provides an interesting parallel; that picture is forced into the mould of a classical relief of the same subject, and Rubens was evidently satisfied with the composition, which essentially he retained in a later version (Vienna). It is interesting that the reconstructions of ancient paintings that Rubens made for the decoration of the façade of his own house were also reminiscent of ancient relief compositions, just as his early mythologies are inspired by ancient sarcophagi. The Adoration should be read as an ancient Roman composition recast in a Christian context.
Of course, like all of Rubens’s compositions, the work is informed by his wide interest in post-antique sources, especially Renaissance ones. Vergara draws attention to the motif of the horse bending its head to its lifted left leg, which Rubens introduced into his expanded composition in1628 and which he took from Titian’s Adoration of the Magi(Escorial, Monastero di San Lorenzo). He also finds the Venetian’s influence in the standing porter. In the latter case the inspiration is literally copied from Raphael – at least via a Marcantonio print (Man Carrying Base of Column [The Illustrated Bartsch,vol. 27, p. 148-9]), but we can imagine many routes for this transmission to Rubens. Heroically athletic porters were, somewhat oddly, employed in the foreground of High Renaissance and Mannerist paintings following Raphael’s Coronation of Charlemagne to funnel the eye to the principal action in the middle distance. Instead Rubens uses them to advertize his admiration of the Herculean physiques of antiquity and Michelangelo. So excited is he by this aspect that he even forgets to clothe one of them in the oil-sketch for the painting. The back of the man unloading the camel who has been moved to the right is again from an ancient Roman source. A workshop copy of a Rubens drawing shows this is directly based on the antique statue of Two Wrestlers in the Uffizi (M. van der Meulen, Corpus Rubenianum, fig. 177). These minor observations only further emphasize the profound influence of Rubens’s Italian trip on his painting.
The catalogue has numerous and useful details of the Prado painting. One only misses a reproduction of the didactic photograph included in the exhibition which traced out the infrared scan of the Capture of Samson (Chicago, The Art Institute); this has Rubens’s first draft of the Adoration of the Magi underneath the paint layer of the Old Testament scene. But this is indeed little to complain of in an otherwise excellent publication. It is hard to think of a better survey of a single work.
National Gallery, London