The most recent addition to the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard by Valerie Herremans examines Rubens’s engagement with architectural sculpture. This book complements the previous volume of the Corpus Rubenianun, which considered Rubens’s varied contributions to the Jesuit Church in Antwerp. Architectural sculptures in the Jesuit Church are referenced in this present text – and indeed many of the same collaborations with other artists in Antwerp artists such as Hans van Mildert recur in other contexts. The focus of the current volume, however, remains on other examples of Rubens’s creations of architectural sculpture, the theoretical underpinnings of this work, and the artist’s development as a designer in this domain.
As Herremans discusses at the beginning of this volume, the category of architectural sculpture is difficult to define, often comprising ornament on buildings as well as architecture with figural sculpture on it. Herremans’s consideration of Rubens’s oeuvre also includes architecture within architecture, expanding the notion of architectural sculpture to describe not only the buildings, but also their interior furnishings. Inside the church, this understanding encompasses designs for altars and memorials. Rubens’s production of architectural sculpture ranged from overall designs for altar surrounds, complementing his own paintings, as well as partial designs that could be incorporated into distinct projects. The study of Rubens’s architectural sculpture is complicated by the disconnect between surviving, drawn designs for works and remaining examples of architectural sculpture. Yet, as this book demonstrates, architectural sculpture was a key aspect of Rubens’s oeuvre.
This book identifies three concepts that provide a framework for understanding Rubens’s architectural sculpture: imitatio, disegno, and ornamento. Each of these is understood in the context of Rubens’s broader artistic practice as well as the shifting understanding of the arts in Antwerp in the seventeenth century. Rubens’s designs for architectural sculpture are linked to his understanding of the significance of sculpture more generally. For Rubens, the “best” sculptures, whether they dated from Roman antiquity or from the seventeenth century, were fundamental to the education of painters who should copy them. Sculpture was something to study and inspire painters.
One of Herremans primary arguments is that disegno explains his vast production of designs for sculpture and architecture and provides the understanding for Rubens as a practitioner of architectural sculpture. While drawing was a basis for designing sculptural projects, sculptors in the Low Countries did not regularly produce those kinds of drawings until the end of the seventeenth century. Instead, painters often provided the drawings and sketches for sculptural ensembles. This led to conflict over the control of the design of sculptural compositions. In addition to painters like Rubens, some sculptors began to offer their own designs. In particular, the De Nole family, also based in Antwerp, sought to challenge painters’ supremacy over drawn designs. Although disegno was not as clearly defined in the Low Countries as it was in Italy in this period, the question of the hierarchy of the arts appeared in the Southern Netherlands. At stake was the status of sculptors, especially those working in stone. Sculptors who carved wood had traditionally belonged to the Guild of St. Luke, whereas those who chiseled stone – the main medium for architectural sculpture – were members of the Guild of the Four Crowned Saints, that of the stonemasons. As Herremans articulates, the profession of the sculptor was in the process of redefinition as a result of this division by medium, as sculptors in stone sought to elevate themselves above the stonemasons. Such as a professional disassociation echoed the division of the liberal and the mechanical arts. Rubens could fill the gap between drawing and sculpting, collaborating with carvers to provide designs.
Rubens described the architectural sculpture that he designed as ornamento. As Herremans argues, ornamento also expresses the motivations for the addition of three-dimensional elements to altars and buildings. Ornament, as a frame and enhancement of architecture could beautify a building as well as provide a sense of majesty. Such decoration had to accord with the status of the owner or of the use of the structure. The addition of architectural sculpture was directed by decorum, a quality important to the decoration of both ecclesiastical settings and of private homes.
The next section of this book offers an overview of Rubens’s design practice, highlighting his key output in architectural sculpture. Chief among his early works are his designs for the Kapellekerk in Brussels (1617–18), and his design (never executed) for the surrounds of the high altar in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent; these demonstrated his growing ambitions in designing architectural sculpture. His increasing interest in creating such sculptural programs coincided with his related work in other media, especially designs for title pages and triumphal arches. Collaboration and competition with sculptors characterized Rubens’s architectural sculpture. Rubens also worked closely with sculptors, especially the Antwerp-based Hans van Mildert. Yet, he also found himself in competition with sculptors, such as the De Nole family who ultimately carried out the commission for the Ghent high altar, without reference to Rubens’s design. Rubens, however, could stand out in an increasingly competitive landscape for architectural sculpture. Not only might he provide his patrons with both a painted altarpiece and the surrounds to go with it, but he was further able to offer patrons designs that were painted in color. A patron could thus imagine the complete installation, incorporating both painted and sculpted components.
Rubens’s language of architectural sculpture was heavily influenced by Italian designs. Michelangelo’s work in particular, proved especially influential to Rubens, a connection first described by Anthony Blunt. Yet publications, such as Jacques Francart’s Premier Livre d’Architecture in 1617, also shaped Rubens’s output. Drawing on these sources, Rubens formulated his own architectural vocabulary, distinguished by groupings of Solomonic columns with fluting on the bottom, as well as broken, S-shaped segmented pediments, and niches for figural sculptures. Reuse of discrete elements was common; designs for the church of the Calced Carmelites, for instance, incorporated aspects of his designs for the earlier Jesuit Church in Antwerp. Such a practice was common among painters as well as other sculptor-architects such as Hans and Cornelis van Mildert who similarly reused parts of their older compositions. Following Rubens’s death, his legacy in architectural sculpture was extended by his students and their circle. The sculptor Lucas Faydherbe, who famously trained in the painter’s workshop, incorporated facets of his master’s architectural sculpture in his own designs, such as a double elevation portico. Artus Quellinus I and Artus Quellinus II, too, drew on Rubens’s designs for their own compositions, with which they may have become familiar, as Herremans suggests, through Erasmus Quellinus II. Rubens’s legacy can be seen, for instance, in Artus Quellinus II’s design for the altar for the Schermers Guild in Antwerp Cathedral. In this manner, Rubens’s contributions to architectural sculpture were taken up throughout the Southern Netherlands.
The volume concludes with a catalogue raisonné of Rubens’s architectural sculpture, encompassing both surviving examples, designs, and lost works known through other means, such as prints. Divided into the categories of altars, sepulchral monuments, and other designs for architectural sculpture, the catalogue presents clear evidence for the breadth of Rubens’s involvement in architectural sculpture. Appendices provide useful documentary evidence, including letters by Rubens and descriptions of lost monuments.
Overall, this volume is a very valuable addition to the study of Rubens and of sculpture in the Southern Netherlands. It will be useful to scholars not only of the artist, but also any interested in artistic practices across media. This book contributes to the understanding of the status of the arts and intermedial collaborations in the seventeenth-century Low Countries.
Elizabeth Rice Mattison
University of Toronto