This beautifully produced two-volume addition to the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard is dominated by the large number of representations of the Adoration of the Magi and the Adoration of the Shepherds. The numerous depictions of these popular Counter-Reformation subjects, which Rubens portrayed at every stage of his career, present closely related but differing treatments of the themes. Responding to tradition but inventively modifying motifs and introducing new ones, Rubens created works that vividly conveyed the significance of the mystery of the Incarnation and Christ’s sacrifice.
In addition to the splendid quality of the reproductions and the wealth of comparative images, the catalogue entries provide a thorough documentation of the works (provenance, preparatory drawings, oil sketches, and copies in all media) and visual analysis of each work. Particularly valuable is the discussion of the various opinions regarding attribution that appear in the literature. As connoisseurship figures increasingly less prominently in the art historical literature, these analyses are especially appreciated. A rare instance of an omission occurs in the entry on the Brussels Adoration of the Magi (No. 39, Fig. 141), which the museum considers the work of Rubens and studio and, contrary to the authors’ opinion that Van Dyck’s hand cannot be clearly detected (198), specifies which passages of the painting are evidence of the latter’s involvement (Rubens: A Genius at Work. The Works of Peter Paul Rubens in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium Reconsidered, Brussels 2007-08, p. 175). Not having the confidence to pronounce on such thorny issues of connoisseurship, I will refrain from doing so.
The strength of the entries can be demonstrated by those that consider what the authors term the ‘Fermo group’, depictions of the Adoration of the Shepherds that display a marked similarity to the painting in Fermo (No. 8, Fig. 23). These include a drawing of two figures (No. 8a, Fig. 25), the oil sketch in St. Petersburg (No. 8b, Fig. 27), a painting once in the Armand Hammer Museum of Art in Los Angeles and now in a private collection (No. 9, Fig. 28), the picture in the St. Paul’s Church in Antwerp (No. 10 , Figs. 31, 32 ), a lost work known through copies, the best of which is in the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna (No. 11, Copy 1, Fig. 33), and an oil sketch in the Rubenshuis (No. 12, Fig. 36). The authors’ discussion of the Fermo altarpiece provides the reader with a mini essay on Rubens’s encounter with Italian art and specifically the work of Raphael and, most significantly, Correggio. However, it is their examination of the various figures and motifs that the artist designed and employed sometimes with little variation in this group of pictures that provides the most distinctive contribution. In the close consideration of the network of relationships among oil sketches, drawings, paintings and copies based on lost works we have not only a demonstration of Rubens’s working practice but a convincing reconstruction of a lost work. Figuring in that reconstruction is the discussion of a drawing that forms part of the so-called ‘Rubens Cantoor’, a group of copy drawings in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, reminding us of how Rubens preserved and made use of works in the invention of future projects.
This focus on style characterizes the authors’ approach throughout the volume, occasionally leading them to present only the common interpretation of the subject without probing the inclusion of particular motifs, which Rubens employed to enrich the meaning of the work and/or engage the beholder. For example, in their discussion of the Rubenshuis Annunciation (No. 3, Fig. 8) the authors explain the prominently placed sewing basket in the foreground as one of a number of features that reflect the Early Netherlandish tradition of depicting the scene in a domestic setting, but, noting the lack of defined background, assert that Rubens “deliberately chose not to reduce the image to an interior scene” (37). However, close examination reveals part of the frame of a bed behind the Virgin and a cushion that is visible directly above her hand, features that can be found much more clearly portrayed in the Vienna Annunciation and in a similar position (No. 1, Fig. 1).
Comparison with earlier works, such as Roger van der Weyden’s Louvre Annunciation, suggest the significance of these features. The bed draped in red directly behind the Virgin references the miraculous union taking place, and the crystal vase, like the stoppered flask, symbolizes Mary’s perpetual virginity (Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, New York, 1971, pp. 144, 254). The sewing basket, which appears in numerous seventeenth-century Annunciations (e.g. engraving by Jacques de Gheyn II after Abraham Bloemaert), can be explained by consulting Jerome Nadal’s influential Annotations and Meditations on the Gospels, 1595 (Frederick A. Homann, S.J. [trans.], vol. 1: The Infancy Narratives, Philadelphia, 2003, p. 107), a work with which Rubens was familiar (David Freedberg, “A Source for Rubens’s Modello of the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin: A Case Study in the Response to Images, Burlington Magazine 120, 1978, pp. 432-441). As Nadal explains, the materials in the basket remind one of the work of the Virgin, who clothes the Word of God with her flesh (107). The cat, however, has no place in these scenes, and I can only speculate that Rubens may have included it as reference to carnal desire and hence original sin over which the Incarnate Word will triumph. The fact that the cat sleeps in the presence of divinity, in marked contrast to the alert dog in the Rubenshuis Adoration of the Shepherds (No. 12, Fig. 36) and to the ox in numerous representations of the same subject, perhaps simply figures a failure to sense the miraculous event.
The use of animals to represent responsiveness or lack thereof is common in Netherlandish representations of adoration and nativity scenes and is explicitly noted by Nadal. In his annotations accompanying the Nativity, which portrays both animals gazing at the radiant Christ Child, he states that they turn their heads to manger “as though sensing that the stable saw an unprecedented event” (130). Rubens, however, follows the Netherlandish tradition and generally shows the ox as attentive while depicting the ass in the background eating (e.g. Figs. 52-53, 57-59) or paired with the ox in the foreground but turning away (e.g. Figs. 41-43, 54-55). Panofsky, who provides an overview of the various meanings symbolized by the ox and ass in text and image, writes that while both animals are presumed to recognize Christ’s divinity, they are not generally portrayed as equally worshipful in fifteenth-century painting, as the ox had come to be identified with the Gentiles and the more materialistic ass with the Jews (470). Rubens varied representations of the animals, whatever their perceived symbolism, are employed to enhance the mystery of the Incarnation. Their contrasting responses prompt the viewer to focus on the theme of recognition of the miracle.
A desire to emphasize Christ’s sacrifice leads to a reversal of roles that occurs in Rubens’s drawing of the Adoration of the Shepherds, Vorsterman’s engraving and related works (Nos. 14, 15, Figs. 46-51). Here Rubens represents the ox, an animal associated with sacrifice, lying on the ground with the other offerings placed in front of a sheaf of wheat and below the altar-like manger. Like the lamb placed beneath Christ in Frans Floris’s Adoration of the Shepherds (Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten) and the ox in the Antwerp Adoration of the Magi (Barbara Haeger, “Rubens’s Adoration of the Magi and the program for the high altar of St. Michael’s Abbey,”Simiolus 25, 1997, pp. 55-58), it must be intended to draw attention to Christ sacrifice. Such a reading reinforces the authors’ interpretation of the scene as alluding to Christ’s future Resurrection and victory over the devil, symbolized respectively by the eggs and spider’s web (No. 15, pp. 78-79).
Because they testify to Rubens’s varied inflection of the meaning of the biblical events he portrays as well as to his inventiveness and ability to enrich the beholder’s experience and understanding of the works, these features are worthy of such scrutiny. That the authors occasionally do not sufficiently explore the programmatic implications of such elements is an indication of their overriding priority, which is to thoroughly document these works (no small undertaking, indeed), and to demonstrate how admirably Rubens fulfilled the aims of the Counter-Reformation Church by portraying the scenes of Christ’s life before the Passion in clear and often dynamic compositions that vividly present the events in a way that speaks directly to the viewer and convey key religious truths. In this they have certainly succeeded.
The Ohio State University