This book summarizes for a general audience the findings of Gregory Martin’s two-volume The Ceiling Decoration of the Banqueting House( Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Part XV, London and Turnhout, 2006), the most substantial study to date of Rubens’s monumental tribute to James I. It begins by describing how the commission came about and situating it within the context of Rubens’s career in the 1620s and early 1630s. The artist was first approached about the project by the English Catholic courtier Sir Tobie Matthew in 1621, during negotiations for the so-called Spanish Match between Charles Prince of Wales and a daughter of Philip III. Discussions between the English court and Rubens continued into 1623 and a preliminary plan for the contents of the ceiling was apparently drawn up before the collapse of marriage negotiations temporarily scuttled the project. Rubens had meanwhile begun work on a second monumental commission for a cycle of paintings commemorating the French Queen Mother, Marie de’ Medici, in her residence, the Palais du Luxembourg. When he traveled to Paris to oversee the installation of these paintings in 1625, Rubens encountered the English royal favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, who had come for the proxy celebration of Charles’s marriage to Marie’s daughter Henrietta Maria. Although there is no evidence that discussion of the Whitehall project resumed at this date, Rubens did paint several canvases for Buckingham. He also became acquainted with the Duke’s architect and purchasing agent, Sir Balthazar Gerbier, with whom he carried on a correspondence in 1627 in a futile effort to initiate back-channel negotiations to end the Anglo-Spanish war that had started two years earlier.
In March of 1628 Rubens received a visit from the Earl of Carlisle, a prominent member of Charles I’s court. Martin believes Rubens, in response to Carlisle’s suggestion that the English were again interested in procuring his services, may have drawn up a plan for seven of the nine Banqueting House panels, executed in grisaille and designated by Martin as the Multiple Bozzetto (Tate, London). A short time later Rubens traveled to Madrid for an eight month visit, during which he may have helped persuade the Spanish government to initiate negotiations for a truce with Britain. In any case Philip IV sent Rubens to London with the mission of preparing the ground for a resumption of full diplomatic relations. He arrived in early June 1629, taking up lodgings with Gerbier at York House, then the residence of the Duchess of Buckingham, following the assassination of her husband a short time before. Martin reviews the impressions of Charles I and his court Rubens conveyed in his dispatches to Spain, along with the works of art he would have seen in the collections of the King and court nobility. Rubens engaged in many remarkably frank conversations with Charles, who seemed eager for a Spanish alliance. The arrival of an accredited Spanish ambassador in January 1630 officially ended the artist’s mission but for unknown reasons he stayed in London for an additional two months. At his departure Charles bestowed upon him a knighthood and gifts valued at £500, unmistakable signs of favor.
While in London Rubens painted or began painting several canvases, including Minerva Restraining Mars, now in the National Gallery, a portrait of Gerbier’s wife and children (Washington, National Galleryof Art) and a Landscape with St. George and the Dragon (H.M. The Queen). Martin devotes a chapter to these works before turning to a detailed consideration of the planning and execution of the Whitehall commission. We do not know how many preliminary schemes were drawn up and discussed, but two detailed programs, or ‘projects’ as they were then called, survive, giving verbal descriptions of the proposed panels. Martin points out that they are the earliest detailed prescriptions for an English work of art to come down to us and reproduces them in an appendix. The first ‘project’ may date from James’s lifetime, although it was later altered to refer to him in the past tense. It called for a central oval panel commemorating the union of England and Scotland at his accession, and two large central rectangular panels celebrating his dedication to peace and the promotion of the arts. The second ‘project’, which probably dates from early in Charles’s reign, retained the theme of the central panel but substituted a more complex iconography in the two rectangular compartments. One would have shown James, guided by religion and concord, rejecting war while embracing wisdom and justice, while in the other he was taken aloft by angels to a heaven populated by royal exemplars and bathed in divine light. Flanking oval panels would have contained portraits of the four evangelists.
Subsequently Rubens compiled the Multiple Bozzetto, now in the Tate, drawing on both projects and translating them into pictorial form. Here for the first time the central panel shows James ascending toward heaven. Rubens had to study James’s physiognomy from portraits and familiarise himself with details of the English robes and liveries of the figures depicted in the panel. Martin points out that the scale of the canvases, the need for foreshortening to accommodate their placement above viewers’ heads, the complexity of the iconographical scheme made the Banqueting House commission one of the most complicated and challenging of the artist’s career. It seems to have been worked out in four phases, culminating in an Overall Modello for the entire work submitted in 1632 and probably burnt in the fire of 1698 which destroyed the entire Palace of Whitehall except for the Banqueting Hall and Holbein Gate. Once the design had been fully worked out Rubens must have turned over the majority of the work of actually painting the canvases to studio assistants in Antwerp, although it is likely that he retouched some details. The completed series was delivered to London in late 1635.
The iconography of the Banqueting House ceiling has been much discussed in twentieth-century scholarship but Martin offers his own detailed analysis. The central panel shows James born upward toward heaven by Jupiter’s eagle, guided by a personification of Divine Justice and accompanied by other figures, two of whom present him with leafy crowns corresponding to those awarded in ancient Rome to victorious commanders and leaders who saved a life through an act of mercy. Martin sees this as a ‘highly original composition,’ probably devised by Rubens, which combined ‘the two vehicles of a Roman, classical triumph and of an apotheosis to convey the traditional, monarchic credo that a king was answerable only to God for his actions’ (129). The panel installed over the throne celebrates James’s wisdom and his role as a peacemaker. The king stands between massive Solomonic columns, emphasizing his role as ‘the British Solomon,’ while beneath him figures representing Peace and Plenty embrace on the right of the canvas, while on the left Minerva and Mercury, symbolizing wisdom and eloquence, expel Mars and his companion, Furor. The third large panel shows James commanding Minerva to tie together the crowns of England and Scotland with a cord that symbolizes matrimony, while an infant prince tramples on weapons that are set ablaze by the Genius of Friendship. Four corner oval panels depict the virtues and mental attributes that assure the triumph of Stuart rule over adversity: Hercules beats down Civil Discord, Minerva pinions Ignorance; Temperance bridles Intemperance, while Apollo conquers Ignorance. Two long panels show putti carrying cornucopia and fruit, symbolizing peace and plenty under James’s rule.
Martin insists that the ceiling does not celebrate Stuart absolutism because James is portrayed in his Parliament robes, arguing instead that ‘[…] the ceiling decoration expressed in an idealized way the traditional, aspirational view of kingship, all powerful but bound by the law of the land and Christian dictates and at one with the English political nation’ (127) and its parliamentary institutions. But the robes shown were actually those used in royal coronations. Although kings did wear their coronation robes when opening Parliament these garments symbolized their sacrality and sovereignty more than specifically parliamentary functions. Although Martin is right to argue that Stuart views of Parliament were more complex and nuanced than historians used to allow, it is clear that by 1629 Charles’s relations with his parliaments had broken down. The parliamentary character of English monarchy would therefore seem an odd theme to emphasize in a work he had commissioned. The themes emphasized in Rubens’s work seem broadly similar to those found elsewhere in the court iconography of the 1630s: the divine right of the Stuarts to rule Britain, their providentially ordained union of Scotland and England and the virtues – such as eloquence, piety and prudence – that enable them to preserve the kingdom’s peace amidst a war-torn Europe. Parliament is not dismissed or denigrated so much as ignored.
This objection aside, Martin’s book makes a valuable contribution, particularly for the meticulous way it examines the surviving evidence of the evolution of the Whitehall commission. A handy chronological table, useful appendices and an abundance of well-chosen illustrations add to its utility, while the author’s lucid writing and care in explaining the political and diplomatic background will make it thoroughly accessible to non-specialists.
University of Massachusetts
May I take issue with Professor Smuts’s central point – his objection – in his review of my Rubens in London: Art and Diplomacy, posted above? He states that James I in the Banqueting Hall ceiling is shown wearing his ‘coronation robes …[which] symbolized their [ = the wearers’] sacrality and sovereignty…. .’ Valerie Cumming (‘great Vanity and Excesse in Apparell…,’ in: The Late King’s Goods, ed. A MacGregor, 1989, pp. 326-27) has summarized what James I wore at his coronation. There were four different sets of garments: the first for the procession into Westminster Abbey and for the early part of the ceremony; the second to receive unction; the third in which he was crowned; and the fourth for departure from the Abbey. James may not actually have worn what was specified for the second, ‘the Tunica or Shirte of redd silke’, preferring a ‘doublet and hose of white satten’ (TheCoronation Order of King James I., ed J. Wickham Legg, 1902, p. xlviii ), but this and the third set, ‘the Robes of Kinge Edward the Confessor’, were those in which he was endowed with ‘sacrality’ and sovereignty.
Contemporary accounts describe the first costume as a ‘coat of crimson lined with ermine’ and the fourth as ‘purple velvet robes’ (Wickham Legg, op. cit., pp. lxx and lxxx). They are referred to as ‘Parliament-Robes’ and (the fourth set) as ‘Robes of Estate’ by F. Sandford in his History of the Coronation of … James II … 1685, 1687, p. 22. As Alan Mansfield, Ceremonial Costume, 1980, pp. 2 and 4, has stated whereas the upper nobility in this period had different robes for coronations and parliaments, the King had no coronation robes per se, but the crimson, Parliamentary robes, and purple Robes of Estate indicated above. These were worn before and after the anointing and coronation. In my view it is fully justifiable to describe the costume worn by James I in the ceiling of the Banqueting Hall as his Parliamentary robes.
For an interview with Gregory Martin by Elizabeth McGrath, see The Rubenianum Quarterly, 2012: 1 ( www.rubenianum.be)