Peter Paul Rubens’s extensive engagement with the Jesuit Church of Antwerp is the subject of the new book by Ria Fabri and Piet Lombarde, the latest addition to the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard. The authors acknowledge that they profited substantially from Frans Baudouin’s manuscript on the subject left unpublished at his death in 2005. It is well known that Rubens supplied the Jesuit Church with numerous paintings: thirty-nine canvasses for the ceiling of its double-story aisles and two large altarpieces of St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier, which were alternated in place above the high altar (respectively, CRLB, I, by John Rupert Martin, 1968, and VIII, by Hans Vlieghe, 1972). Rubens’s efforts did not stop with these contributions, however. He was variously involved with the planning of the architecture and especially the sculptural decoration, for which he made several drawings. We may also presume that he was in conversation with the two principal architects of the church, François de Aguilón and Pieter Huyssens.
The Antwerp Church was the most prominent example of Rubens’s collaboration with the Jesuits. The painter had received commissions from the order while on his Italian journey: in Mantua in 1604-05 and Genoa in 1606, and he renewed his relationship with the Jesuits once back in the Low Countries.
This book by Fabri and Lombaerde raises a number of important issues that transcend the question of Rubens’s precise involvement in the development of the Jesuit Church. The authors discuss the nature of both architecture and sculpture in the early seventeenth century and their relation to painting. Rubens was unusual but not unique in his engagement with these two media. We might think of the role that Friedrich Sustris played in the slightly earlier development of the Jesuit Church in Munich, along with sculptors such as the Netherlander Hubert Gerhard. Painters, however, had traditionally involved themselves with architecture. During the first half of the sixteenth century, painters took the lead in the Low Countries in designing advanced versions of the antique architectural manner. The notion of the painter-architect was fruitfully explored in an important volume edited by Piet Lombaerde (The Notion of the Painter-Architect in Italy and the Southern Low Countries, Turnhout, 2014). Both masons and sculptors could rise above the level of mere craft if they could successfully draw, if they could master the rules of geometry that placed them in the realm of the liberal arts. As Fabri and Lombaerde show, the workshop of the Antwerp sculptors De Nole required their apprentices to harness these talents, to design through drawing, which placed them on a level with painters. Usually this consisted of the design of façades. A court case of the late sixteenth century disputed the status of the famous sculptors Cornelis Floris and Willem Paludanus as architects because they could not fashion a staircase – in other words, they were incapable of designing the complex three-dimensional aspects of architecture.
Rubens’s involvement with the Jesuit church was both more and less than the fashioning of façades. To be sure, he seems to have composed the cartouche at the center of the façade that bears the sign of Jesus: ‘IHS’. But the essential planning of the church was left to Aguilón and Huyssens. As the authors show, it is only after the fire of 1718 that the myth of Rubens as architect of the church arises. Nevertheless, neither Aguilón nor Huyssens had been to Italy before the erection of the Jesuit Church, and it is therefore a question as to how this southern baroque manner found its way to Antwerp. The vast learning and intellectual resources of the Jesuits offer an answer. The Antwerp Jesuits possessed an extensive library of architectural treatises and engravings that presented recent Roman inventions as available models. Through these means, for example, the mother church of the Gesù was known to both Aguilón and Huyssens. The latter had earlier designed the Jesuit church and college in Maastricht, which already showed the adoption of Italian baroque features.
But if Rubens did not design the façade or ground plan, what did he do? It seems that his involvement was both direct and indirect. He was intimately involved with the sculptural decoration of the church. Drawings by and after him survive for angels, caryatids, and architectural elements that occupied spandrels and composed altarpiece frames in the church. Rubens’s role, however, was likely greater than these efforts suggest. During the construction of the Jesuit Church Rubens was at work on his publication, The Palaces of Genoa (1622; CRLBXXII, 1, by Herbert W. Rott, 2002). This collection contained the plans and elevations of two of Genoa’s churches that offered models for the prominent towers of Antwerp’s Jesuit Church. More importantly, Rubens had acquired some authority as an expert critic and connoisseur of recent Italian architecture and likely communicated his views to both Aguilón and Huyssens. Aguilón’s sophisticated views on optics had already interested Rubens; the author cedes authority to painters on questions of perspective and the mixing of colors, for example, and he seems to have had Rubens in mind. Rubens would design the title page to the Plantin edition of Aguilón’s writings on optics.
Rubens’s collaboration with sculptors is also examined by Fabri and Lombaerde. Several of the drawings that Rubens prepared for the decoration of the Jesuit Church were realized by Hans van Mildert and his workshop. This partnership was well received. Rubens, Van Mildert, and Huyssens were reunited in their work for the Cathedral of St. Donatien in Bruges during the following decade. In the 1630s Rubens and Van Mildert worked together once more on the high altar for the Abbey of St. Michael in Antwerp. Rubens’s relationship with Van Mildert was especially close as letters attest, and the sculptor named Rubens as godfather to his son Pieter Paul. The relationship with Van Mildert emphasizes the geographical breadth of the arts available in Antwerp. Experts like Rubens were aware not only of developments in Italy but also in Central Europe. Van Mildert had been born in Königsberg (Kaliningrad), one of the wealthy port cities along the Baltic that flourished in the second half of the sixteenth century and housed a network of Netherlandish merchants and artists. Cornelis Floris, the great Antwerp sculptor of this period, had sent tombs of Albrecht, Duke of Prussia, and his wife, Dorothea, to the Cathedral of Königsberg. Floris’s assistant, Willem van den Blocke, resided in the city for a decade, where he erected a tomb of his own. Van Milder was thus exposed to the most sophisticated of Netherlandish sculpture before his emigration to Antwerp around 1610. Rubens also worked in alliance with the other major sculptural firm in Antwerp, that of Jan and Robrecht de Nole. The painter seems to have been less enthusiastic about this second atelier, critiquing their design for the high altar of St. Bavo’s in Ghent. Rubens worked successfully with the De Nole’s on other projects, however, including the high altar for the cathedral of Antwerp, based on Rubens’s designs. It is clear that Rubens thought through every aspect of this work. The painting of the altarpiece depicts Mary assumed into heaven; the top of the sculptural frame portrays God the Father and Christ receiving the ascendant Virgin.
The monograph on Rubens’s contributions to the Jesuit Church’s architecture and sculpture is a welcome addition to the Corpus Rubenianum. It is a useful reference work that says much about the status of the arts in the Low Countries in the second decade of the seventeenth century.
Ethan Matt Kavaler
University of Toronto