This is a doctoral dissertation written under the supervision of Hans Ost and Joachim Gaus for the University of Cologne. As the title indicates, Heinen discusses Rubens’s great triptych of the Raising of the Cross, painted 1610-11 for the high altar of the church of St. Walburga (now in Antwerp cathedral) as a work designed to fulfill two functions: as a means of instruction in faith (“stumme Predigt”) and purely as a work of art (“bloße Kunst”). The issue was an especially crucial one during this phase of the Counter Reformation. Moreover, the schism between “Predigt” and “Kunst” is intensified for modern viewers who see the work purely as art. The present thesis sets out to examine how Rubens succeeded in breeching this schism by interpreting the work within contemporary ideas about artistic intentions and reception. To this end, the author turns to rules of rhetoric as applied to visual images. Thus reception is divided into three stages, visual pleasure, visual experience, visual understanding, which can be seen as analogous, in the creative process, to: inventio, dispositio, expressio.
In Heinen’s view, the most representative post-Tridentine text that addresses these issues is the Discorso intorno alle imagine sacre e profane, published in 1582 by the Bolognese theologian and cardinal, Gabriele Paleotti. It is most eleoquent on the subject of the analogy between sermon and picture, specifically on its audience or congregation: artists, the educated classes, the illiterate and those of a mystical bend. In the case of the first two categories, the picture had to engage the intellect; in the latter two, it had to arouse emotions. Of course, the two forms of perception overlapped. As Paleotti himself put it, the artist had to aim for a “consensus universale”, a way to appeal to all four categories.
After this introduction, Heinen proceeds to the main part of his book: the examination of Rubens’s Raising of the Cross in light of these theoretical and didactic issues. The author proposes that the structure of the triptych follows the same logical system that underlies the structure of a sermon: exordium, narratio, argumentatio, peroratio.The exordium is the introduction, in this case the architectural setting of the altarpiece, specifically the garlands of fruit which decorated the pillars running along the nave of the original church and which are continued on the pedestals supporting the four saints on the outer wings of the altarpiece. They symbolise the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, displayed when the triptych is opened. The narratio is the principal pictorial argument represented by the opened triptych. The viewer is confronted with the full force of the suffering Christ, intensified through carefully calculated gestures, facial expressions and chiaroscuro effects. He/she is further drawn into the picture by the arrangement of the figures on the inside wings _ women on the left; soldiers on the right _ who act as participants and as viewers. All this is presented in accord with the rules of decorum, the biblical text and historical correctness.
The argumentatio consists of the presentation of the entire triptych, with predella paintings and super-structure. The Raising of the Cross represents Christ’s sacrifice; at the same time the sacrifice encourages the faithful to repent and atone for their sins. Christ, looking upward at Godfather whose image was above that of Christ in the original altarpiece, pleads with his father on behalf of mankind. The sign that his plea has been heard is given by the two angels, cut-out figures originally framing the image of God, who descend bearing a crown of laurel and a palm branch. Finally, reactions to and imitations of Christ’s sacrifice are given in the predella scenes of the storm that was tamed by St. Walburga’s prayers (Leipzig), and of angels bearing the body of St. Catherine (lost). The peroratio, or conclusion, is found in the four saints on the outside wings when the altarpiece is closed. Thus the closed retable stands at the beginning and at the end of the “visual sermon”. The saints function as intercessors who speak to Christ on behalf of sinful mankind which, in turn, is encouraged to repent. In the final section of this, the “sermon” part of the thesis, the author discusses the public which the altarpiece addresses: the classically educated and the faithful.
The second part of the book addresses the work of art (“Kunstwerk”). The various categories of the sermon discussed in the first chapter find their equivalents here as applied to art. Art lovers familiar with contemporary art theory would have recognised the effects of varietàand copia (diversity and copiousness) on the inside of the triptych, including the predella; vivacità achieved through colore and moti, ie surface texture and movement; difficultà, as witnessed in difficult contrapposto poses and foreshortenings; as well as the concepts of proporzioni, composizione and stile, part of art theory since the early Renaissance.
Heinen then turns to the Antwerp art lovers who were able to appreciate Rubens’s artistic virtuosity, above all the humanistically educated merchant and collector Cornelis van der Geest who played a crucial part in the commissioning and execution of the altarpiece. Indeed, the artistic qualities found in the Raising of the Cross are also those found in the collection and arrangement of paintings in Van der Geest’s ‘constcamer’, as painted by Willem van Haecht (Antwerp, Rubenshuis). At the same time as impressing Antwerp’s art lovers, Rubens, freshly returned from Italy, set out to rival his most prominent fellow Antwerp artists, Otto van Veen and Abraham Janssen, and to establish himself as the city’s leading painter.
The third and final chapter deals with the methods used by Rubens to achieve the requirements of the “consenso universale”, ie to create a work that satisfies the “letterati”, “illiterati”, “sensuali” and “spirituali”. As in the previous two chapters, Heinen divides the creative process into distinctive sections: inventio, dispositio, expressio, elaboratio.After an interesting discourse on the role of copying and the collecting
of specific motifs in Rubens’s creative process (inventio), the author focuses his discussion on the oil modello of the Raising of the Cross(Paris, Louvre), the dispositio, and the chalk drawings of individual figures (expressio), which, inspired by life studies, are adjusted and ‘corrected’ for greater affects, according to classical sculptures and anatomical model drawings (elaboratio). The ‘elaboration’ as it relates to figure studies is followed by that in regard to colour.
In conclusion, Heinen returns to various levels of reception dealt with in an earlier chapter. It seems that Rubens did not set out to address such a varied public from the beginning but meant to address those seeking religious instruction. It was only when he reworked the modello and the individual figure studies that he introduced details derived from classical art which were clearly designed to appeal to the humanistically educated viewer. It is in the final working of form and colour that Rubens displays his artistic virtuosity. Thus the different phases of the process of concept, design and excution correspond with the diverse expectations of his public.
Heinen’s argument is impressive, backed up by copious notes which take up more than half of the book. However, one wonders whether Rubens’s creative process is as mechanical and logical as Heinen would have it. Although the analogy between sermon and painting is striking, one could question his faith in the pertinence of rhetorical classifications for visual imagery. Nevertheless, Heinen opened up a new and valuable way of seeing and understanding the realtion between form and function in Rubens’s work. It is unfortunate, especially in light of the multitude of references to archival and literary sources and to other works by Rubens, that the book lacks an index. This however is available on CD-Rom, together with the book.
Since Heinen’s book came out, Cynthia Lawrence has published an important study on the Raising of the Cross, though one addressing the work from quite different perspectives (The Art Bulletin, 81, no. 2, June 1999). These are extremely valuable contributions to Rubens scholarship, focusing on what is undoubtedly his most important altarpiece after his return from Italy, and one that has received relatively little critical attention, apart from the reports published after its 1978-92 restoration and technical investigation. _ KLB