« PreviousContinue »
a conflagration is visible, the glowing red of which tints the horizon (Fig. 50). In 1519 Rubens was commissioned by Caspar Charles to paint St. Francis of Assisi receiving Extreme Unction as a large altar-piece for the Church of the Minorites at Antwerp. It was no easy task for a painter of voluptuous splendour; who loved to portray Saints of youthful beauty clad in brillant silks; to have to represent an ascetic monk: but the artist, who could, if he pleased, do anything, well understood how to make the most even of this commission. In general conception he adhered to a well-known example of a similar subject, namely, Domenichino's Communion of St. Jerome in the Vatican. In this instance this Prince of colour abjured his natural taste, and avoiding all colour composed the entire picture in a sombre brown tone. Delighting as he did in loveliness of form, he chose here to lay the utmost stress upon the expression of soul: and it is from that stand-point that we must examine this picture. From that point of view also the kneeling Saint, nude, and no longer able to control his wasted limbs, who supported by two fellow monks and living only to receive the Last Offices, becomes one of the chefs d'lenvre,— worthy of the fame which has always surrounded ir, — of the Museum at Antwerp (Fig. 53).
Among the numerous pictures representing the Virgin Mary with the Infant Christ alone, or surrounded by Saints, there is a specially attractive one, which must have been painted in 1619. In its execution we can recognise the collaboration of Rubens' greatest pupil, Anthony van Dyck, who is known to have worked in the master's studio from 1618 to 1620, and who had even already begun to be a worthy rival. This painting is in the Picture Gallery at Cassel; whilst a slightly varied replica is in the Hermitage Collection. It represents the Afothcr of God enthroned as a Refuge for -Sintters. On her lap stands Jesus, whom she supports with her right arm, whilst her left rests on the little St. John. Before her kneels the Prodigal Son; beside whom Mary Magdalene gazes up at the Infant Christ with pious fervour, her beautiful hands crosssed on her bosom; and near her is King David, no less remarkable for his expressive countenance. From behind these biblical personages, the representative Saints of the Penitential Orders,—SS. Dominic and Francis, — approach the throne. Beside King David stands Augustine, the Holy Bishop: and further back St. George with his banner (Fig. jj?), In the dark-haired Mary Magdalene we may perhaps recognize a remote, and perhaps scarcely intended, likeness to Isabella Brant; but there is no doubt that the Infant Jesus is a genuine portrait of Rubens' second son, who saw the light in March 1618. This boy, who received the name of Nicholas from his god-father the Marquess Pallavicini of Genoa, seems to have been the special favourite of his father; and a charming sketch of a child's head, representing him at two years of age, is in the Museum at Berlin. Not less attractive is another drawing of him, at a still more tender age, in the Albertina, evidently a study for the Cassel picture (Fig. 51). Somewhat akin to this work, as far as details are concerned, and no doubt painted about the same time, is the fine picture with half-length figures in the Pinakothek at Munich: "The Saviour and the Four Penitents". The expression of the head of Christ, the Personification of Benevolence and Mercy, as well as those of Mary Magdalene, the Penitent Thief, St. Peter, and King David, are wonderful in the realism of their expression (Fig. 54).
The peculiarly attractive, and graciously modelled figure ot a woman, with hair and complexion shining, as it were, in their own brilliance, so frequently painted by Rubens as Mary Magdalene, appears in an altogether different role,— as the Personification of the Goddess of Love,— in a very carefully executed picture in the Liechtenstein-Gallery. Here her exquisite figure, in the full bloom of health and vigour, is shown from behind. An attendant negress raising her abundant hair, discloses shoulders of the whiteness of finest marble, whilst we may observe her fair face in a mirror held by a Cupid in front of her (Fig. 56). We find her again in a very similar attitude, though in a much larger mythological composition, among the Daughters of Cccrops discovering the child Ercchthonios. Here she is one of the two maidens, who, in defiance of the command of Pallas Athene, are prying into the basket containing the boy and the serpent. The third sister, who did not break the goddess' injunction, stands aloof under a tree, and is one of the most attractive maidens that Rubens ever painted (Fig. 55). Her figure, undraped, with head and shoulders enveloped in a clear shadow, decidedly recalls the goddess in that large and much-disputed picture of Neptune and Amphitrite (or Neptune and Libye) in the Berlin Museum. In this painting also, which is, however, far inferior to the Daughters of Cecrops, we may notice again the fair features of the Magdalen, though this time representing a nymph hiding in the water: the most attractive figure in this huge canvas. This picture, the genuineness of which was some years ago questioned by some with the same vehemence that it was affirmed by others, recalls in several points the magnificent painting at the Museum of Art-History in Vienna personifying the Four Continents and their Four Chief Rivers. To each of the four Rivergods is attached a nymph as a companion. In the foreground Father Nile his attendant nymph a negress has in accordance with ancient tradition fortis symbol a crocodile surrounded by putti. Opposite him the Ganges is attended by a nymph and a Bengal tigress, who is fiercely spitting at the crocodile. The two other Rivergods, the Danube and the Maramon,—the latter half hidden in reeds and shadows, because at that period so little known, — appear more youthful than their companions of the older worlds (Fig. 57).
In 1620 again was executed another important altar-piece: namely, the picture now in the Antwerp-Museum, representing Christ crucified between the tvoo Thimes. It is eventide, and the Son of God has finished his agony. The Roman centurion, to satisfy himself of his death, pierce his side with a spear, whilst a soldier prepares to break with an iron rod the legs of the two others crucified with him. Overcome with grief the Mother of Christ, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and St. John shrink away from the mournful scene; whilst Mary Magdalen, clinging to the cross and resting her head and body against it, holds up her white arms to ward off the Roman with his cruel weapon (Fig. 58). In this picture, known by the name of Coup de lance, it is remarkable how all rules of perspective are ignored, and how little the natural dimensions of the respective figures to each other are observed: but it would show a want of artistic taste to find fault for this reason with an otherwise so admirably executed a painting. Rubens was commissioned to paint it for the Church of St. Francis, by the major Nicolas Rockox with whom he was on terms of intimate friendship. An excellent portrait of this gentleman with his wife has come down to us on the wings of another altar-piece, also ordered from Rubens, re
presenting the Conversion of St. Thomas: now preserved in the Antwerp Museum. The powerful impression conveyed by the Crucifixion abovementioned lies chiefly in the majestic repose of death, which raises the Crucified Christ far above all the griefs and the passions of this world. The artist again depicted the Death of the Saviour, a painting now in the Louvre, with only the Virgin, St. John and the Magdalen, grouped at the foot of the cross, forming a mournful silhouette on a lonely hill:
whilst still another, and perhaps the most impressive of all, is the Crucifixion in the Antwerp Museum; in which Christ hangs high on the Cross, alone and forsaken, with only silent nature around him. The vividly white body of the dead Saviour shines as the only light through the prevailing darkness. This splendid work has been copied and reproduced a