« PreviousContinue »
During the year 1617 was painted the picture in St. Pauls' Church at Antwerp, formerly in the Church of the Dominicans: the Flagellation of Christ; renowned for its treatment of the nude. Two important works
were also executed for churches at Malines. For the church of St. John in that city, he was commissioned towards the end of 1616 to paint an Altar-piece representing the Adoration of the Magi. It was a composition
which he had treated once before with great success, on a larger scale, and which he also subsequently repeated. He found therein an opportunity for rich display and picturesque profusion: representing the Oriental Kings with great splendour, attended by a most brilliant suite. In the execution of this subject he succeeded in producing a great variety of new and powerful effects. Of all the compositions however dealing with this same subject, the one at Malines is perhaps the most fascinating and executed with the most loving care. We are told that Rubens himself always spoke of this work with great satisfaction. The picture gives us an impression of joy and festivity due to the beautiful harmony of its colour. The key-note is the King in the centre, clad in a magnificent red mantle, which forms a contrast with the blue garment of the Virgin. Light radiates from the Infant as it were illuminating the Kings, the oldest of whom is on his knees, whilst the second one, in the red mantle, stands behind him, and the third, a negro, gazes around with looks of curiosity. His train is born by two rather impudentlooking pages, who are closely followed by a crowd of people, all anxious to catch a glimpse of the Holy Babe. On the wings of this altar-piece, which is still in situ, are scenes from the lives of the two SS. John: the Baptist and the Evangelist. Cardinal Richelieu offered 10,000 florins for these works alone, but the parishionors firmly declined his offer.
Another painting, of a different type, but not less admirable is the one belonging to the Liebfrauenkirche at Malines. It was executed in 1618 in the brief period of only 10 days for the so-called "Brotherhood of the Fishermen", and represents the Miraculous Draught ofFishes. Here is no display of splendour, but merely some sturdy fishermen, toiling over their work, under a lowering sky such as spreads over the North-Sea. This is a most impressively realistic piece of work, and we can quite understand why Rubens, in the list made for Sir Dudley Carleton, stated of a similar picture of fishermen, that it was "painted from life". The subject of this latter painting, the Finding of the Tribute Money, appears also on one of the wings of the altar-piece at Malines; while the pendant represents Tobias dragging a Fish out of the Sea, at the bidding of the Angel Raphael. Again of a different kind, though belonging to the same period, is a picture painted for the Church of the Jesuits at Ghent, now in the Museum at Brussels: the Martyrdom of St. Lavinus. The subject is certainly a horrible one, but the painful subject is alleviated by the introduction of angels descending swiftly from heaven and scattering lightnings amongst the terrified executioners. The same strenuous feeling is displayed in the wrathful figure of Christ, the Avenging Judge, in a composition in the same Gallery painted for a Franciscan Convent at Ghent. The Holy Mother and St. Francis are imploring the Lord to spare the world from his vengeance. The force of Divine Wrath is as powerfully expressed as is the supplicating earnestness of the Holy Intercessors.
Whilst Rubens was in negociation with the English Ambassador at the Hague for the exchange of the antique marbles he, in reference to Carleton's proposal to make up the difference in value with Brussels tapestry,— mentioned the fact, that under the directions of certain noblemen, he himself had made some sketches for tapestry, then being executed in Brussels. A fortnight later, he again refers to these sketches, and we learn then that they dealt with the
Story oj Piiblius Decius Mus: the Roman Consul, who sacrified himself for the preservation of the State. These designs for tapestries, supplied to the looms at the beginning of May 1618, still exist, and are now in the Collection of Prince Liechtenstein at Vienna. Rubens calls them indifferently, designs or cartoons: — descriptions which are so far incorrect, since they are really
Knackfuss, Rubens. 5
magnificently executed paintings in oil. He purposely facilitated the work of the weaver by designing the compositions reversed, in so much that figures carry their weapons in their left hands and their shields in their right. For the weaver standing behind the frame over which he lays his threads, is at the back of the tapestry: and thus cannot see how the work under his hands progresses, without looking into a mirror placed for that purpose opposite to him. If therefore the design from which he works is drawn or painted in the ordinary way, the weaver must himself reverse it, making the left hand right and vice versa. The engraver working in a similar way, for the purposes of his design usually places his model behind him, thus copying it, not directly, but from its reflection in a mirror in front of him. Any one who has made drawings or paintings from a mirror knows how very trying to the eyes is this species of work, so that when Rubens in making these designs reversed the composition it was evidently with the intention of lightening the weavers' labour.
The master divided the subjects, taken from Livy, into six powerful episodes, each filled with numerous life-size figures. In the first of these Decius Mus, standing on an elevated plat-form, relates his Dream to his soldiers: in which he had been shown that the Victory would be given to that army whose leader should perish. In the second painting the Soothsayers devoutly consult the omens in the sacrifice, recognizing therein the evil prospects of the Romans: which determines Decius Mus to devote himself to the Will of Heaven. The third, perhaps the most powerful and impressive of the series, depicts the solemn consecration of the hero, which takes place beneath the shade of some splendid beeches. In the fourth act of the Drama, Decius discarding his shield mounts his charger. With a look of pious determination, majestically raising his hand, he takes leave of his Lictors, and bids them return to his colleague, since he, dead from henceforth, no longer needs them. The rays of a beautiful sunset suggest the idea that, like the hero's life, the summer day is drawing to a close. The fifth composition shows the catastrophe: Decius pierced by the Latins falls from his horse upon a heap of wounded warriors. In his up-turned gaze, we see readiness to die for his country, since the gods have so willed it. At the same moment the furious onslaught of the Romans is crowned with success, and the Latins are put to flight (Fig. 46). Thus ends the grand tragedy which Rubens executed so effectively, and with such grandeur of style. The sixth and final tableau of the series is merely a brilliant display of trophies, prisoners and heaps of spoil &c.: whilst extended in the foreground, on a bier bedecked with purple and wreaths of bag, lies the dead leader.
In spite of his inexhaustible powers of invention the painter did not disdain to repeat himself: and sometimes made use of earlier compositions, introducing variations appropriate to the subject he was describing. But it is remarkable that he invariably succeeded, in making as uniform a creation of the new work, as if the borrowed portion in it were new